Flat-Out Truth: Hamlin a Flat-Track Master
Last week, two cars were running at the end at Daytona without some degree of damage and it should come as no surprise that those two vehicles belonged to Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton, who finished first and second, respectively, in the race. That means that third-place Matt Kenseth, who sustained damage in the last-lap crash, fourth-place Joey Logano (involved in two separate incidents during the night), and fifth-place Ryan Newman all managed to earn near-maximum points despite spending some time sliding backward or scrapping along the wall. NASCAR's new body is nothing if not sturdy.
That durability will help teams this week, also. NASCAR counts any track 1 mile in length or greater as a speedway, but New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway owe tribute to the short tracks, as well. The flat banking and tight corners often mean that drivers who are a little aggressive on the throttle exiting Turns 2 and 4 will kiss the wall. A little affection means drivers are wooing the track; too much ends in rejection.
New Hampshire is much more predictable than Daytona, but then again so is a roulette wheel. More importantly, this track should be easier to handicap than Kentucky, Sonoma or Michigan in the three weeks preceding Daytona since each of those tracks were wild cards in their own rights. The newness of Kentucky to the schedule, the difficulty in navigating a road course only twice per year, and the repaving of Michigan tossed a series of curveballs at fantasy owners, but if those venues are pulled out of the data pool a pattern emerges. The most recent race before this series of wild cards was held at Pocono, which is a long, flat track. After leaving New Hampshire, the Sprint Cup Series rolls into the similarly flat Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then heads back to Pennsylvania in what is destined to be a critical run up to the Chase for a number of drivers still desperately seeking a spot in the top 12.
This gives owners a brief respite before the series gets into another eclectic part of the schedule. Following the second Pocono race, NASCAR visits another road course, a 2-mile track, the bullring of Bristol, a similarly configured 1.5-mile track and Richmond -- a short track that thinks it is a superspeedway.
Three flat tracks placed back-to-back-to-back not only allow the teams to develop some momentum, but fantasy players can find a group of drivers to place-and-hold. The favorites for this week's race are drivers who not only excel on the short, flat tracks of New Hampshire, Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond, but also will be strong at Indy and Pocono. There is another advantage to this part of the schedule, although it will be more beneficial to drivers than players. Since the regular season ends on another short, flat track in Richmond, half of the final eight races will be held on this course type, which means drivers such as Logano, Newman and Jeff Gordon can concentrate their efforts on going fast there. The slight shift of focus could make them extremely compelling dark horses if they can put their bad luck behind them.
Going fast on flat tracks requires many of the same skills as a road course, so Watkins Glen will be an important race, as well. The driver has to recalibrate their rhythm to slow down before entering the corner so they can rocket out the other side. Teams also have to adjust the handling to accommodate this style of racing, so while these four or five tracks look distinctly different from the air, some of the notes developed this week will help find success throughout the following month.
Four races have been run so far on flat tracks: Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond and Pocono. Only one driver has swept the top 10 in these four races, but several others have come close. On any other type of track Denny Hamlin's back spasms and the hard hit he took at Daytona would be enough to recommend a cautious approach, but he is a flat-track master. On any given Sunday, a few drivers can match his skill, but no one is better during the long haul. His victory at Phoenix immediately put him in Chase contention and he solidified his position in the top 10 with results of sixth or better in the next three races on minimally banked tracks. Hamlin stumbled this past fall at New Hampshire, but three of his four previous attempts there ended in top-three results, so he deserves a spot on the majority of fantasy owners' rosters.
Jimmie Johnson was set to battle his Gordon for the victory at Martinsville before a late-race caution bunched the field. The Hendrick mates were dive-bombed by Clint Bowyer and Newman on the restart (watch) and contact sent Johnson spinning back to 12th in the final rundown. He has been nearly perfect on flat tracks otherwise. Like Hamlin, Johnson's worst result in the three remaining races was sixth, at Richmond. He swept Victory Lane at Loudon in 2003 and his third and most recent victory came in June 2010. That capped a streak of seven consecutive top-10s and easily gives him the nod as one of this week's favorites.
Kurt Busch was the most recent driver to sweep Victory Lane at New Hampshire when he got the broom out in 2004, but Tony Stewart has since come close twice. He finished first and second in 2005, but what really makes him one of this week's top choices is that he repeated that feat last year. Stewart was second to teammate Newman last summer and he was the only driver who managed to sweep the top 10 last year when he won the fall race. This year, he got off to a rough start at Phoenix with a 22nd-place finish, but stretching back to the end of the regular season in 2011, he has seven results of seventh or better in his past eight attempts on this track type.
In the past 11 races, Brad Keselowski has been a solid pick on a weekly basis with only one result outside the top 15. That modest showing of 18th came at Pocono, but it is also the only time in four races on flat tracks that he failed to crack the top 10. While he has been solid, he hasn't been entirely predictable in recent weeks but he carries a lot of momentum with him this weekend. He won two weeks ago at Kentucky and finished eighth at Daytona despite sustaining significant damage to his right-rear quarter panel in the pits. The No. 2 team should feel bulletproof this week, especially in light of its second-place finish the last time NASCAR visited New Hampshire.
Bowyer's ill-advised move at Martinsville is one of the reasons he is a dark horse this week instead of a favorite. With fresh tires and a little patience, he might have made a safer attempt at the end of the backstretch, but he was under pressure from Newman and the clock was ticking. Bowyer survived to finish 10th in that race, which is one of three top-10s in his past four flat-track efforts. None of these have been top-fives, but Bowyer is not nearly as expensive as Hamlin or Johnson this week, which will allow fantasy owners to stretch their salary-cap budget.
Kasey Kahne finished fifth at Richmond earlier this season and it appeared he was on target to climb into and stay inside the top 10 in points at the time. His luck has been far less predictable in recent weeks, and overall the flat tracks have not been particularly kind to the No. 5 team. In four races on minimally banked tracks, Kahne has suffered hardship three times. He blew an engine at Martinsville and crashed at both Phoenix and Pocono. If he survives the weekend, he will be a strong contender, but unless you picked him up nine or 10 weeks ago when he was $6 or $7 cheaper in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, now is not the time to jump on his bandwagon.
Roush Fenway Racing is not believed to be particularly strong on flat tracks and Greg Biffle is one of the reasons for this preconception. In eight races on short, flat tracks last year, he cracked the top 10 only once and had an average finish of 15th. He will be on fantasy owners' radar screens because that single strong run ended in a third at New Hampshire and he finished that well again on the other 1-mile flat track in Phoenix earlier this year. Unfortunately, his past two efforts on the shorter flat tracks ended in a 13th at Martinsville and an 18th at Richmond. He was even worse at Pocono, where he was never in contention and finished 24th.