Citizen Soldier 400

 

DOVER, DE - MAY 15:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, and Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, take the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway on May 15, 2016 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Dover stands alone. There are no real comparatives for this track since Bristol Motor Speedway began monkeying with the top groove and added progressive banking.

 

Although it is not defined by them like Talladega SuperSpeedway, Dover is prone to “Big One” crashes with a narrow backstretch that can get clogged by an accident soon after a restart.

No one is absolutely safe except for Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick, and only three could finish worse than 15th and still breathe relatively easy. Kez, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth would need a combination of multiple bad factors to fall out—but wasn’t the same thing true of Jimmie Johnson last year before the AAA 400?

One minor mistake is all it will take and that does not have to come from the driver himself. If one of the spoilers pushes too hard trying to get a top-10 and clips a car exiting turn two, the resulting melee could move the Chase race to the garage as multiple playoff contenders battle to see who can repair their car the fastest to stay ahead of their stricken competitors. Meanwhile, McMurray and Austin Dillon are only five points out of contention and they could sail toward the front.

Suddenly NASCAR’s unique formula of having non-playoff drivers in the same event as the contenders makes a very big difference—not because they are more likely to make a mistake (which they are), but because of the separation they add between a 20th-place finish and another Chaser who scores a top-10.

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Bad Boy Off Road 300

Short, flat tracks are the second-most common type during the season and the Chase. New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the first of this kind in the playoffs.

Like Chicagoland and Dover, New Hampshire has always been won by a Chase contender, including six current Chasers. With 16 of the fastest drivers in playoff contention, it is almost certain that another Chaser will win the New England 300. That will be the 100th victory for them in 122 starts—meaning 82 percent of all Chase races have gone to current contenders.

LOUDON, NH - JULY 17: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Last week, Chasers dominated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. If not for a late race caution that altered strategy, they would have swept the top five, but Ryan Blaney was able to insert himself into fourth. Still, 13 of the 16 drivers finished 16th or better, leaving only three positions at the very front of the pack for non-Chasers. Two others finished in the top 20, creating an incredibly tight battle for 12th—which is the cutoff to make round two.

At the end of the race, 13 points separate sixth-place Chase Elliott from 15th-place Kyle Larson. Tony Stewart currently sits on the bubble as of this writing in 12th with only a one-point advantage over Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, and Larson. Jimmie Johnson will almost certainly join Dillon and Harvick with 2,027 points once penalties are handed out because his car failed the LIS (Laser Inspection Station) after Chicagoland’s race. Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards will move up a position in the standings and this will create a three-way tie for the bubble.

The slightest mistake can be critical. Johnson’s loss of 10 points would not be as catastrophic if he had won the race, but a pit road speeding penalty late in the going dropped him from contention for the victory to 12th. Martin Truex Jr. had a flat tire early, but overcame the lost track position and won last week. He will be hit with the same penalty as Johnson for the same infraction, but in all likelihood gets to keep the win and its automatic advance to round two.

Larson was in a great position to advance in the points, but he cut a tire down just before the final caution waved to set up a green-white-checkered finish. In today’s “No-Driver-Left-Behind” Era, the loss of a lap cost him at least 12 positions—and with that, 12 points.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400

By design or happenstance, the two track types that dominate the Chase also dominate the season as a whole. Flat tracks are represented New Hampshire, Martinsville, and Phoenix—and at less than a mile in length, they are all of the shorter variety.

Similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks have four or five races depending on how one classifies Homestead. Kansas and Charlotte are in round two with the Talladega lottery tossed in for giggles and to keep drivers at a heightened sense of anguish. Texas is wedged between two flat track races in round three—and of course, Chicagoland kicks off the Chase and round one.

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 20: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series myAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 20, 2015 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Round one is the most eclectic of the rounds. With one similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track race, a short, flat track contest, and the high banks of Dover, drivers really have to show their range. One wishes NASCAR rearranged the remainder of the Chase to showcase the variety of racing and talent in each round—perhaps by replacing either Kansas or Charlotte with a road course race and Martinsville or Phoenix with a different track type—but we digress.

The weakness of the schedule actually plays into the hands of fantasy players. Back-to-back races on “cookie-cutter” courses in a few weeks and the slight separation of the short, flat track events means owners can concentrate on these two courses. Seven (or eight) of 10 races run to a type, leaving one to worry over Dover, Talladega, and perhaps Homestead—and since nothing is predictive for the restrictor-plate, superspeedway, in essence Dover stands alone as a track where handicapping occurs in a vacuum.

This week’s challenge is how to handicap Chicagoland, however. Even though more than a quarter of the races are contested on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, it has been nine weeks since one was last visited. At two miles in length, Michigan International Speedway provides some insight, but the last “cookie-cutter” race came at Kentucky Speedway and that was a bit of a wild card because of a recent repaving and reconfiguration project.

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Federated Auto Parts 400

And then there was one.

For more than half the field, the season boils down to the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Four drivers have a chance to make the Chase on points; 17 can get into the playoffs by winning this week.

Unless players think the playoffs are hype that doesn’t impact them, simply look back at last week’s Bojangles’ Southern 500. The four drivers who are battling for a position based on points finished between eighth and 15th and probably would have been better overall if Jamie McMurray’s crew had not made a late-race mistake.

Rest assured the NASCAR teams know all of the scenarios involved in advancing and the four points’ contenders are going to be solid values. Newman may throw a Hail Mary pass, but all of the winless drivers below him will certainly be looking for a strategic advantage. They will try to short pit, stretch their fuel, or stay out on old tires to gain track position. Like Newman last week, that could benefit fantasy owners with a top-10 finish on their lineup—but it could also cost a lot of points if the teams misjudge.

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Bojangles’ Southern 500

Michigan International Speedway’s Pure Michigan 400 is part of a wide-ranging period in NASCAR’s schedule.

Following the three-race, flat track streak from New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s New Hampshire 301 through the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR visited a road course, short track, and now a two-mile course. Next up is the incomparable Darlington Raceway, then another short track of Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase’s kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway.

Despite that, Michigan stands alone in the midst of several wild card races. The road course of Watkins Glen International, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Darlington Raceway were and are unpredictable. Richmond has the added benefit of being both a short track with heavy traffic and a race with something at stake for more than half the field. That makes it incredibly difficult to place-and-hold drivers.

In order to win one’s league, players have to spread the wealth around various teams.

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Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway’s Pure Michigan 400 is part of a wide-ranging period in NASCAR’s schedule.

Following the three-race, flat track streak from New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s New Hampshire 301 through the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR visited a road course, short track, and now a two-mile course. Next up is the incomparable Darlington Raceway, then another short track of Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase’s kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway.

Despite that, Michigan stands alone in the midst of several wild card races.  The road course of Watkins Glen International, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Darlington Raceway were and are unpredictable. Richmond has the added benefit of being both a short track with heavy traffic and a race with something at stake for more than half the field. That makes it incredibly difficult to place-and-hold drivers.

In order to win one’s league, players have to spread the wealth around various teams.

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Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

It seems disingenuous to call the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race a wild card. Lately, the majority of weekends have been unpredictable affairs from the road courses of Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, the restrictor-plate Daytona International Speedway, the reconfigured/repaved Kentucky Speedway, and the fog-shortened Pocono Raceway Pennsylvania 400. New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are the closest fantasy owners have had to a predictable affair.

There is no reason to think Bristol Motor Speedway is going to be any different. Short tracks are inherently unpredictable because heavy traffic and 20 second laps are hard to navigate.

With four races remaining, there is still the potential for a Chase field filled with winners.

It is unlikely that all four races will go to unique winners, but that will not change to dynamic among the favorable four. Kyle Larson’s spin at the Glen dropped him 30 points behind Jamie McMurray, but if there is another winner and just three points’ producers get locked in, only 12 markers separate Ryan Newman from Jamie McMurray. And since the total number of winners will not be known until Richmond, no one is safe.

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Cheez-it 355k at the Glen

Fans of road course racing have only one more opportunity to watch cars turn right and left.

Only five races have been run since the series rolled out of Sonoma, Calif. and the West Coast. One of these came on the restrictor-plate Daytona International Speedway and can virtually be ignored from a handicapping standpoint. One was on the repaved and reconfigured Kentucky Speedway that inserted another Joker in the deck. The last three have been notable.

The New Hampshire 301, Brickyard 400, and Pennsylvania 400 have all been run on flat tracks. While they do not have all the same characteristics as a road course, some of the same skills apply. In order to go fast on minimally-banked courses, drivers have to ease into the corner and perfectly time their acceleration at the apex; the same is true of the twisty tracks.

Pocono Raceway’s event was rain delayed, which shortened up the week by one day. Now the drivers roll straight to the Watkins Glen International with very little rest. Still, they have momentum on their side after contesting events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And with New Hampshire being just a short jaunt up the highway a lot of the same fans and families will be in attendance.

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Pennsylvania 400

The Pennsylvania 400 rounds out three consecutive flat track races.

Half of last week’s top-10 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway finished that well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Three of them were coming off sub-10th-place results the previous week at Kentucky Speedway—a newly paved and reconfigured track that threw a lot of curve balls—and were able to regain a little momentum.

That will now get carried over to the tricky triangle of Pocono Raceway. At 2.5 miles in length with one corner inspired by Indy, these two tracks (and specifically these two races) are among the closest comparatives on the circuit. The one-mile track in New Hampshire, Phoenix International Raceway, the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway, and half-mile Martinsville Speedway can also be used to deepen the data pool.

For the moment, ignore the New Hampshire 301 and focus on the Axalta 400 that was run at Pocono seven weeks ago. Only three drivers have top-10s to their credit in the two latest 2.5-mile, flat track races and they should be considered favorites. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Joey Logano have emerged as flat track aces. Several others have sweeps of the top 15, or a legitimate reason they stumbled in one of the two races, and they could be good differentiators for players who are in leagues with competitors slavishly devoted to statistics.

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Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard

The Brickyard 400 may not be the longest race of the season. It may not even be the one everyone wants to win; after all, the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 are much richer in history. But this race quickly grabbed the attention of drivers whose career path led them away from possible participation in the Indy 500.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, followed by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett, and Ricky Rudd in the following years. Gordon became the first two-time winner in 1998.

One would be tempted to say this race has never been won by a dark horse, but Gordon’s victory in ’94 was only the second in his career. Jarrett’s 1996 win was the seventh of his career. Kevin Harvick scored his fourth Cup victory in this race in 2003, Jamie McMurray scored his fifth win in 2010, and Paul Menard got his first taste of NASCAR Big League victory in 2011.

It is possible for a surprise winner to take the checkers. Then again, the average on this track is for the winner to score about his 31st career victory.

Experience counts much more than enthusiasm.

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