Coca-Cola 600

For the third consecutive week and the second time in a points’ paying race, NASCAR visits one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 13:  Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, places the winner's decal on his car in Victory Lane during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 13, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kansas Speedway and the 400 turned out to be a pivotal event, but not in the way most expected. Accidents in the pits and on the track ended “cookie-cutter” streaks for two of NASCAR’s hottest drivers and sent two other racers to the infield care center.

Joey Logano exploded a brake rotor on lap 199 of the 400, veered left into Danica Patrick and the pair collected Aric Almirola. Logano and Patrick climbed from their cars; Almirola dropped his window net to signal he was okay, but on further review, had to be cut from the cockpit.

In a season that has seen her enthusiasm wane progressively, Patrick was as dejected as ever before. Logano was visibly shaken by the impact taken by Almirola, and the driver of the No. 43 will be out of the cockpit indefinitely as a lower vertebra heels. Regan Smith has been named as his replacement for now.

Chase Elliott made heavy contact with Michael McDowell in the pits early in the race when either his crew chief or spotter cleared him too soon. This Young Gun has been mostly unflappable during the season-to-date, but even though McDowell was not at fault, Elliott rammed the back of his stocker after leaving the pits.

Folks: Summer isn’t even here yet and tempers are boiling.


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The unrestricted, intermediate speedways will dominate the schedule for a while.

RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 30:  Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30, 2017 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Joey Logano

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

After this week’s 400 at Kansas Speedway, the series heads home for the All-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then the World 600. Two weeks after that, they challenge to unique Pocono Raceway and then head to another similarly-configured two mile track: Michigan International Speedway.

Horsepower and handling are going to be the keys to success until the series visits back-to-back wild card tracks this summer. Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway will give players an opportunity to shakeup their roster, but until then, a lot of the same cast of characters will be featured each week.

That is largely what happened at the beginning of this season when Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano found their momentum at Atlanta Motor Speedway through Auto Club Speedway before the short track season began at Martinsville Speedway.

Since then, the streaks have been broken up. Currently, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the best active string with three top-10s and five top-15s. On cannot automatically assume that the strongest drivers before this current spate of short track and the superspeedway offerings will pick up where they left off. In fact, one or two of them probably will not.

The best guess is that the drivers with the least experience are the most likely to fall off, but Larson and Elliott have the added benefit of “the changing of the guard.” It is not as if the competition level has decreased, but several marquee drivers who stood in their way over last year are no longer in the equation while they have taken their place. Maturity and potential are not the same thing, however, so be cautious.


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Geico 500

Four times a year, fantasy players can take all their analysis and throw it out the window. Both Talladega SuperSpeedway and both Daytona International Speedway’s races defy any attempt to build an accurate predictive model.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 26:  Drivers including Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Ford, Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Aspen Dental Ford, and Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Ford, are involved in an on-track incident during the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

That uncertainty can be exciting for fans without any skin in the game. Fantasy players have a different set of concerns, however, and that make this race much less enjoyable.

There a few statistics that suggest who is going to run well, but nothing screams that any given driver is a must-have. In 2015, Dale Earnhardt Jr. swept the top-three in all four restrictor-plate, superspeedway races. The next year, he could not crack the top 20.

And, of course, there are those nagging exceptions that try to draw players into a sense of believing that something is truly predictive. Kurt Busch has finished 12th or better in nine of his last 10 plate races and he was going to get another top-10 at Daytona last July before he was spun out of fourth on the final corner of the final lap.

Of course, the fact that he was on this writer’s Draft Kings lineup that week probably had something to do with his misfortune as well.


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Toyota Owners 400

Richmond is a track that caters to a wide variety of skills. Its three-quarter-mile distance and sweeping front stretch makes it behave both as a short track and an unrestricted, intermediate speedway. The result of that is drivers who perform well on both disciplines tend to excel at Richmond.

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 09: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, puts the winner's sticker on his car after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Fantasy owners can look to the two-mile tracks and the short courses.

A few weeks back, Kyle Larson’s completed his dominant start to the season with a victory at Auto Club Speedway. It virtually locked him into the playoffs and established him as one of the early frontrunners as a place-and-hold favorite on most tracks.

Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won the first two short track races of the season and that also put them on the radar screen for fantasy players looking to that track type as the primary source for handicapping.

But there is also some significant overlap between the two types and that is where some of the best drivers will come from this week. Joey Logano swept the top five at Auto Club Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Bristol Motor Speedway. Clint Bowyer has a worst finish of seventh on those three courses, while Chase Elliott has top-10s in all. If not for mechanical problems last week, Keselowski would certainly have added his name to the mix.


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Food City 500

For many fans, Bristol Motor Speedway is the king of the short tracks.

AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 18:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Ford, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 18, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

This bullring has one of the longest and most interesting histories in the sport, morphing through several iterations. No matter what track officials do to it, the competition has almost always remained intense.

There was a brief period of time when this track developed a single groove, but that seems to be in the past. And with NASCAR’s insistence on parity, it is almost impossible for one driver to run away from the field. Factor in the mandatory cautions at the end of segments one and two, plus some inevitable slow-downs along the way, and there is the potential for more cars than normal on the lead lap at the end of the Food City 500.

There are going to be plenty of dark horse options this week.

Last summer, the second- through fifth-place drivers, plus the seventh- and ninth-place drivers, had all finished outside the top 15 in the spring, which is a distribution of wealth rarely seen in NASCAR.

In the spring, dark horse top-10s were earned by Matt DiBenedetto and Trevor Bayne. In the summer, Stenhouse earned a runner-up finish. Chris Buescher was fifth. If there was ever a justification for rolling the dice and taking some fantasy risks, this is the week to do so.


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O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

It is almost as if NASCAR can’t quite figure out what to do with Texas Motor Speedway. And that’s all right. The state of Texas has always been iconoclastic, so the race might as well be also.

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2017 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Depending on where one lives in its confines, Texas either considers itself a Western state or part of the South. Dallas is has a more Southern feel, while Fort Worth with its heritage as a cattle hub is more Western.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 could easily be part of the Western Swing, but it’s not. Instead, it currently interrupts what would be a three-race, short track schedule. So, the Texas race stands alone just as many inhabitants the want state itself to.

Each track is different than the other, but perhaps the best way to think of them is as siblings. Sharing many of the same life experiences, they develop their own personalities, but there is always a certain commonality.

Putting aside the impact that has on fans, the proliferation of this type of track is not a bad thing for fantasy players. One can look back at the most recent “cookie-cutter” race and use that as a baseline to set this week’s roster. In the first two races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this year, three drivers swept the top five, four more finished between sixth and 10th, and another three swept the top 15.


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STP 500

For many fans, the season starts on Sunday.

MARTINSVILLE, VA - APRIL 03:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's 75th Anniversary Toyota, poses for a photo in Victory Lane ater winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks have featured some great racing. The one-mile Phoenix International Raceway had quite a few surprises, but for viewers who grew up going to bullrings across America, nothing beats a short track.

Martinsville Speedway is a venerable old course. In one form or another, it dates back to the birth of the sport, and while most of the drivers of today are separated by a vast space of time and distance from those roots, watching them race around this half-mile bullring evokes memories of strictly stock cars from the past.

This race has an even greater “throwback” feel.

NASCAR’s relatively new rules of locking in the franchise teams to leave only a few spots available for open entries has virtually eliminated the start-and-park operations. The prize money is divvied out differently than in the past, so the field is shrinking. Forty cars mark a full field. The Daytona 500 is only event this year that filled up. Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Western Swing hosted only 39 cars each. This week, Martinsville has 38 cars on the entry list.

In the not-so-distant past, NASCAR had different field maximums for various track types. Short tracks maxed out at 36 cars and that gave the drivers more room to navigate on these tight confines. With two fewer cars than fantasy players have seen in the past, the competition will improve—especially if one or two retire with damage or mechanical difficulty.


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Auto Club 400

The last three races of the season have been important because the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and short, flat tracks dominate the schedule. Auto Club is longer in length than Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but it fits into the larger category of similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks. These courses require many of the same characteristics in terms of setups, horsepower, aerodynamics, and mechanical grip.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 11, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

One way to parse the data is to look at the most recent results. The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 and Kobalt 400 were held on more steeply-banked tracks and measure a half-mile less in length, but their close proximity to the Auto Club 400 is useful because it shows recent momentum. It is notable that many of the drivers had similar results on those two courses.

Another helpful exercise is to look at tracks that are more closely comparable.

Michigan and Auto Club are among the closest comparatives on the schedule of any two tracks and drivers who run well on one tend to run well on the other. Sometimes this is because of the dominance of certain teams like Roush-Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. On other occasions, it is because a certain driver has an affinity for the course like Paul Menard.

Both two-mile tracks are minimally-banked.


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Camping World 500k

Short, flat tracks are rhythm courses.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 04: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 4, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Going fast on one of these courses is counterintuitive. Most drivers like to carry as much speed as they can into the entry and then deal with the consequences in the center of the turn. To go fast on a short, flat track, drivers have to back the corner up and brake much earlier than feels natural.

That cadence does not begin overnight and it is not automatic. It takes years of experience to develop that kind of discipline, but once a driver finds the right balance, it becomes part of their long term memory.

Flat tracks in general and short ovals of one-mile or less in length in particular are prone to streaks. This week’s top-10 will be dominated by drivers like Kevin Harvick, who has the longest active streak at Phoenix and Kyle Busch, who has been the best on the combined short, flat tracks.

With little banking to lean on through the corners, finesse comes into play. That makes Phoenix, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway into drivers’ tracks.

Horsepower is important there as it is on all tracks, but it is a smaller percentage of the equation. Driver skill makes up the difference and there will be some interesting dark horses in the teens.


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Kobalt 400

One of the solo cookies—Atlanta Motor Speedway—was on the schedule last week. The paucity of data from the single race in Nevada is offset somewhat by the juxtaposition of the Kobalt 400 with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

HAMPTON, GA - MARCH 05:  Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Autotrader Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds Of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 5, 2017 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Drivers can gain some momentum at this stage of the schedule. In a couple of weeks, they will visit the two-mile Auto Club Speedway. A couple of weeks after that, they will be on another “cookie-cutter” course: Texas Motor Speedway. Four of the first seven races of the season are on similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks.

Last year, six drivers who scored top-10s at Atlanta, backed that up with another top-10 at Vegas. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch led the charge in 2016 with a pair of top-fives. Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came close to adding their name to the top-10 sweepers with a worst result of 12th in the two races.

Several of those drivers ran well again last week. Notably, Johnson and Busch did not and it will be interesting to see if the dark horses who stepped into their place in the QuikTrip 500 can also unseat them in this week’s contest.

The “cookie-cutter” promotors hate that description of their tracks. And to be fair, no two courses are alike. From their point of view, they have a right to bristle. Fantasy players have a different outlook and should find cookies quite tasty.


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