Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's GEICO 400
The 2012 regular season may have been put in the books last weekend in dramatic fashion at Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup may get underway at Chicagoland Speedway, but for NASCAR fantasy players the season simply rolls on to the sweeping 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill.
While most fantasy leagues will continue without any change in format, the mindset of the 12 drivers battling for the title and the 31 “other” drivers in the field will certainly change.
Although most are reluctant to admit it – you often hear them say, “We’ll keep doing the same thing we have all year,” – there is no doubt that those in the Chase will be gunning for wins and maximum points each and every weekend.
While the Chase drivers will steal the majority of the spotlight the next 10 races, there are a number of those on the outside looking in that can shake up the finishing order week-to-week. Some are looking for redemption for missing this year’s Chase, others are working on setups and plans for the 2013 season, while still others will be out there proving their worth to potential rides and sponsorship dollars.
In essence, the next 10 weeks will be a mixed-bag of agendas with high-intensity racing. It will be tough to top last year’s epic battle to the final laps, but if any Chase class could do it, I bet this one can.
However, before we get too wrapped up Chase talk, it’s time to look at this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.
After 10 years of hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 2011 trip to Chicagoland Speedway marked the first time it opened the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart turned his season around then and there by saving enough fuel to score his first of five Chase wins.
Much like last season, Stewart enters the Chase struggling to keep pace with the competition. Since his third win of the season came in July at Daytona, the former champion has just two top 5s and three top 10s – not exactly the type of momentum you want heading into the Chase.
However, if last year proved anything, it’s that Stewart has the opportunity to come out swinging in Chicago. The defending champ leads all drivers in victories at the 1.5-mile tri-oval (three) and at 8.7, has the best average finish among active drivers.
If he and crew chief Steve Addington are able to put the struggles of the summer months behind them, bring a solid setup to the track and play the strategy correctly, it will be hard to bet against Stewart.
That said, once the Chase gets underway it is also nearly impossible to bet against the five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet leads the series in Chase wins (20) and has an average finish of 9.0 in the playoffs. With the third-best average finish (10.0) at Chicagoland Speedway — and bringing the car that dominated at both Dover and Indianapolis — Johnson should also be among the favorites this weekend.
With all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase, perhaps the driver you want to watch out for this weekend is veteran Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion earned the final wild card spot in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Richmond by out-racing Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch when it mattered most.
The 2012 season has been one of up and downs for the No. 24 team, but throughout the struggles and poor luck, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team have provided fast racecars. Gordon enters the first race of the Chase with his sights set on a fifth title, and with a win and a 10th-place average finish at Chicagoland, he will be tough to beat.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Even though Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer enters the Chase fresh off a victory in Richmond, he remains an undervalued pick this weekend in Chicago. While many look at Johnson, Stewart and Denny Hamlin as favorites for the title, Bowyer and his MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could sneak in and truly mix it up in the championship battle – starting immediately
Bowyer’s No. 15 team has been consistently solid through the summer and early fall, scoring the Richmond win along with three top-5 and six top-10 finishes since the July race in Daytona. Also, don’t forget that Bowyer certainly knows how to open the Chase in dramatic fashion, having won the opening race at Loudon in 2010. With the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Chicagoland, Bowyer could easily thrust himself into title contention this weekend and, at the very least, score solid fantasy points for your team.
For Truex, the 2012 season has been one of renewed confidence and opportunity. Although he is still battling a winless drought that dates to June 2007, he and the No. 56 team led by crew chief Chad Johnston have consistently contended each week.
With only one top 10 finish at Chicagoland Speedway (2008), Truex will have to buck the trend of years past and continue to do the things that got them into the Chase.
Aside from all the Chase contenders, one driver you will want to watch this weekend is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman. Not a part of the championship battle, Newman is one of those driving to court sponsors for next season. With one win, two top 5s and six top 10s at Chicagoland Speedway, he could mix things up and prove to be an undervalued fantasy start.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Joey Logano
It’s not usually a good thing when a driver thanks you in Victory Lane for wrecking him, but that is exactly what Bowyer did to Juan Pablo Montoya Saturday night in Richmond.
Struggling through his worst year since his sophomore season in 2008, Montoya has only two top-10 finishes thus far in 2012. After team owner Chip Ganassi made drastic internal changes within his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shop during the offseason, the thought was the company would return to the winning ways it experienced in 2010. To the contrary, both Montoya and Jamie McMurray have essentially been also-rans throughout the year. Of late, Montoya has been a target of criticism among many drivers, as he has been involved in multiple incidents the last few weeks.
Yet with the season winding down, Montoya heads to Chicagoland Speedway on the outside of the Chase looking in, and attempting to salvage something of his dismal season. With the eighth-best average finish (14.6) in Chicago, the Colombia native may have a rare top-10 showing – if he can stay out of trouble, of course.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick
Best Average finish at Chicagoland (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart – 8.7 (3)
2. Jeff Gordon – 10.0 (1)
3. Jimmie Johnson – 10.0 (0)
4. Clint Bowyer – 10.2 (0)
5. Kevin Harvick – 10.4 (2)
6. Matt Kenseth – 12.3 (0)
7. Mark Martin – 12.5 (1)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya – 14.6 (0)
9. Kyle Busch – 14.7 (1)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 14.8 (1)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell