If you paid attention to NASCAR’s Loop Data from recent Phoenix runs, starting Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick was a Fantasy slam dunk.
Harvick had a Driver Rating of 115.3 in the five previous Phoenix races entering Sunday, and he posted a victory in the desert Sunday. The race was even more impressive for the No. 4 machine considering it was just his second points race for SHR. Happy now has five victories at Phoenix, more than any other active driver, and it is his most victories at any one track. Remember that when the Sprint Cup Series returns to the site on Nov. 9 for the second-to-last race of the season.
Harvick could continue his dominating start when the circuit moves to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend. While he has not won in 13 career starts at LVMS, he does have an Average Finish of 12.7, which is fifth among active drives. He has zero DNFs, and a total of three Top 5 finishes.
The rest of the day at Phoenix did not go so good for his teammates, and it is a good idea to avoid Tony Stewart (leg) for Fantasy purposes until he has that one vintage performance, finally proving he is healthy. He said going into Daytona that he wasn’t quite 100 percent, he ran in the Top 10 at times in Phoenix, but still hasn’t been vintage Smoke. He ended up in 16th place at PIR, which isn’t terrible, but he can do so much more. It is uncertain when he will be that dominant guy, but he could show signs of life in Vegas, as Loop Data shows he has a Driver Rating of 111.9 since March 2009, second-most behind only Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson.
And I noticed a lot of chatter on Twitter during and after the race poking fun at Kurt Busch, who finished in 39th place, three spots behind teammate Danica Patrick, who ended up getting tangled up with rookie Justin Allgaier and Travis Kvapil. She suffered damage, came back on track, and cut a tire, sending her further back. Busch ended up blowing an engine with 16 laps to go, and had been running in the Top 10 for most of the day. I hate to be ‘THAT’ guy, but watch the race, instead of simply watching on the computer and then trolling, spouting off bias and misinformation. A mechanical issue is not an indictment on a driver’s skills.
Quote of the day
“I’m disappointed for my guys to have an engine go down. The car was pretty good and Top 10 worthy,” Busch posted on his official Twitter account.
Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a real push to become the first driver since Matt Kenseth in 2007 to win the first two races of the Cup schedule. Little E had a decent car all day, but was nowhere near as good as the No. 4. He did a great job to steer his car to second, and kept Harvick within his sights. It’s early, but he is the points leader through the first two races, and he obviously won at Daytona, and will be at another track which suits him (Vegas) next week. And, as always, six-time champ Jimmie Johnson was lurking. He might not have challenged for the win, but a sixth-place showing has the No. 48 primed and ready for yet another championship run. Johnson has dominated at Vegas and Auto Club, two of the next three stops on the circuit, so Fantasy owners will want to start using him in salary-cap formats, if you haven’t already. He comes with a high price, but a win is a high probability at the next two western runs for J.J.
Jeff Gordon is off to a good start, although all people seem to want to talk about is his latest Pepsi Max commercial, which is pretty good. He turned in a Top 5 finish for the second straight week, and is off to his best start in years.
How about the showing from Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, who stealthily worked his way into a seventh-place finish? It is the kind of production that will get those tweeps chirping about Busch and SHS. Team Penske also had a dominant showing at the flat track, with pole-sitter Brad Keselowski helping his Fantasy owners to a third-place finish, while teammate Joey Logano in ‘Team Yellow’ was right on his bumper in fourth place . In fact, Logano’s start has been interesting. We all know what Keselowski can do, but so far it looks like the light has gone on for Logano. He has been more mature, more low-key and looks more focused than ever. Fantasy owners might be able to cash in on this in future weeks on the intermediate runs.
Lastly, good on you, Jamie McMurray. The Ganassi Racing driver had terrible Loop Data numbers, and career numbers as a whole at PIR. But he rocketed his No. 1 black Chevy to a Top 10 finish, giving him some confidence going forward. He always seems to be on the brink of a breakout before taking a few steps backward. He’ll be an interesting driver to watch in coming weeks. If he can dance through Vegas, make it out of Bristol in one piece, and show well in California, McMurray could be a Fantasy sleeper once the circuit heads back east for the long haul.
Five things we learned on Sunday
Danica brings caution: Sometimes criticism of Danica is unfounded. Like last week, she was collected in a crash that was neither her fault, and she nearly made it out unscathed before being T-boned by a careening, out of control car. That’s the life in restrictor-plate racing, but wasn’t her fault. However, in her four career races at Phoenix, she has been the cause or involved in a caution. She hasn’t fared well on the flat tracks to this point of her career, although it is still early.
Hey rookie…lemme show you how it’s done: While the rookies were all over the board at Daytona, restrictor-plate racing is partially skill, a lot of luck, and just driving fast. The flat tracks, short tracks, etc. require a little more finesse, and perhaps a little more skill. We saw the first-year drivers tumble down the standings at Phoenix, with Ganassi’s Kyle Larson the top dog in 20th place. Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, the pole-sitter at Daytona, managed just a 24th-place showing, and no other rookie was better than 27th. That’s something for Fantasy owners to keep in mind, especially on the first short track stop of the season March 16 at Bristol. Swan Racing’s Parker Kligerman blew an engine, and limped home in 42nd place. He has had a disastrous start to his Sprint Cup Series career through two runs.
Drive the Chevy to the levee…: Through the first two races, it is Chevy with two wins, Ford and Toyota zero. That could change at Vegas, as in 16 Sprint Cup Series runs at LVMS, Ford leads with seven wins, followed by Chevy at six, Toyota at two, and Dodge, no longer in the series, with one checkered flag.
Loop Data can help Fantasy owners: If you used NASCAR’s Loop Data over the past five races at Phoenix to set your Fantasy lineup, you’re probably pretty pleased. In the five previous races at PIR, Harvick had a driver rating of 115.3, followed by Keselowski at 106.8, Johnson at 103.5 and then Stewart at 102.7 and Roush-Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards at 101.3. Four of the five posted Top 8 finishes, with only Stewart lagging behind. Certainly Loop Data shouldn’t be considered as the end-all, be-all for setting your lineup, as other things factor in. But it was spot on this past week, that’s for sure.
Paul Menard has no flat chance: Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard completed his 50th career Sprint Cup Series flat track race Sunday, and the former Indy driver has just one win on flats, with just five Top 5s and an Average-Finish of 22.3. Menard has brought a lot to the table as far as sponsorships, but sooner or later teams will decide that is simply not enough, and he might go the way of Juan Pablo Montoya, back to open-wheel racing where he was more successful. Fantasy owners only need to remember Menard on plate tracks, and nowhere else.
Looking ahead to next week
The Sprint Cup Series moves on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and as always, Johnson will be the one to watch. He has four wins in 12 career Vegas starts, with seven Top 10s and an Average-Finish of 9.5. Edwards is nipping at his heels, though, posting two wins in nine career starts, while ending up in the Top 20 eight times, and posting an Average-Finish of 9.67. In fact, Loop Data shows Edwards running in the Top 15 in 93.1 percent of his laps over the past five outings. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Those two will be the cream of the crop this weekend for Fantasy owners, but there are other options, too.
Do not overlook Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kenseth, however. He has three wins at Las Vegas in 14 career starts, and he has finished outside the Top 20 just twice.
And if you’re looking for a sleeper, consider Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne. He had a nightmare start to his 2014 season, but he has three Top 5s and eight Top 20s in 10 career runs in Las Vegas, bringing it home in 14th place on average. Logano also has an AFP of 14.0, and as mentioned, he has been running well so far this season.
Checking out the Loop Data driver metrics, Roush-Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has a 105.1 driver rating, which ranks third over the past five starts at the track. He qualifies well at this track, and has run in the Top 15 in 70.6 percent of his laps during the five-year stretch. And while Kyle Busch has seemingly been snake-bitten, as far as the final results, the Vegas native does rank seventh among active drivers with a 97.3 driver rating over the past five races. He has always qualified well at LVMS, starting 5.2 on average over the past five runs.
Germain Racing’s Casey Mears has had a surprising start to the season, ranking in the Top 10 in the standings. However, in 10 career Vegas starts, he has an Average-Finish of 20.2, with no Top 5s. He doesn’t qualify well at the track, and generally he doesn’t end well. If you were considering him as a Fantasy sleeper based on his good start this year, forget it. And while Newman showed well at PIR, he has generally been left in the dust at Las Vegas. He and Michael Waltip Racing’s Clint Bowyer (17.1 AFP) should be left to the unused list.