At Martinsville, an often repeated truism goes: "There are horses for courses."
Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson proved just how accurate that was last weekend in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 by alternately dominating before a late accident robbed them of good finishes. Gordon earned the top driver rating of 133.0 (out of a perfect 150.0) during the race, Hamlin was fourth-best at 111.5 and Johnson was fifth at 109.4. Late in the race, the three engaged in a spirited battle that may have shown the best competition of the season. Even better from a fantasy-gaming point of view, these drivers were predictably strong and they were profiled as favorites in the weekly preview.
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Just as there are horses for courses, there are drivers who are predictably strong at certain points of the season. Even with the current playoff-style Chase, it pays to get off to a good start. On the strength of five consecutive top-15s, Greg Biffle has a 47-point advantage over the driver in 11th in the standings. It is not an insurmountable lead by any stretch of the imagination, and much can happen in the 21 races before the Chase begins, but it allows the driver and team to gamble to a certain degree.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another driver who came off the hauler fast at Daytona and has not looked back. He too has swept the top 15 and built a 41-point margin over 11th place in the standings, and that lifts a load of concern from his shoulders.
Only one of those two drivers has traditionally been much stronger during the first half of the season, which is why expectations need to be adjusted week to week. But to be successful in fantasy games, it pays to study the trends.
Earnhardt is off to a great start in 2012, and it seems inevitable that he will snap his winless streak sometime before the series hits the halfway point with a return to Daytona in week 18 of the season. Junior has historically been much better in the first half of the year than at its end. In 435 starts through the end of 2011, he earned 61 percent of his 18 victories before the halfway mark. He also has scored 58 percent of his top-fives and 57 percent of his top-10s in that span, which made him a predictably strong starter. While he has been strong most often early in the year, his average finish of 7.8 during the first five races has been atypical. His career average finish through 2011 has been about twice what he's experienced this season at 15.4 in the first 18 races of each year. He cools off in the closing months and loses 2.6 positions to his average finish in the last 18 weeks.
Kyle Busch is another typically strong starter -- at least in reference to victories. During his career, he has amassed 23 Cup wins and nearly two-thirds of those came in the first 18 weeks of the season. The ratio of his top-five and -10 finishes is much narrower than Earnhardt's, however. In 257 starts, he earned only 51 percent of his top-10s in the first part of the year and 54 percent of his top-fives. That should be regarded by fantasy owners as both good and bad news. On one hand, it means that he is marginally stronger at this stage of the schedule with an average finish of slightly better than two positions per race. But it also means that he has been more uneven in the spring events, which makes him less predictable.
Paul Menard has been less successful overall than Earnhardt and Busch, but his percentages are largely the same. For the past couple of years, he has gotten off to a strong start at Daytona and kept that momentum during the early season. Four of his six top-fives have come in the first 18 races of a year, and that has allowed him to stake a brief claim to Chase contention. He levels off relatively soon, however, and his 19 top-10s are almost evenly spread between the spring and fall.
Some other drivers are much better in the fall than spring. There is a reason why Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart battled for the championship last year, as they both had strong runs during the Chase, but neither of them could be described as surprisingly stout during the second half of the season. Statistically, Edwards improves his average finish by nearly two positions per race in the final 18 events of the year. Fifty-three percent of his top-fives have been earned as the season crests the hill, and 12 of 19 wins have come with the season finale firmly in sight.
Stewart has a long reputation for running stronger in the fall than spring. His surge usually starts late-summer and carries through until the end of the season. Last year, he was able to parlay that tendency into the third championship of his career. He entered this season with 44 Cup victories and, amazingly, 30 of those were earned in the second half of the season. However, he's added two more wins so far in 2012, which gives him an inside track to taking one of the wild card slots in the Chase even if he slips from his third position in the standings. He provides a lesson to fantasy owners: momentum is sometimes more important than statistics.
Clint Bowyer is also well-known for late-season surges. His qualification for the 2007 Chase was a pleasant surprise since it came in his sophomore season. He immediately set out to prove he belonged with the elite drivers by winning that Chase's first playoff race in New Hampshire. In the next six races that season, he earned two more runner-up finishes and swept the top 12, which solidified his reputation. His last two Cup victories have also been earned in the fall and four of Bowyer's five wins have come in the final 18 races. Like Stewart, however, he is showing how strong he can be in the opening weeks with five top-15s in the first six races of 2012. Fantasy owners will want to use him while he has momentum on his side, but they will also want to keep a close eye on the No. 15 as the Chase looms.
Gordon, Johnson wreck up front
Green-White-Checkered Finish: Martinsville
Race Rewind: Martinsville
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