Wed Jun 22, 2011 12:36 pm
Stewart, Ambrose among must-owns at Infineon
Said tops list of road ringers; Gordon, Montoya headline pool of dark horses
By Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM
June 22, 2011 11:13 AM, EDT
One of the best things about the NASCAR championship is that a driver has to be good on every type of asphalt track imaginable and great on most. With nearly a third of the races contested on similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks, that is obviously where teams concentrate their efforts, but they cannot ignore the restrictor-plate superspeedways, short tracks, or flat tracks either. Road courses make up the smallest percentage of the season, but every point is critical under the new system and drivers cannot afford a single bad result.
Complete coverage All of the drivers in the top 10 in points have at least one top-10 finish on a road course, but that might not be enough to keep them in playoff contention. Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick are statistically the best road-course racers among those inside the top 10 and that is particularly good news for the driver of No. 39 because five of his eight top-10s on this track type came at Infineon, which gives him a great opportunity to protect his position. For the two drivers on the cusp of the top 10, however, things might not be as comfortable. Denny Hamlin has six top-10s on road courses, but only two of those came at Infineon. Clint Bowyer has four road course top-10s with three of them coming on this track, but last year, he finished in the 30s at both Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
Meanwhile, the drivers that currently occupy the 11th and 12th positions in the standings are among the best road-course racers NASCAR's senior division has ever seen. Tony Stewart needs to make up only a single point to climb back into the top 10 after losing ground to Hamlin last week; he has 18 total road course top-10s with eight of those coming on the California track. Jeff Gordon needs to make up 17 points to join the elite 10 and he is likely to do his part after scoring 23 top-10s on this track type during his career.
Stewart is not only favored to ascend in the points, he should be viewed as one of the drivers with the greatest chance of winning. He has been slightly better at Watkins Glen during his career with 10 of his 18 top-10s and five of his seven victories being earned there, but his overall record on the twisty tracks is exceptional. Since winning the 2004 race at the Glen, he has been nearly perfect on road courses, with one bad result in the 2006 Infineon race caused by mechanical difficulties. The two road courses are among his most productive in fact. With an average finish of 5.4 at the Glen and 9.3 at Infineon, these tracks rank first and third in terms of his average finishes, and that means fantasy owners should consider him a must-have.
Marcos Ambrose has not been around as long as Stewart, so he does not have the same impressive raw numbers and streaks, but his top-10 percentage on this type of course is unparalleled. He was running in the top-10 in a Wood Bros. Ford in 2008 when he got rammed from behind in the hairpin at Infineon. That broke his transmission and sent him to the showers with a 42nd-place finish, but his other five efforts on twisty tracks have ended in results of sixth or better. With the exception of the broken transmission, the only time he has finished worse than third was in this race last year when he lost a chance at certain victory by turning his engine off to save fuel on an uphill segment of the course during caution and allowed several drivers to slip past when he was unable to maintain a reasonable speed.
Another nearly perfect road-course racer is Juan Montoya. His only black mark on this track type came in his rookie season at Watkins Glen after Kevin Harvick wheel-hopped into Turn 1 and crashed both cars only 17 laps from the end. He got redemption last year, however, by winning on the New York track. Better still, he won his first NASCAR Cup race on this track in his rookie season, the first time he ever placed a wheel there -- and more impressively still, he did so after leaving pit road 32nd.
Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.
Watch Dark Horses
Jeff Gordon should be a favorite this week, but his uneven 2011 season has fantasy owners a little nervous. Worse still, two of his past five road-course races have ended in results outside the top 25. Both of those poor finishes came at Watkins Glen, however; at Infineon, he enters the weekend with a five-race streak of top-10s that includes one victory and three top-fives. Gordon is a long way from dominating this track type like he did in the late 1990s with six consecutive road-course wins, but he certainly has earned a spot on your roster.
The second dark horse this week is going to be situational depending on how they practice and qualify. Track position is critical on this course, and that plays a role from the minute the green flag waves to start the race. It is not that a car cannot come from the back of the pack like Montoya proved in 2007 --and in that same race, Gordon was forced to start 41st en route to a seventh-place finish when he was penalized by NASCAR for rules' infraction. But a strong qualification run indicates that the driver knows how to navigate the left and right turns. Johnson and the 2009 victor, Kasey Kahne both enter the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and they are only drivers to do so. With last year's accident-induced 31st momentarily set aside, Clint Bowyer has also been strong at Infineon with three top-10s from 2007 through 2009.
For the moment, the era of road ringers seems to be largely in the past, but they still need to be considered as a way to stretch your salary cap dollar. Boris Said will race the No. 51 James Finch ride this week and he is much better at Infineon than he is in Watkins Glen, Five of seven top-10s came on the California track. Still, only one of these has been earned in the past three years, so starting him is going to entail some risk.
Aside from Said, fantasy owners' decisions about road ringers should be largely based on the strength of the team. Tony Ave in the No. 38 regularly driven by Travis Kvapil is your next best bet to earn a top-15, but only if he gets track position late in the race. He is followed by Andy Pilgrim in the No. 46, Tomy Drissi in the No. 37, and Brian Simo in the No. 81. P.J. Jones in Robby Gordon's second car would be a good bet, but in recent seasons that entry has been used to give the No. 7 team a deeper set of notes to help setup the primary car and it has not completed very many laps.
Thu Jun 23, 2011 9:23 pm
This is where i pull for the underdog over anyone else-Robby Gordon or Marcos Ambrose.