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Chasing the Cup

Chasing Michigan (Summer)

by Dan Beaver
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

When he started rattling off victories, it was inevitable that Kyle Busch would crack the top 30 in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup driver standings. Drivers on the cusp of Chase contention have mentally prepared for the time when a racer outside the top 16 would move the cutoff line, but the reality of the situation is probably a little more startling than they anticipated.

At least one driver will qualify for the Chase for the Championship on points even if there are unique winners in the remaining regular season races. That is creating an interesting battle within the battle as Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Clint Bowyer vie to be the top driver in that regard.

For now, all of them would seem to be safe.

Bowyer has a 50-point advantage over Aric Almirola, but if the No. 43 or any of the drivers of the other teams currently outside the top 16 in points win, those numbers change dramatically. If the Pure Michigan 400 is won by a lower-seeded driver, and the non-winners remain more or less in their current positions, Bowyer would be out of the Chase, with Newman a solitary point ahead of him. Gordon would have only an eight-point gap with Menard 10 points ahead of the cutoff. McMurray remains relatively save with a 23-point cushion, but one more 40th-place finish like he experienced at Watkins Glen International would wipe that out in a single race.

Folks, there is a reason NASCAR designed the Chase the way they did.

Regular Season Races Remaining: 4 (Maximum points per race = 48)
Unique Winners in 2015: 11

Locked In

Jimmie Johnson (4 wins / 747 points)
Chase Ranking: first
Last week: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 20.67
Bristol: 14.17
Darlington: 2.67

Johnson has back-to-back top-10s and a 15th in his last three races, but it still seems as if this team is suffering through a malaise. The reason is because they earned only one top-five in their last eight races and that came on the restrictor-plate, superspeedway of Daytona International Speedway. This team loves to experiment, but it can occasionally go too far.

Kyle Busch (4 wins / 361 points)
Chase Outlook: second
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 28.50
Bristol: 16.80
Darlington: 5.33

Fans of other drivers are sick of hearing about Busch, but he dominates the storylines one more week. His second-place finish at the Glen was enough to give him a six-point advantage over Cole Whitt in 31st and Busch is currently one point behind Justin Allgaier. How high can he climb? He could possible get as high as 19th in the standings under perfect conditions and 25th is well within reach. If the Chase reset next week, he would be tied for first.

Kevin Harvick (2 wins / 823 points)
Chase Ranking: third
Last week: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 8.83
Bristol: 25.17
Darlington: 7.33

Harvick gambled on fuel and almost won the Cheez-it 355 at the Glen. Points are meaningless to him at the moment and a third-place finish on the road course could have been much worse if he had run out of gas one corner earlier. For the next four weeks, fantasy owners need to be situationally aware and even strong drivers like Harvick, Busch, and Joey Logano may need to be parked to make room for hungry racers who cannot afford to gamble.  

Joey Logano (2 wins / 781 points)
Chase Ranking: fourth
Last week: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 9.67
Bristol: 15.17
Darlington: 22.33

Logano had the best car at Pocono Raceway but failed to win because of fuel mileage. He applied that lesson at the Glen and won his second race of the season by leading only one lap: the final one. Both of Logano’s victories this season have come on specialty tracks, with the previous one being the Daytona 500. To challenge for the championship, he is going to have to start winning on either the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile or the short, flat tracks that dominate the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins / 750 points)
Chase Ranking: fifth
Last week: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 15.17
Bristol: 17.83
Darlington: 9.33

Last week we referenced a pattern of one top-10 followed by a 20th-something finish in Earnhardt’s past five races and said he was due to suffer disappointment at the Glen. That prediction was off by a little, because while his 11th-place finish could was not overly exciting, it could not be characterized as a disappointment either.

Matt Kenseth (2 wins / 703 points)
Chase Outlook: sixth
Last week: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 15.67
Bristol: 13.00
Darlington: 3.67

Kenseth has a share of the current top-10 streak record. Along with Brad Keselowski, he has five consecutive results inside that mark and his worst was a seventh at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A victory at Pocono sets him further apart and seeds him higher on the Chase grid that the Racer 2.

Kurt Busch (2 wins / 659 points)
Chase Outlook: seventh
Last week: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 18.83
Bristol: 19.67
Darlington: 22.00

Busch is the lowest-ranked driver with two wins, but it will pay to remember that he was forced to sit out three races to start the season. If not for an accident at Pocono, he would most likely ride a nine-race, top-10 streak into Michigan International Speedway, which makes him one of the hottest drivers on the circuit.

Brad Keselowski (1 win / 719 points)
Chase Outlook: eighth
Last week: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 7.17
Bristol: 19.00
Darlington: 21.33

Keselowski’s single victory of the season came 18 weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway. He finished second the following week at Martinsville Speedway, but then fell off the radar for quite some while. If he wants some momentum entering the Chase, he needs to follow his teammate Logano to Victory Lane for a second time. Otherwise, he may need to settle for the little bit of impetus that second-place results at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono give.

Martin Truex Jr. (1 win / 714 points)
Chase Ranking: ninth
Last week: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 17.50
Bristol: 23.83
Darlington: 14.67

By itself, Truex’s 25th-place finish at Watkins Glen might not mean much. It is a specialty course and that poor result could be dropped from his handicap formula. So could back-to-back accidents at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona, but when coupled with three other sub-10th-place finishes in the past seven races, it is clear he is losing momentum rapidly.

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 631 points)
Chase Ranking: 10th
Last week: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 18.00
Bristol: 20.67
Darlington: 7.67

Hamlin’s team might want to invest in a little duct tape. For the second straight week they had a hood fly up to slow the No. 11. Ultimately that was not the cause of his 27th-place finish, but it is nevertheless notable that he has two 20-something results in his last two races and needs a solid showing at Michigan, Bristol Motor Speedway, or Darlington Raceway to get some momentum for the Chase.

Carl Edwards (1 win / 589 points)
Chase Outlook: 11th
Last week: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 13.67
Bristol: 18.50
Darlington: 9.00

Edwards enters the Pure Michigan 400 with five consecutive top-15s. One of these—a fourth at Kentucky Speedway was a top-five—and that allows him to slot into a provisional spot on most fantasy rosters. He is not going to earn maximum points most weekends, but so long as he is rightly-priced and fits a niche, he could help usher someone to Victory Lane.

Currently Eligible on Points

Not Yet Locked in

Jamie McMurray (0 wins / 635 points)
Chase Outlook: 12th
Last week: 11th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 17.00
Bristol: 17.67
Darlington: 22.00

McMurray’s 40th-place finish at the Glen did not exactly put him in the eye of the storm, but he is getting buffeted by the winds on the edge. The most likely impact will be that he will race a little conservatively to achieve solid top-15s. That could play into both his favor and any fantasy owner with the No. 1 on their roster.

Paul Menard (0 wins / 622 points)
Chase Ranking: 13th
Last week: 13th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 7.17
Bristol: 11.00
Darlington: 24.33

Two weeks ago Menard was 15th. He jumped to 13th and remains there this week, but he actually bypassed Jeff Gordon in the process. At this level and at this stage of the season, every position is important to get as far away from the moveable cut line as possible. Menard has not scored a top-10 since the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan, but six of his last seven efforts ended 16th or better. Consistency is just as important as strength.

Jeff Gordon (0 wins / 620 points)
Chase Outlook: 14th
Last week: 12th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 18.67
Bristol: 11.67
Darlington: 15.00

It seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago that Gordon could lose enough ground to fall out of the Chase. Now the potential is all too great with 40-something results in two of his last three efforts. At the very least it seems likely that he will head to Richmond International Raceway without knowing if he is in or out and that will affect his ability to run well during the Challenger stage.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 613 points)
Chase Outlook: 15th
Last week: 14th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 13.83
Bristol: 16.33
Darlington: 14.33

If there is another unique winner from outside the top 16 in points next week, Newman will find himself engaged in a virtual dogfight with Bowyer and Gordon for a playoff berth. These three drivers’ priorities will rapidly shift during the next four weeks to focus on one another and it is difficult to race with one eye on the rearview mirror.

Clint Bowyer (0 wins / 612 points)
Chase Outlook: 16th
Last week: 16th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 7.50
Bristol: 11.67
Darlington: 11.33

If Bowyer keeps scoring top-10s, he should be fine in regard to making the Chase. The four drivers listed above him have not been as consistent or strong and six top-10s in the past eight races are keeping the No. 15 in contention. There is an emotional price to pay for living on the edge, however, and that could impact Bowyer and make him a risky fantasy proposition.

Notables Outside the Top 16

Kasey Kahne (0 wins / 559 points)
Chase Ranking: Outside Chase Contention
Last week: 16th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 14.00
Bristol: 15.33
Darlington: 20.67

Back-to-back finishes of 43rd and 42nd have removed Kahne completely from the Chase conversation unless he wins one of the next four races. Hendrick Motorsports has been strong at Michigan in the past, but they can also be uneven. It’s anyone guess as to how they will fare this week.

Greg Biffle (0 wins / 532 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase Contention
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 12.83
Bristol: 15.17
Darlington: 10.00

Once upon a time, Biffle was great on two-mile tracks, but as Roush-Fenway Racing has lost some of their oomph, he is sliding down the order. Both of his efforts on this course type in 2015 ended in the 30s and he has only one top-10 in the past two seasons. With four wins on this track, he cannot be overlooked, however, because he could still get one of the coveted Chase berths.

Kyle Larson (0 wins / 517 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase Contention
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 22.67
Bristol: 9.67
Darlington: 8.00

Larson’s last three attempts on two-mile tracks have not been overly impressive, but one of his best efforts came on this track type early in his rookie season. He finished second behind Kyle Busch in the Auto Club 400 and everyone believed his first Cup win was just around the corner. Fantasy owners are still waiting.

Austin Dillon (0 wins / 492 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase Contention
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Michigan: 19.40
Bristol: 16.33
Darlington: 11.00

Four drivers still have a chance to make the Chase with victories and with a substantial points’ differential between the cutoff and the first driver out, that is really the only way one will advance. It is going to make many of these drivers gamble in the next four races and fantasy owners will get caught in the crossfire.
 

Driver

2015
Power Avg.

Michigan
3-yr Avg.

Bristol
3-yr Avg.

Darlington
3-yr Avg.

Kevin Harvick

4.98

8.83

25.17

7.33

Kurt Busch

7.35

18.83

19.67

22.00

Martin Truex Jr.

9.20

17.50

23.83

14.67

Brad Keselowski

10.11

7.17

19.00

21.33

Joey Logano

10.36

9.67

15.17

22.33

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

10.95

15.17

17.83

9.33

Matt Kenseth

10.97

15.67

13.00

3.67

Kyle Busch

11.00

28.50

16.80

5.33

Jimmie Johnson

11.45

20.67

14.17

2.67

Jeff Gordon

11.87

18.67

11.67

15.00

Denny Hamlin

12.52

18.00

20.67

7.67

Carl Edwards

12.91

13.67

18.50

9.00

Jamie McMurray

16.54

17.00

17.67

22.00

Paul Menard

17.26

7.17

11.00

24.33

Ryan Newman

18.06

13.83

16.33

14.33

Clint Bowyer

19.27

7.50

11.67

11.33

Outside of Chase Contention

Kasey Kahne

12.14

14.00

15.33

20.67

Kyle Larson

15.27

22.67

9.67

8.00

Aric Almirola

22.21

21.33

24.00

21.00

Austin Dillon

22.39

19.40

16.33

11.00

Tony Stewart

23.46

19.00

17.00

9.00

David Ragan

23.68

28.17

26.67

33.00

Danica Patrick

24.26

17.40

22.83

27.00

Greg Biffle

24.61

12.83

15.17

10.00

AJ Allmendinger

24.84

19.25

21.50

24.00

Casey Mears

25.52

22.83

26.33

25.67

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

26.62

20.40

9.20

19.00

Justin Allgaier

27.35

28.33

14.67

23.00

Bobby Labonte

31.43

33.33

31.00

27.50

Landon Cassill

32.22

30.40

29.17

27.00

David Gilliland

32.25

27.67

22.33

27.33

Michael Annett

34.06

30.33

29.00

42.00

Cole Whitt

34.11

28.33

32.33

38.00

Reed Sorenson

34.16

33.67

26.00

34.50

Alex Bowman

34.76

35.67

28.00

29.00

Josh Wise

36.42

35.67

32.00

34.00

JJ Yeley

38.23

36.00

29.00

36.00

Mike Bliss

38.32

40.50

40.25

45.00

Travis Kvapil

41.73

29.00

26.25

29.33

 

A note about the three-year stats: The three-year average finish is a script that looks at the last 1,116 days—to provide for minor changes in the schedule. Since some races shift dates more than a week or two, the past three-years sometimes occasionally contain five races instead of six. It is a consistent snapshot, however.

A note about the Power Average: The Fantasy Power Rankings formula includes finishing results this season as well as various “strength-based” intangibles such as Laps in the top five, 10, and 15, average running position, speed in traffic, and quality passes (passing a car while in the top 15) expressed as if they were finishing results. The lower the number, the stronger the driver.

 

Dan Beaver
Dan Beaver has been covering fantasy NASCAR for more than 12 years with a little help from his >500,000 record database. He can be found on Twitter @FantasyRace.