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Chasing the Cup

Chasing Pocono (Summer)

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

Kyle Busch is still on a roll. His ultimate impact on the Chase looms. He will probably crack the top 30 this week with his performance in the Windows 10 400 at Pocono Raceway and then he will start working on a buffer to 30th in the points in the next five weeks. Heck, he may even keep up his current winning pace and easily enter the final 10 races of the season as the top seeded driver.

Meanwhile several of the drivers on the borderline had bad days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week so that possession of one of the positions eligible for points’ producers is getting nerve racking. Jamie McMurray is the safest at the moment, but even he has only a 44-point cushion over the position that will soon define the cutoff.

Being one of the locked in drivers is more important than ever, because it is going to allow them to enter the Chase in a relaxed state of mind.

Regular Season Races Remaining: 6 (Maximum points per race = 48)
Unique Winners in 2015: 11 (including Kyle Busch)

Locked In

Jimmie Johnson (4 wins / 675 points)
Chase Ranking: first
Last week: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 12.67
Watkins Glen: 13.00
Michigan: 20.67

Johnson has not shown a lot of raw strength in recent weeks, but with four wins in the bank the team is almost certainly using the final seven races of the regular season as an extended test session. That almost always throws a driver’s stats off and last year’s GoBowling.com 400 was marred by a pair of accidents in the early stages of the race because of a radical camber selection.

Kevin Harvick (2 wins / 777 points)
Chase Ranking: second
Last week: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 10.00
Watkins Glen: 11.67
Michigan: 8.83

Harvick wanted to win the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard mostly because it is one of the marquee events on the NASCAR schedule, but also because it has now been 16 races since he visited Victory Lane. Second-place finishes have earned a lot of points for fantasy owners, but soon he will be seeded third because of the wins’ bonuses and he does not want to lose any more ground to Johnson or Busch.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins / 677 points)
Chase Ranking: third
Last week: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 8.83
Watkins Glen: 23.00
Michigan: 15.17

Some drivers are able to adjust quickly to new situations; it appears Earnhardt is not among them. His two biggest struggles in the past three races came with new rules’ packages at Kentucky Speedway and Indy. If NASCAR keeps experimenting and if the new rules affect the Chase, Earnhardt is not going to have a very good opportunity to contend for the championship.

Kurt Busch (2 wins / 612 points)
Chase Outlook: fourth
Last week: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 10.17
Watkins Glen: 14.33
Michigan: 18.83

Consistent top-10 finishes have not been a hallmark of Busch’s career. He has been capable of stringing top-15s together for extended periods of time, but it’s been difficult to get to the very front of the pack regularly. For that reason, it is a little surprising to see his current seven-race, top-10 streak leading the pack by a wide margin.

Joey Logano (1 win / 708 points)
Chase Ranking: fifth
Last week: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 12.83
Watkins Glen: 15.00
Michigan: 9.67

Logano is now locked into the Chase unless he decides to stop attempting to make all the remaining races. Nothing much will change with this mathematical certainty because Logano has always known he would make it. At the moment, he is arguably the greatest value in the game with top-fives in six of his last seven attempts.

Martin Truex Jr. (1 win / 668 points)
Chase Ranking: sixth
Last week: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 13.83
Watkins Glen: 8.67
Michigan: 17.50

For most drivers, we would continue to express caution after only one strong run. One top-five on the heels of four results outside the top 10 is not much to hang one’s hopes on, but there is still the memory of such a strong start at the beginning of the season to buoy both Truex’s and fantasy owners’ confidence.

Brad Keselowski (1 win / 638 points)
Chase Outlook: seventh
Last week: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 11.33
Watkins Glen: 13.00
Michigan: 7.17

Keselowski is not quite the powerhouse he was at the start of the season, but he turned a major corner at Indy last week. For the first time since he wrecked at Bristol Motor Speedway this spring, he managed to score three consecutive top-10s. Only one of these was a top-five, however, so he is still not a must-have on every roster.

Matt Kenseth (1 win / 615 points)
Chase Outlook: eighth
Last week: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 23.17
Watkins Glen: 13.33
Michigan: 15.67

Like Keselowski, Kenseth enters the Windows 10 400 with a current three-race, top-10 streak. Unlike the driver of the No. 2, the pilot of the No. 20 has now achieved that goal only once this season. Kenseth is having difficulty sustaining momentum, but Joe Gibbs Racing is among the best on flat tracks and that could change this week if he has a fourth straight success.

Not Yet Locked in

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 591 points)
Chase Ranking: ninth
Last week: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 17.17
Watkins Glen: 25.67
Michigan: 18.00

Hamlin was not expected to run particularly well last week because Indy was his least productive track among the minimally-banked courses. He has been much better at Pocono and should challenge for a top-10 this week, but that is far from assured since his best efforts come on short, flat tracks.

Carl Edwards (1 win / 519 points)
Chase Outlook: 10th
Last week: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 20.17
Watkins Glen: 7.67
Michigan: 13.67

It would be easier to say that Edwards had completely reversed his fortune if he had not slipped outside the top 10 last week. He started the Crown Royal Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard from the pole and ran well, but lost ground at the end. That means his last three efforts have been progressively worse and fantasy owners want to wait and see if his downward spiral will end.

Currently Eligible on Points

Jamie McMurray (0 wins / 602 points)
Chase Outlook: 11th
Last week: 11th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 11.67
Watkins Glen: 21.33
Michigan: 17.00

McMurray’s 16th-place finish at Indy last week kept him from taking as big a hit in the points as several of those listed below, but he is still in danger of dropping out of Chase contention if he loses more ground. He will be in even more danger once Busch climbs into the top 30—especially if there is another unique winner at Pocono this week. Currently six drivers are eligible on points, but that could shrink to four with little effort.

Jeff Gordon (0 wins / 575 points)
Chase Outlook: 12th
Last week: 12th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 7.17
Watkins Glen: 30.33
Michigan: 18.67

Gordon remains the 12th seeded driver this week, but his championship hopes still took a huge hit at Indy. He currently has a 67-point cushion over the cutoff line, but if a unique winner was added at Pocono and Busch climbs into the top 30, his margin shrinks to 17. That can be lost with the flick of one’s wrist as he found out in the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 563 points)
Chase Outlook: 13th
Last week: 14th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 11.50
Watkins Glen: 22.00
Michigan: 13.83

Newman failed to crack the top 10 last week, but his run was impressive nevertheless. Forced to take a provisional and start last because a window blew out of his car, he improved 32 positions in the race and one in the seeding. That could make all the difference at the end of the regular season finale if the standings remain as tight as they currently are.

Kasey Kahne (0 wins / 558 points)
Chase Ranking: 14th
Last week: 13th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 17.33
Watkins Glen: 19.67
Michigan: 14.00

Kahne’s 24th-place finish was not catastrophic, but it cost him some ground in the standings and that could be critical. Worse still, this is the fourth straight race in which he finished outside the top 15. His momentum is non-existent, but he could turn that around at Pocono this week given how strong Hendrick Motorsports has traditionally been there.

Paul Menard (0 wins / 558 points)
Chase Ranking: 15th
Last week: 15th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 27.17
Watkins Glen: 20.33
Michigan: 7.17

Menard is tied with Kahne for points, but the two drivers seem to be going in opposite directions. While the No. 5 is losing momentum, the No. 27 team has remained constant with five results of 16th or better in their last six efforts. Kind of reminds one of the tortoise and the hare, doesn’t it?

Clint Bowyer (0 wins / 538 points)
Chase Outlook: 16th
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 12.33
Watkins Glen: 12.33
Michigan: 7.50

Two weeks ago Bowyer was in the top 16; last week he was out. Now he’s back in again, but that could also be short-lived. Ultimately he is going to need to string top-10s together and get off the bubble if he is going to be a good value for fantasy owners and it is hard to know if or when that might happen.

Notables Outside the Top 16

Aric Almirola (0 wins / 508 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside Chase Contention
Last week: 16th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 26.50
Watkins Glen: 24.33
Michigan: 21.33

Almirola has been swapping positions with Bowyer in the game of musical chairs. The only problem is that there are about to be far fewer seats on points and both of them are about to get stranded in the upright position.

Greg Biffle (0 wins / 462 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase Contention
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 10.00
Watkins Glen: 10.00
Michigan: 12.83

Biffle has too much ground to make up in the next few weeks to qualify on points—even while he sits 18th in the standings. That will not keep him from being a good value in the next couple of weeks since all three of the upcoming tracks have three-year average finishes of 13th or better.

Kyle Larson (0 wins / 452 points)
Chase Ranking: Outside of Chase Contention  
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention 
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 8.00
Watkins Glen: 4.00
Michigan: 22.67

Larson has been difficult to handicap in recent weeks. He should have been a lock to finish in the top 10 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two weeks ago based on his recent record, but he struggled all afternoon. Last week, he behaved as expected and scored a ninth at Indy. He’s been strong at Pocono and should be able to earn consecutive single-digit runs this week.

Kyle Busch (4 wins / 294 points)
Chase Outlook: Outside of Chase Contention
Last week: Outside of Chase Contention
Average positions per race to pass 30th: 3.8 (last week: 7.0)
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Pocono: 18.33
Watkins Glen: 16.00
Michigan: 28.50

Busch has four wins in the past five weeks with three different rules’ packages. No one would be surprised if he grabbed another this week. The pendulum has swung from concern that he would make the Chase to what will be mild surprise if does not crack into the top 30 this week at Pocono. 

 

Next Three Weeks

Driver

2015
Power Avg.

Pocono
3-yr Avg.

Watkins Glen
3-yr Avg.

Michigan
3-yr Avg.

Kevin Harvick

4.69

10.00

11.67

8.83

Kurt Busch

7.02

10.17

14.33

18.83

Martin Truex Jr.

9.07

13.83

8.67

17.50

Brad Keselowski

10.22

11.33

13.00

7.17

Joey Logano

10.44

12.83

15.00

9.67

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

11.02

8.83

23.00

15.17

Matt Kenseth

11.11

23.17

13.33

15.67

Kasey Kahne

11.36

17.33

19.67

14.00

Jimmie Johnson

11.43

12.67

13.00

20.67

Jeff Gordon

11.70

7.17

30.33

18.67

Denny Hamlin

12.41

17.17

25.67

18.00

Carl Edwards

13.03

20.17

7.67

13.67

Jamie McMurray

16.27

11.67

21.33

17.00

Paul Menard

17.21

27.17

20.33

7.17

Ryan Newman

17.96

11.50

22.00

13.83

Clint Bowyer

19.49

12.33

12.33

7.50

Outside of Chase Contention

Kyle Busch

11.33

18.33

16.00

28.50

Kyle Larson

15.44

8.00

4.00

22.67

Aric Almirola

22.09

26.50

24.33

21.33

Austin Dillon

22.47

17.00

16.00

19.40

Tony Stewart

23.56

14.67

19.00

19.00

David Ragan

23.86

24.33

20.67

28.17

Danica Patrick

24.38

33.60

20.50

17.40

Greg Biffle

24.89

10.00

10.00

12.83

AJ Allmendinger

25.07

31.80

5.50

19.25

Casey Mears

25.57

22.00

14.33

22.83

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

26.35

27.00

19.00

20.40

Justin Allgaier

27.48

21.00

17.00

28.33

Sam Hornish Jr.

29.02

30.00

5.00

19.00

Bobby Labonte

31.43

24.33

27.00

33.33

David Gilliland

32.22

26.00

22.33

27.67

Landon Cassill

32.30

32.00

26.67

30.40

Reed Sorenson

33.86

34.33

23.00

33.67

Michael Annett

34.22

25.33

31.00

30.33

Cole Whitt

34.28

26.33

43.00

28.33

Alex Bowman

34.75

29.33

36.00

35.67

Josh Wise

36.42

33.33

38.00

35.67

JJ Yeley

38.37

35.60

40.00

36.00

 

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.