Now that the NASCAR season is officially past halfway, it's time to separate the men from the boys in fantasy racing. There will be no more off-weeks for the Sprint Cup Series until the season is over at Homestead, which will make many people--myself included--very happy. There are two practices scheduled to be held on Friday, and I would assume that most cars will work on their race setup for both of those sessions because there is another practice on Saturday morning before qualifying. If a driver struggles in practice, I would stay away from him this week.
During The Last Race At Indianapolis...Jamie McMurray grabbed his second huge victory of the season by taking the checkered flag at the 2010 Brickyard ahead of Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart. Even though Juan Montoya won the pole and led 86 laps, you probably remember that he was in a late-race incident with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Montoya also had a great race going for him in the 2009 Brickyard but ended up a disappointing 11th.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Brickyard 400:
1. Jimmie Johnson - If the race at New Hampshire showed me anything, it was that this 48 team can overcome multiple mistakes during a race and still come out with a solid finish. I still think this team is due for a win here soon, and with three victories under his belt at Indianapolis, look for Jimmie Johnson to once again contend this weekend. His average finish of 18.3 in nine starts at this track may turn some fantasy racers away, but "Five Time" has finished in the top five in every flat track race this year, and I don't see that changing this weekend. Just imagine how much less JJ will have to work if there aren't any mistakes made.
2. Jeff Gordon - If Gordon wouldn't have ran out of fuel in New Hampshire (I'm still baffled as to how that happened) he would be 3-for-3 for top 5s at flat tracks, and I have said all season long that this team is completely different when the series comes to these tracks. The four-time Brickyard champ has finished outside of the top 10 just four times in seventeen career starts here, and Gordon has three top 10s in his last four starts at Indy. The #24 Chevrolet ended up in victory lane at Pocono as well as Phoenix, which are decently similar (in my mind) to Indianapolis.
3. Tony Stewart - "Smoke" finally got the finish in New Hampshire, and I think he will continue his strong running as of late this weekend in Indianapolis. Statistically, this is Stewart's second-best track: he just one finish outside of the top 20 in twelve starts as well as two wins. In the last seven Brickyard races, Tony has six top 10s, and all but one of those were top 5s. The #14 Chevrolet finished 21st at Pocono, but the other two flat track races (New Hampshire and Phoenix) have given this team finishes of 2nd and 7th.
4. Kevin Harvick - Believe it or not, this is Harvick's second-best track on the circuit. In ten races here, "Happy" has posted seven top 10s--including one win from the pole back in 2003--which accounts for his average finish of 9.9. With only two finishes outside of the top eleven for Harvick, I don't see this team struggling this weekend, and the fact that the #29 ended up 5th in Pocono has to be re-assuring for fantasy owners.
5. Carl Edwards - Cousin Carl has made six starts at Indianapolis and has come away with three top 10s and a worst finish of just 18th. He has scored all three top 10s in "even year starts" (2006, 2008, 2010), though, and has posted finishes of 12th, 18th, and 15th in the "odd year starts" (2005, 2007, 2009). Will this little streak continue? I don't think so because the #99 Ford has been great all season, and has even been good on the flat tracks but Edwards hasn't earned the finishes. Don't expect to see Carl near the front at the beginning of the race, though, as his average start at Indy is a measly 27.3.
6. Kyle Busch - How often does "Rowdy" Busch have two bad races in a row? Not often, and after his 36th-place finish at New Hampshire, I expect Kyle to turn around this weekend in Indianapolis in a big way. His first three starts at this track gave him three top 10s, and after a couple stumbles (15th in 2008 and 38th in 2009), Busch rebounded last season with a solid 8th-place finish at the Brickyard after starting 23rd. The #18 ended up 2nd and 3rd at Phoenix and Pocono, respectively, which are the two other flat tracks other than New Hampshire.
7. Juan Montoya - Over the past two years at Indianapolis, JPM has the best average driver rating (125.6) and has led the most laps (202) than anyone in the series, yet he has the 22nd-best average finish (21.5). Will this be the year Montoya puts everything together and breaks into victory lane? It's certainly possible, but with the recent crew chief swap, I don't see it happening. He has the skills to race this track better than most (remember Montoya finished 2nd here in his rookie year) but he's a very risky pick, as you should know by now. Juan has started on the front row in three of his four Brickyard starts, though, so you should be able to pick up some qualifying points in Yahoo! this week. The #42 ended up 7th at Pocono in June.
8. Kasey Kahne - One driver you don't think of right away when the series comes to Indianapolis is Kasey Kahne, but he should be in the back of your mind this weekend. Kahne has posted top 12 finishes in all three flat track races this season and has four top 10s in seven starts at Indianapolis. If you take away his 36th and 40th-place efforts in 2006 and 2007 (both listed as accidents) Kasey has never finished outside of the top 13 at this track. His teammate, Brian Vickers, got a top five finish here in 2009.
9. Matt Kenseth - Matt finished 8th at Pocono in June and I think he has the potential to finish right around there in Indianapolis on Sunday. His average career finish here is right around 15th, but Matt has two top 10s in the last four Brickyards and a 12th-place effort during that span as well. He struggled in New Hampshire--as many people predicted the Roush Fords would--but Kenseth still has five top 10s in the last seven Sprint Cup races, and barring any accident or engine failure, Matt should make that six of the last eight once the checkered flag waves on Sunday.
10. Joey Logano - "Sliced Bread" continued his hot streak in New Hampshire with a 4th-place effort, and I expect it continue this weekend in Indianapolis. Logano has made just two starts at this 2.5-mile track, but he owns 9th and 12th-place finishes after starting 34th and 18th in those races, respectively. Joey finished 11th at Pocono in June and that's right about where he should end up in Indiana on Sunday.
11. Clint Bowyer - Bowyer has to get out of this slump he is in (two top 10s in the last eight Sprint Cup races) soon...right? This has been a good track for Clint, but if he doesn't impress people in practice, go ahead and take him off of your roster before the drop of the green flag. He's finished 4th here twice (in 2006 and 2010), but Bowyer's three other starts at Indy have ended in finishes of 13th, 19th, and 18th. Which #33 Chevrolet will show up this weekend? I guess we'll find out soon enough, but I wouldn't bank on a top 10, and even this 11th-place ranking may be too high.
12. Ryan Newman - If you have the 2011 Athlon Sports magazine Racing Preview, you probably noticed that they list "The Rocketman" on the "Runs on Seven Cylinders" list for Indianapolis. While Newman hasn't been spectacular at this track, he has been consistent as of late, and with his win in New Hampshire, Ryan should have boosted confidence coming into his home track. He has just one top 10 in ten starts at this track, but Newman has finished 13th or 14th in three of his past five starts here. The #39 has ended up in the top 10 in every flat track race this season, including a 9th-place effort at Pocono in June.
13. Kurt Busch - Indianapolis isn't Kurt's best track, but you can't overlook the fact that the "Double Deuce" hasn't finished worse than 14th since May 7th in Darlington, and has six top 10s in the last eight Sprint Cup Series races. Busch has made ten starts at this 2.5-mile racetrack and has an average finish of 18.1 with four top 10s, including one last season. This ranking may be a little too low for the elder Busch brother, so be sure to check out my post-qualifying predictions over at ifantasyrace.com on Saturday afternoon.
14. Denny Hamlin - Hamlin poses the biggest question mark in the field for me. He is an awesome flat track driver, but Denny's finishes at Indianapolis are nothing short of disappointing. He posted a 3rd-place finish here in 2008, and that combined with his 10th-place effort in 2006 are his only finishes better than 15th in five career starts here. Here's something to think about: Hamlin hasn't finished worse than 15th in "even year starts" at this track (2006, 2008, 2010), but his finishes in the "odd year starts" (2007, 2009) have been 22nd and 34th. If this continues, expect a down week from the #11 Toyota this weekend.
15. Greg Biffle - He may be ranked high in other fantasy NASCAR writer's minds, but you won't find Biffle on any of my rosters this weekend unless he really blows me away in practice. Greg has the best average finish at Indianapolis over the past two years of anyone and he is on a streak of four straight top 15s here (three straight top 10s). However, The Biff has a new crew chief this weekend, which makes me leery, and this team has really struggled on the flat tracks this season. The #16 hasn't finished in the top ten since June 5, and I don't expect that to change after Sunday.
Just Outside The Top Fifteen Entering The Brickyard 400:
16. Mark Martin - Mark "The Kid" Martin has six straight top 11 finishes at Indianapolis, but this team has barely even sniffed the top 11 since late May. Martin scored a 9th-place finish at Michigan, but other than that his best finish since Charlotte on May 29th has been 19th. Mark is a good driver at this track, but you have to question his equipment this season as well as the entire #5 team. This veteran will need a whole bunch of luck to come close to the top ten this week.
17. Martin Truex, Jr. - Truex finally finished a race and got the finish he deserved in New Hampshire (thankfully because I put him on my roster), and I think that will give Martin a little momentum coming into Indianapolis. His best finish here came in 2007 when he came home 12th, and if you take out Truex's 42nd-place finish in his first start here, his average finish here jumps to 19.6 (from 23.3). The #56 wound up 10th at Pocono and ended up 14th earlier this season in Phoenix.
18. A.J. Allmendinger - Here's another driver with a new crew chief, which makes you wonder whether or not they will be meshing well enough to have a strong running in one of NASCAR's most prestigious races. I've liked The Dinger on flat tracks all season, and he brought the #43 home in 9th at Pocono in June. In three starts at Indy, A.J. has an average finish of 15.3 and captured a top 10 here during his rookie year. Watch for Allmendinger to jump up my board if he catches my eye in practice.
19. Jeff Burton - I really though Burton would finally get a top 10 in New Hampshire--which is why he was on most of my rosters--but of course he ended up being his normal self and disappointing fantasy owners. However, I think this team hit on something (they were really fast at the beginning of that race) and will transfer over to a decent run at Indy. However, I'm being conservative and placing Burton in 19th right now. He does have three top 10s in the last four Brickyard races, though.
20. Jamie McMurray - As long as his engine don't blow, I think Jamie Mac should be pretty trustworthy for a solid top 20 finish on Sunday. Too bad you don't win any fantasy leagues by picking 20th-place drivers. As you probably remember, McMurray won this race last season, and he posted a 6th-place effort in 2008, but Jamie's other finishes since 2004 have been 17th, 26th, 33rd, and 21st.
Avoid These Drivers For The Brickyard 400:
David Reutimann - If Reutty posts a fast lap in qualifying, I may bump him up in my rankings, but even then it would be risky to put the #00 Toyota on your roster this weekend. He finished 8th after starting 5th here in 2009, but in Reutimann's three other starts at this 2.5-mile track, his best finish is 28th and his best start has been 29th. David started 9th and finished 13th at Pocono.
Brian Vickers - Vickers finished 5th in his last start at Indianapolis, but that was back in 2009 and I think missing a year will set Brian back a bit. His best effort on the flat tracks thus far in the 2011 season has been 22nd (back in Pocono) and he's simply too unreliable to be picked this weekend. As I said before, though, his Red Bull Racing teammate would be an excellent pick for the Brickyard.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Junior's top 15 in New Hampshire surprised me, but the fact of the matter is that the sport's most popular driver hasn't posted a top ten since Pocono back in June. That in itself could translate to a good run this weekend, but I don't see that happening: Earnhardt has eleven starts at Indy and has posted just two top 10s, compared to five finishes outside of the top 20.
Greg Biffle - The Biff has a three-race streak of top 10s at Indianapolis, and has finished 4th and 3rd in the last two races here, but I think he and his new crew chief are going to struggle this weekend. In the last three flat track races, Biffle's best finish has been 18th, and he hasn't had a top ten since early June. If he impresses me during practice and qualifies well, I may change my mind, but right now you won't find the #16 on any of my rosters.