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NASCAR America Fantasy League: Forecasting the playoffs

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The key to success in Fantasy NASCAR is planning ahead. The final off-weekend on the NASCAR Cup schedule gives NASCAR America Fantasy Live players a chance to look back at the season and forward for the playoffs.

The final two races of the regular season each stand alone. There is no true comparative track to Darlington. While Indy favors drivers who were strong at Pocono, it marks the final 2.5-mile flat track race and cannot be used to help handicap any future race of 2018.

Two track types will dominate the playoffs. Three races will be contested on short, flat courses measuring a mile or less in length with three more on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks. Homestead is also 1.5 miles in length, but it lacks the dogleg or double dogleg configuration of Las Vegas (Round 1), Kansas (Round 2) and Texas (Round 3).

Short, flat tracks are represented by Richmond in Round 1 plus Martinsville and Phoenix in Round 3.

Those are the two track types that must be dominated in order to have an opportunity to advance through the elimination system and get to the finale.

There are two wild card races this year. The Roval at Charlotte and the restrictor-plate race at Talladega will play a significant role in who survives, but the eight drivers who survive into Round 3 are going to be the cream of the crop.

A driver’s overall ranking is a combination of their rank on 1.5-mile tracks and flat tracks measuring less than one mile in length (based on their average finish on those track types).

1. Kyle Busch (1.5-mile avg. rank: 1; Short, flat avg. rank: 1)
Busch has not been perfect in 2018. Last week’s race at Bristol proved as much when he was involved in three separate incidents, all of which could have been avoided with a little more patience. The fact remains that he has been perfect on the two track types that dominate the playoffs with three of his six wins coming on 1.5-mile tracks and another on a short, flat track.

2. Kevin Harvick (1.5-mile avg. rank: 2; Short, flat avg. rank: 2)
Harvick and Busch have been door-to-door for most of 2018. Victories at Phoenix and New Hampshire, plus another three on 1.5-mile tracks means that he will most likely advance to each round with a win. The only time he’s finished outside the top 10 on either of these two track types was when he cut a tire in the Coke 600.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (1.5-mile avg. rank: 3; Short, flat avg. rank: 4)
If Truex does not make it to Homestead with an opportunity to win the championship, it is going to be because of a mistake. In April, he sustained crash damage at Texas. He had trouble in the pits later that same month at Richmond, but those are the only times he has finished outside the top five all season at these types of tracks examined.

4. Joey Logano (1.5-mile avg. rank: 4; Short, flat avg. rank: 6)
Logano’s potential path to the Championship 4 will lie in consistency. In 11 races on 1.5-milers and short, flat tracks 1-mile or less in length, he has only two top fives but has finished outside the top 10 only twice. With an 11.5 career average, Richmond is his second-best track and that venue should provide him with and easy way through Round 1.

5. Denny Hamlin (1.5-mile avg. rank: 9; Short, flat avg. rank: 5)
Hamlin is going to be hard to predict. In 11 races run on 1.5-milers and short, flat tracks, he has finished outside the top 10 five times and in the top five on five occasions. He has not yet won. In fact, one of the tracks on which he should have dominated ended with a crash-induced 12th-place finish at Martinsville. If he makes it to Round 3, he has a good shot at advancing to Homestead – if he can beat Chase Elliott.

6. Chase Elliott (1.5-mile avg. rank: 12; Short, flat avg. rank: 3)
The good news is that if Elliott makes it to Round 3, he has great odds of being the fourth driver in the championship. He finished third in the spring race at Phoenix, was ninth at Martinsville, second at Richmond and fifth at New Hampshire. First, he will have to survive the wild card races and the 1.5-mile tracks where he has only the 12th-best average finish and only one top 10 in 2018.

7. Kurt Busch (1.5-mile avg. rank: 10; Short, flat avg. rank: 7)
Busch will easily advance out of Round 1 of the playoffs on points. He has shown consistency all season and the appropriate amount of power when necessary. In 11 races on the two track types that will dominate the playoffs, he has finished between sixth and 11th nine times. Like most of the field, his biggest challenge will come on the wild card road course and plate track.

8. Erik Jones (1.5-mile avg. rank: 4; Short, flat avg. rank: 14)
Jones is peaking at the right time. His last 10 races have ended in results of 16th or better including his Daytona victory and top fives at Pocono, Watkins Glen, and Bristol. And while notes from those courses won’t help him much in the playoffs, his average finish of 8.86 on 1.5-mile tracks ties him with Logano for fourth best. He will need to keep his composure, but that has not been difficult for the sophomore driver this year.

9. Kyle Larson (1.5-mile avg. rank: 6; Short, flat avg. rank: 13)
The Big 3 have skewed the numbers so much in 2018 that Larson’s record does not look impressive enough to make him a sure thing. In all likelihood, the other 13 drivers in the playoffs will battle for a single spot alongside Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and Larson needs more top five finishes to his credit than the three he’s scored to make him a favorite.

10. Clint Bowyer (1.5-mile avg. rank: 8; Short, flat avg. rank: 12)
Bowyer sustained crash damage at New Hampshire and failed to finish. That was one of only two times in 11 races on the 1.5-milers and short, flat tracks that he did not finish among the top 15. His victory this spring at Martinsville and a sixth at Phoenix makes him one of the more interesting choices on flat tracks in the playoffs.

11. Aric Almirola (1.5-mile avg. rank: 12; Short, flat avg. rank: 8)
Almirola lacks the overall performance to make him a good place-and-hold fantasy pick. He has been consistent most of the year on the two track types that will make up the majority of the playoff schedule, but with only one top five to his credit, it is unlikely that he will survive to Round 3.

12. Brad Keselowski (1.5-mile avg. rank: 6; Short, flat avg. rank: 17)
Keselowski’s rankings of seventh on the 1.5-mile tracks and 17th on short, flat courses are both marred by a bad finish. He failed to finish at Texas this spring and was slowed by a crash at New Hampshire last month. He finished in the low 30s both times. Otherwise, he has swept the top 15 on these two track types.

13. Ryan Blaney (1.5-mile avg. rank: 14; Short, flat avg. rank: 10)
Like his teammate Keselowski, Blaney’s numbers can be a little confusing. He suffered through a spate of misfortune in April and May that resulted in sub-20th-place results at Richmond, Kansas, and Charlotte. Blaney’s saving grace is that three results on 1.5-mile tracks landed in the top five, including a second at Kentucky and fifth place finishes at Las Vegas and Texas – two tracks that host playoff races.

14. Jimmie Johnson (1.5-mile avg. rank: 17; Short, flat avg. rank: 9)
Fantasy owners are in uncharted waters regarding Johnson. In the past, he has been able to flip a switch when the playoffs rolled around. It didn’t seem that any lack of momentum from the regular season affected him in the final 10 races – but he’s never suffered quite as badly as in 2018. The good news is that his last four attempts on the most relevant track types have all ended in top 15 finishes.

15. Alex Bowman (1.5-mile avg. rank: 19; Short, flat avg. rank: 11)
Bowman’s ability to advance out of Round 1 of the playoffs will most likely depend on the adversity of other drivers. If four competitors sustain damage in the first two races or if the Charlotte Roval has a lot of mayhem, Bowman’s consistent top-20 results will propel him forward. It’s unlikely that he can earn enough points to be part of the top eight, however.

16. Austin Dillon (1.5-mile avg. rank: 27; Short, flat avg. rank: 19)
In past seasons, the drivers in most jeopardy of being one of the first four eliminated are those with wins on wild card tracks. Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory locked him into the playoffs, but he has scored only one more top five and two other top 10s in the last 23 races.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Through the first 24 races of the season, Truex has earned the most poles. He’s earned the top spot four times and led the Martinsville field to green on another occasion when qualification was canceled. Most of these came at the beginning of the season, however. Joe Gibbs Racing has had the most recent success with Hamlin and Daniel Suarez winning three of the last four poles.

Segment Winners: Like everything else this season, segment wins have been dominated by the Big 3. Harvick has 12 segment wins, Truex has seven and Busch has six. Blaney (five segment wins) and Keselowski (four) are the closest competitors among the rest of the field. Bowyer has earned the most segment points (171) without winning a stage.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR’s West Coast swing continues this weekend with a visit to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be in action, with the weekend capped off by Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

For Friday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain.

For the start of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the forecast is for sunny skies and a high of 70 degrees.

On Sunday, the forecast for the start of the Cup race is cloudy skies, a high of 54 and a 39% of rain.

Here’s the full weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Feb. 28

Noon – 10 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (FS1)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

5:02 – 5:27 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, Feb. 29

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

1:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief introductions

2:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Production Alliance Group 300; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 1

11:30 a.m. – Cup garage opens

1:30 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Auto Club 400; 200 laps/400 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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