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.

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