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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Las Vegas in last three seasons

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NASCAR Fantasy Live will undergo some changes with the playoffs. Leagues will reset and with only 10 races remaining in the season, players do not need to worry about maximum usage.

The biggest curveball is that players must maintain a balance between the number of playoff contending drivers and those outside that mark. In the Round 1 of the playoffs, the challenge is going to be in finding the right two non-playoff contenders to compliment the favorites.

This week, in addition to the 10-best drivers based on their three-year average finishes, a couple of notable non-playoff drivers have been added to the bottom on the list. That should help set the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster.

Since it first appeared on the NASCAR Cup schedule in 1998, Las Vegas has hosted 21 races in early spring. There have been a few warm days in the mix, but nothing like the triple digit forecast that is expected for this week’s South Point 400. For all intents and purposes, this will behave like a brand new racetrack and players can toss their notebook out the window.

1. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 4.00) Playoff
Keselowski is hitting his stride at the right time. Back-to-back marquee wins in the Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 gives him momentum entering the playoffs. Most importantly, Vegas is a track on which he’s won two of the last five races and where he has a current six-race streak of finishes seventh or better.

2. Joey Logano (three-year average: 4.33) Playoff
One good gauge of a team’s strength is when they have multiple drivers at the top of the average finish chart. Logano joins Keselowski with Ryan Blaney in fourth. The Penske Pals need to get off to a strong start on the 1.5-mile course to insure they do not have to worry about the Charlotte Roval that will close out Round 1.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 5.33) Playoff
With the announcement that the No. 78 will shut down at the end of 2018 and a last-place finish in the regular season finale, people have been quick to discount Truex’s odds of continuing as part of the Big 3. The only way to quiet the critics is to challenge for the South Point 400 win and score a top-five finish.

4. Ryan Blaney (three-year average: 6.00) Playoff
Blaney enters the weekend with three consecutive top 10s at Vegas. A sixth in 2016 and seventh in 2017 says a lot about his ability to find the handle on this track quickly. He finished ahead of his two Penske teammates this spring and they should all be in contention again.

5. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 8.67) Playoff
About the best thing Johnson could say about making the playoffs in 2018 was that he was happy to be the only driver to have accomplished the feat every year since its inception. That is not a glowing recommendation for fantasy owners to place him on their roster. Neither is the fact that he has gone winless as a playoff contender in three of the last four years.

6. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 9.33) Playoff
Kyle Busch is aware that the Big 3 have become a little quiet in recent weeks and that it’s time to make some noise. No one is better suited to do so on 1.5-mile tracks. He is the only driver to sweep the top 10 on them in seven races this year with victories at Texas, Charlotte and Chicagoland.

7. Erik Jones (three-year average: 11.50 in two starts) Playoff
Jones is currently one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. He has a three-race, top-10 streak and finished that well in nine of the last 11 races. When he misses, it is not by much with a worst result of 16th in that span. This is his first time in the playoffs and that could be his Achilles’ Heel. He deserves notice based on his record.

8. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 13.00) Playoff
If not for an accident in 2016, Larson would probably enter this weekend with one of the best average finishes at Vegas and a four-race streak of top 10s. Ignore his 34th-place finish from that season and concentrate on back-to-back top threes. Larson is going to earn major points this week.

9. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 13.67) Non-Playoff
A surge in the final regular season races gave Newman fans hope that he would make the playoffs with a win at either Darlington or Indy. That did not happen, but a seven-race streak of top-20 finishes elevated him to 17th in the standings. With pressure off his shoulders, Newman could thrive in the role of spoiler to the playoff contenders in the next 10 weeks.

10. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 14.00) Playoff
Hamlin makes this week’s top 10 with a modest average of 14th. This is a track on which he has been hit or miss during his career with only three top 10s in his last 10 Vegas races. None of those have come in back-to-back attempts. In the past five years, he has alternated a single-digit result with one outside the top 10 and if that pattern holds, he should be in good shape this week.

Other Notable non-Playoff Drivers

11. Paul Menard (three-year average: 14.33) Non-Playoff
Menard was the only driver to finish in the top 10 this spring at Vegas who failed to make the playoffs. His ninth-place finish in that race was the fourth time in the last seven Vegas races that he scored a top 10 and it’s part of a nine-race streak of top 20s.

15. Trevor Bayne (three-year average: 16.67) Non-Playoff
Bayne is back behind the wheel of the No. 6 this week. It marks only his second attempt on a 1.5-mile track since he began sharing the ride with Matt Kenseth. His last attempt on this course type was inauspicious with a 26th at Chicagoland. With this week’s announcement that he will not return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019, he has limited opportunities to showcase his talent.

17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (three-year average: 19.67) Non-Playoff
In the past several weeks, the No. 17 has scored inconsistent results as they went for broke trying to make the playoffs. Now that they are on the outside looking in, they can focus on trying to find some consistency as preparations for 2019 begin.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Blaney won the pole this spring at Vegas; Keselowski earned it last year. With the momentum being gained by Team Penske in the past few weeks, they will ride that wave and one of their three drivers will lead the field to green.

Segment Winners: Last year, Truex won both segments of the Las Vegas race on his way to victory lane. This year, Kevin Harvick did the same thing, which allowed both drivers to earn maximum points in the game. The odds of that happening a third time are relatively low with volatile track conditions, but fantasy players will want to pick one of the Big 3 based on their practice speeds.

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

Cup regular-season finale: What’s at stake at Indy

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — With the final regular-season race for the Cup Series at Indianapolis, here’s a look at what is at stake:

PLAYOFF PICTURE

Fourteen of the 16 playoff spots have been filled. Already securing playoff spots are Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola.

Jimmie Johnson (605 points) and Alex Bowman (19 points behind Johnson) hold the final two playoff spots. If a playoff driver wins, both Johnson and Bowman make it.

If there is a first-time winner, then that person will knock either Johnson or Bowman — whoever has the fewest points — out of the playoffs.

It’s a pretty vulnerable spot coming to Indy with three guys (Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard) who have won here behind you in points that haven’t won yet, but you know, I think we can get the job done just as good as they can,” said Bowman, seeking his first playoff spot.

Among those trying to race their way in with a victory is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was in the playoffs last year.

“It’s clear-cut what we’ve got to do, so throughout the race we’re not really worried about each stage,” Stenhouse said. “We’re only worried about setting ourselves up for the end of the race because that’s all that really matters for us in this particular race.”

REGULAR-SEASON TITLE

Kyle Busch has a 39-point lead over Kevin Harvick for the regular-season title. No one else can overtake Busch.

Last year was the first time since the elimination format was created in 2014 that the regular-season won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. accomplished the feat.

“Being the regular-season champion … that’s kind of what we set out to do after about week eight or nine,” Kyle Busch said. “Earlier on in the season, we had a rough start to kind of fire off with Daytona not being so great and some other races not being so great. Once we got to the lead and … we started winning some races, then it kind of became a reality and that’s what we set our (goal) for the rest of the regular season. Hopefully we can see that through.”

The winner of the regular season collects 15 playoff points. Second place in the regular gets 10 playoff points, third gets eight playoff points and on down to 10th place in the regular-season standings getting one playoff point.

Drivers will face a challenge that they’ve never experienced in Cup

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Regan Smith was on a golf course Thursday afternoon when he got the call asking him to fill in this weekend for Kasey Kahne at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Smith will climb into the No. 95 car having run no laps in it after both practices and qualifying were rained out this weekend — marking the first time in at least 15 years (and possibly much longer, veteran observers say) that a Cup race will be run without any practice or qualifying.

That it comes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track known be tough on tires, makes the task all the more daunting for every driver, let alone Smith, who last raced in June 2017.

“Is this a pep talk?” Smith joked. “Is this your idea of a pep talk because I’m not feeling this is a pep talk.”

Smith understands what he faces.

“When I looked at the weather forecast after I committed to it, that’s when I said ‘oh …,” he said, realizing the chances that his first lap in a car in more than a year would be when the green flag waved. “It is a challenging situation and the weather is going to add to that.”

It will be a challenge for everyone.

Alex Bowman last raced at this track in 2015 and comes into the regular-season finale holding the last playoff spot. If there is a new winner, he could be bumped out of the playoffs.

But he has a bigger concern, at least early in the race.

From my point of view, I haven’t been here in so long that I’m just trying to put four corners together and not mess up,” said Bowman, who last drove on the track last year in a test.

Racing Insights confirmed that there has never been a Cup race run without a practice since at least 2003. Records about practice sessions are incomplete before then but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s been much longer, meaning that no starter in today’s race likely has ever faced this situation in Cup.

Kurt Busch said he would like to have a warm-up session before the race to “shake the cars down and literally park them on pit road, have an hour or so break and go race.”

The forecast likely won’t allow for that. There is a 74 percent chance of rain up to 7 a.m. and then it falls to between 40-54 percent to the scheduled 1p.m. ET start.

Some drivers expect NASCAR to call at least two competition cautions for today’s race on NBCSN. Jamie McMurray suggested a competition caution at Lap 10 and another at Lap 25 for the 160-lap race. NASCAR has not announced when it will have a competition caution or how many it will have for this race.

The issue is that this track takes time to rubber in, meaning that the first set of tires wears quickly and can get to the cords in a short time. Once the track takes rubber, the tire wear improves significantly.

“You spend your first set of tires just laying rubber down,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s pretty much it. You’ve got to count on everybody laying rubber down on their first set of tires. After that, you can pretty much start to learn what you got going on.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who must win this race to make the playoffs, said he hopes the lack of practice time actually helps his team.

“I always tend to feel like sometimes we’re better off just if we lined them up and raced, so I’m OK with doing that,” he said.

Cup drivers won’t have to worry about history repeating next week. The forecast for next weekend’s playoff-opening race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway calls for sunny skies and a high of 102 degrees.

Friday 5: Furniture Row Racing’s demise is a fate others know too well

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — The names have changed but the stories haven’t when it comes to the tale of Furniture Row Racing and all the teams before it that faded away.

The concern about costs, the dependence on sponsorship and the volatility of it all is not something that is new to NASCAR (or even motorsports). That those issues contributed to Furniture Row Racing announcing this week that it would cease operations after this season only added that team to a long list. That Furniture Row Racing won the Cup championship last year only makes the story more powerful.

But not unique.

Go back in time and look at what other car owners were saying and how their concerns were repeated.

In 1999, Ricky Rudd closed his race shop and sold his cars and equipment at auction because he was unable to find a sponsor to continue a team that had won six races in six seasons, including the 1997 Brickyard 400.

Rudd told motorsport.com the day of the auction: “I’ll probably get a little sad when I see those race cars loaded up on trucks and rolled away. That’ll bother me a little. The hardest day was the day before I signed with (Robert) Yates. I walked into the shop and told the guys that the sponsorship deal wasn’t working out, and that I was sorry but I was gonna do something else next year.”

In 2007, Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged during the season because Ginn needed help after it was unable to find funding for two of its three cars. Car owner Bobby Ginn explained to The Associated Press that had he not merged: “We would have had to continue to cut costs, and that is disgraceful to me. I am proud of the merger. I would not have been proud of putting a car out there that couldn’t compete.”

Ginn went on to say: “Even if the sponsors had come in, we probably would be talking about something like this anyway. This is just going to be the way teams operate going forward, and we needed to be invited to the party before it was too late.”

In 2009, Bill Davis Racing — a team that won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton — was sold after what The Associated Press described as a “fruitless search for sponsorship.”

In 2013, car owner James Finch sold Phoenix Racing to HScott Racing. Finch told NASCAR.com at the time: “I’ll come to races and all. I just wasn’t going to go broke doing it. Sponsorships are really tough to come by and stuff like that.” HScott Racing announced in December 2016 that it would not field a team, citing lack of sponsorship as a reason.

In 2015, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season. Clint Bowyer was a playoff team for that organization that year.

The organization was a three-car team in 2013 but then lost sponsor NAPA after the season in response to the Richmond scandal that year when NASCAR penalized MWR for team orders in the final regular-season race of the year and removed Truex from the playoffs.

Last month, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing to Front Row Motorsports. Court documents showed that BK Racing, which struggled to find sponsorship, lost $29.5 million from 2014-16. The team also owed a bank more than $9 million in unpaid loans and the IRS more than $2.5 million.

“It’s a tough business,” Devine said in February at Daytona when asked why he never aligned with another team to help defray costs. “I think it’s an expensive learning curve. I also think … you’ve got to decide where you are taking the company and I took it down a very independent route, which probably wasn’t the smartest (thing).”

Just in recent years, the sport has seen Richard Childress Racing contract from three to two teams and Roush Fenway Racing, which had five full-time teams in 2009 downsize to four teams in 2010, three teams in 2012 and two teams in 2017.

Furniture Row Racing cut from two teams to one this season and then suffered a fatal blow when 5-hour Energy announced in July it would not remain in the sport after this year. It is to serve as a co-primary sponsor for 30 races this year. Forget that the 2019 Daytona 500 is 164 days away, the need to have sponsorship secured for next year had already passed for Furniture Row Racing.

Although their lifespan may be recalled more often by fans, its demise falls in line with what has happened to many teams through the years.

2. Similar refrain

This is becoming too familiar for Martin Truex Jr.

For the second time in his career, an organization shut down with him as a driver. Two other times, an organization Truex drove for merged to remain in the sport.

In 2007, Truex was with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when it merged with Ginn Racing, creating a four-car operation. Then that organization later merged with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Truex then left for Michael Waltrip Racing only to see his ride disappear after the 2013 season when NAPA left the team. The fallout was from the Richmond team orders scandal NASCAR penalized MWR. Now, Truex will be heading elsewhere after Furniture Row Racing closes shop after this season.

3. What’s next?

One of the things to watch for with Furniture Row Racing is who buys its charter.

The value of a charter, just like anything, is based on what someone is willing to pay. If there’s only one interested party, the price won’t be as high. If there are more, that can raise the price.

Don’t take what the BK Racing charter (and team) sold for in bankruptcy court last month as an indicator. The team, including the charter, sold for $2 million last month. After a minimum price was set for the charter and team, there was only one bid, leading to a sale that many in the court called disappointing.

One thing that should make Furniture Row’s charter is its recent performance. There’s a historical element to charters that have weighted payments based on the performance of the team that held that charter. With Furniture Row Racing’s championship last year, this charter will have a larger payment to the next owner.

4. Unique attraction

The NASCAR weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with a USAC National Midget race on Thursday night.

A quarter-mile dirt track was built inside Turn 3 and more than 100 USAC midgets entered the event.

Holding races leading up to a NASCAR weekend is not a new thing but showing this dirt track series is. With a push toward grassroots racing, such options could be good tie-ins with race weekends — as long as fans show up. If fans don’t attend, they won’t happen.

The grandstand was full for the midget race, which was won by Brady Bacon and saw Christopher Bell finish fifth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. place 11th.

Many fans were already looking forward to this event returning next year.

5. Special promotion

You might have missed it but Pocono Raceway announced this week that children 12 and under will receive free gate admission while accompanied by an adult to its two Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2019.

Children 12 and under already could attend NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity races for free but this is a step up for the sport.

It provides another avenue to reach out to a younger generation with the hope that those in that group become life-long NASCAR fans.

Admittedly, it’s not something that can be done everywhere. Watkins Glen sold out its grandstands again this year. Darlington Raceway did not announce a sellout for last weekend’s Southern 500 but the stands were close to capacity.

At other tracks where there are open seats, it might be something to consider in the future even if only on a year-to-year basis.

Could be the start of something for Cup races.

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Who is Hot and who is Not heading to Indianapolis

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The Cup regular season comes to an end this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Several drivers head into the race on hot streaks, while many others are not. A look at those who are hot and those who are not as provided by Racing Insights:

HOT

Brad Keselowski

• Won at Darlington (5th in Stage 1, 2nd in Stage 2, 24 laps led)

• Ended a 29-race winless streak

• Finished in Top 2 in 2 of last 3 races

• Finished in Top 10 in 2 of last 3 Indianapolis races, including runner-up in 2017

• Top 10s in 4 of 8 career starts at Indianapolis

Kevin Harvick

• Finished 4th at Darlington (6th in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2);

• Won 7 of last 24 races

• Finished in Top 5 in 9 of last 12 races

• Finished in Top 10 in 7 straight races and 11 of last 12

• 25 races in 2018: 21 finishes of 10th or better (including 7 wins) & 4 finishes of 19th or worse

• Finished 8th or better in 4 straight Indianapolis races

• 11 Top 10s in 17 career Indianapolis starts

Chase Elliott

• Finished 5th at Darlington (10th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2)

• Finished 9th or better in 6 straight races (first time since 2016)

• Tied his career best streak of top 10s (6 races)

• Finished in Top 10 in 9 of last 12 races

• Never finished better than 15th in 3 career Indianapolis starts

Kyle Busch

• Finished 7th at Darlington (9th in Stage 1, 8th in Stage 2)

• Won 6 of last 19 races

• Finished in Top 5 in 10 of last 13 races

• Finished in the Top 10 in 12 of last 14 races

• Finished in the Top 5 in 17 of 25 races this season

• Finished in Top 10 in 7 of last 8 Indianapolis races, including back-to-back wins in 2015 & 2016

Erik Jones

• Finished 8th at Darlington (2nd in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2); penalized for uncontrolled tire on lap 103 while running 2nd

• Finished 8th or better in 8 of last 10 races

• Started 9th, (12th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, 10 laps led) finished 31st at Indy one year ago, his only career start there; DNF – collected by #14 in incident on lap 150

Joey Logano

• Finished 2nd at Darlington (4th in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2, 18 laps led)

• Finished in Top 10 in 3 straight races and 5 of last 7

• Finished 8th or better in 5 straight Indianapolis races

• Top 5 in three of the last four Indianapolis races

• Finished 6th at Darlington (8th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2)

• Finished top 10 in 7 straight races

• Finished 14th or worse in 6 of last 7 Indianapolis races

• Finished outside Top 10 in 11 of last 13 Indianapolis races

Kyle Larson

• Finished 3rd at Darlington (1st in Stage 1, 1st in Stage 2, 284 laps led)

• Finished 6th or better in 3 of last 4 races

• Finished top-10 in 3 of 4 career Indianapolis starts

NOT HOT

Austin Dillon

Finished 16th at Darlington (13th in Stage 1, 15th in Stage 2); penalized for uncontrolled tire on lap 247

Finished 13th or worse in 6 of last 7 races

Only two top 10s in the last 20 races of 2018

Finished outside Top 10 in 21 of 24 races since Daytona 500 win

5 career starts at Indianapolis: 2 Top 10s & 3 finishes of 21st or worse

Matt Kenseth

• Finished 25th at Darlington (21st in Stage 1, 23rd in Stage 2)

• Finished 13th or worse in 9 starts in 2018 (22.8 avg. finish)

• Finished 7th or better in 5 straight Indianapolis races and 6 of the last 7

• Top 10s in 12 of 18 career Indianapolis starts

• Top-10 finishes in the last five Indianapolis races, tied for the longest active streak at the track

Aric Almirola

• Finished 14th at Darlington (17th in Stage 1, 18th in Stage 2)

• Finished 14th or worse in 4 of last 5 races and 6 of last 9

• Never finished better than 13th in 6 career Indianapolis starts

Clint Bowyer

Finished 36th at Darlington (11th in Stage 1, 12th in Stage 2); DNF – pit on lap 146 with a loose wheel while running 7th; wreck with #31 on lap 312 while running 12th

Finished 11th or worse in 7 of last 8 races

Finished 13th or worse in 6 of last 7 Indianapolis races

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

• Finished 12th at Darlington (27th in Stage 1, 17th in Stage 2)

• Finished outside the top 10 in 14 of last 15 races

• Finished 14th or worse in 20 of 25 races in 2018

• Never finished better than 12th in 5 career Indianapolis starts

Daniel Suarez

• Finished 29th at Darlington (22nd in Stage 1, 22nd in Stage 2); lost a tire on lap 223 while running 21st • Finished outside the top-10 3 straight races

• Started 15th, 15th in Stage 1, 15th in Stage 2, finished 7th in this race one year ago, his only career start at Indianapolis

Ryan Newman

Finished 19th at Darlington (12th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2); wrecked with #14 on lap 312 while running 6th

Finished 12th or worse in 4 straight races

Last 6 Indianapolis races: 3 finishes of 7th or better & 3 finishes of 11th or worse

Jimmie Johnson

Finished 39th at Darlington (31st in Stage 1, 26th in Stage 2); DNF – started in the rear due to unapproved adjustments pre-race; pit on lap 63 due to loose wheel and received commitment line violation while coming to pit road; went to the garage on lap 231 with oil pump issue

Finished 28th or worse in 3 of last 4 races

Finished outside the top 10 in 9 of last 11 races

Currently on a 48-race winless streak (longest of career)

Last 6 Indianapolis races: 3 top 3s including 2012 win & 3 finishes of 14th or worse

Martin Truex Jr.

Finished 11th at Darlington (3rd in Stage 1, 16th in Stage 2, 30 laps led); pit from 16th on lap 284 due to a loose wheel

Finished outside Top 10 in 3 straight races and 4 of the last 5

Won 3 of last 12 races

Finished in the Top 5 in 10 of last 15 races

Three top 10s in the last six Indianapolis races