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Getting to Victory Lane
1. Denny Hamlin literally went from worst to first in the course of a week. After winning the pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway, an engine failure left him in last place. Returning to Richmond International Raceway was just what Hamlin needed to head into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a lot of momentum. Not only that, his sixth win of the season yields the top seed for NASCAR's postseason. Owners in allocation formats will want to wisely plan their remaining Hamlin starts during the Chase, which is loaded with tracks where he's been successful. In last year's Chase kickoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Hamlin finished as the runner-up. Earlier this season at Dover International Speedway, he matched a career-best finish of fourth. At Kansas Speedway, Hamlin finished a career-high fifth in the 2009 Chase. In addition to two straight victories at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin has won the most recent events at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2. Kyle Busch qualified 32nd, but quickly began to drive through the field. Busch now owns three straight Top Fives, including a win at Bristol Motor Speedway. In the closing moments of the race, Busch appeared ready to challenge his teammate until excessive wear in his rear tires caused him to back off. Over his career, the younger Busch brother has at least one win at half of the Chase sites, including a May victory at Dover earlier this season. Rowdy nearly chased down his teammate on this night. In the next two months, Busch will have several other chances to do so with a championship on the line.
3. Jimmie Johnson continues to show the field that he won't let his title go without a very tough fight. At Richmond, Johnson was one of four drivers to spend the entire race running in the Top 15. His Average Running Position of third was tied for the best of the race. If you have saving Johnson for the Chase, the nervousness that has been building over the last several weeks is finally over. After seven races without a Top Five, Johnson has finished third in two straight starts. During that stretch of nine races, Johnson led at least one lap in all but one start. The bad luck and misfortune that has masked Johnson's true performance has been lifted. Start the defending champ with total confidence.
4. Joey Logano qualified sixth, but was running mid-pack during the middle portion of the race. Logano held an ARP of 11th and spent 66.8 percent of the race running in the Top 15, the worst percentage among the Top 10 finishers. It's been a struggle at times for Logano during his second full season on the Cup level. Still, the postseason offers a great opportunity to end things on a strong note. Earlier this season, he had Top Fives at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. Logano also added Top 10s at Loudon, Dover and Phoenix International Raceway. In addition to good runs at those upcoming Chase venues, Logano had Top Fives at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway during last year's Chase.
From the spotter's tower
Marcos Ambrose needed the entire regular season to do it, but he finally recorded Top 10s in back-to-back races. At Richmond, the Australian spent 100 percent of his laps running in the Top 15, the first time he's ever done so on an oval. The Chase schedule is decent for Ambrose. Earlier this season, he finished 13th at Loudon and 11th at both Martinsville and Phoenix.
Clint Bowyer refused to put his Chase spot in jeopardy and had a great performance. In addition to finishing sixth and leading 33 laps, his ARP of third was tied with Johnson for the best of the race. In last year's Chase, Bowyer had five Top 10s and eight Top 15s. His worst finish came at his home track in Kansas, but don't expect him to struggle there again this year. Bowyer owns an average finish of 11.0 in four career starts at the site.
Juan Pablo Montoya is riding a season-high streak of five consecutive Top 10 finishes as he heads into the Chase. Despite not qualifying for the postseason, owners looking for a great value will want to keep Montoya in mind over the next several weeks. The Columbian opened last year's Chase on fire with four straight Top Fives. Over the last seven starts, Montoya started on the front row three times and no worse than eighth. Without any pressure, look for JPM to play the part of spoiler and show the field he'll be back stronger in 2011.
The starting grid
Despite being the leader in just about any Loop Data statistic you could think of at Richmond, Hamlin was just third in owners hip (29.41 percent) among A-List Drivers in the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing game. Perhaps the blown engine at Atlanta had something to do with it, but his teammate Busch was tops in ownership (44.78). Montoya continues to provide a terrific value. He was dead last in ownership (5.02), but rewarded faithful owners with the third most Fantasy points. On the B-List, Ambrose (7.98 percent) was 12th in ownership and third in performance. As previously mentioned, the Tasmanian has some intriguing matchups in the Chase. While he is ending his time at JTG Daugherty Racing better than most thought, Ambrose is a risky option best left for the only the most desperate of owners.
A.J. Allmendinger (38.83) was first in performance among C-List drivers, despite sliding to third in ownership. The rest of this tier struggled mightily at RIR. Casey Mears (4.14) finished 21st but that was good enough for second in performance. The dip in ownership is likely due to owners burning through Allmendinger starts or saving him for the Chase. In any event, he's head and shoulders above the other drivers in this group. Carefully spending Allmendinger's remaining starts will be huge for securing a Fantasy championship in this format.
Jeff Gordon finished 12th with an ARP of 19th, while only spending 14 percent of the race running in the Top 15. Among drivers that finished 18th or better, Gordon was the worst in both statistics. After finishing the May race at Richmond as the runner-up, much was expected of Gordon. Yet he was never a factor and begins the Chase without a win and without a Top Five in seven straight starts. Lacking much momentum, Gordon's expectations for the Chase are in serious decline.
Carl Edwards finished 10th with an ARP of seventh. Starting from the pole, he was one of only four drivers to spend the entire race running in the Top 15. Over the last nine starts, Edwards has two poles and no finishes worse than 12th. After leading a total of six laps in the first 24 races of the season, Edwards led 32 laps at Atlanta and 95 more at Richmond. Since recording a season-high nine victories in 2008, Edwards has kept coming up empty. The long wait to park in Victory Lane again could be coming to an end any week now.
Matt Kenseth finished 14th with an ARP of 10th and spent 99 percent of laps in the Top 15. All other drivers that were over 90 percent finished in the Top 10. Mediocre runs like this have been Kenseth's calling card for months. He's been an overvalued option for much of that stretch and offers minimal upside during the Chase.
Around the corner
The Chase will start Sunday afternoon from the flat, mile-long track at Loudon, N.H.
*All stats up-to-date as of 9/12.
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