Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Ford 400 Fantasy Preview
By Bryan Van Stippen
The final week of the season is upon us and Matt Kenseth has already clinched the points championship, locking up the title last weekend in North Carolina. But for fantasy owners, there are still plenty of reasons to tune in to the race at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway. And even the real drivers have reason to race hard, as the 167-point differential between second-place Jimmie Johnson and sixth-place Kevin Harvick represents millions of dollars - not to mention pride.
Homestead recently altered the track, changing the corners from a meager six degrees to 20 degrees. The banking will increase progressively from the bottom to the top of each turn, which is designed to create three competitive racing grooves around the track. There has been testing of the new track configuration, and it has gotten a nod of approval from the drivers. Some drivers will have an advantage on the superspeedway, but anything can happen with the new look.
Homestead has held just four Winston Cup races, and Jeff Burton has been the dominant driver in the track's short history. Although he has not won, he has three finishes in the top 5 and has not finished worse than 11th. His fifth-place average finish is best among all drivers. Burton has been streaky in the second half of the season, posting 10 finishes in the top 15 and four finishes outside the top 30. He has been more consistent in the last four races, with three top 10s. Look for Burton to finish the year strong, racing near the front this weekend.
Tony Stewart dominated this track the first few years, winning the inaugural race in 1999 and repeating the victory in 2000. He is the only driver to have won multiple times here but has had problems the last two years, finishing 19th and 18th, respectively. He has been tough over the past eight races, posting a win at Charlotte to go with six other top 10s and finishing no worse than 18th place. Last season, Stewart was racing for the championship and may have played it safe, which could account for his poor performance. With nothing to lose this time around, expect him to contend for the win.
Bill Elliott has yet to make a decision about next season but he may decide to race a full schedule in 2004 with the way he has been running lately. Elliott got his first win of the season last weekend in North Carolina and has finished no worse than 14th in the last nine races. He has five top 5s in that span, after having just four in the previous 26 races. Elliott is one of just three drivers to win here (2001) and has posted back-to-back top 10 finishes. Elliott is on pace for his first top 10 points finish since 1997 and could move into the No. 8 spot with a solid effort on Sunday.
There have been streaks of top-5 runs for several drivers this year, and Jimmie Johnson is currently on one of those streaks. He has finished in the top 10 in each of the last six races, but even more impressively, he has finished either second or third in the last five events. Johnson hasn't won during the streak but has moved into second place in the points race. Johnson has one top 10 run in two starts at Homestead. With the way Johnson has been running lately, he will be up front at the end of the day.
Chasing Johnson for the second spot are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, and Jeff Gordon. Of these three drivers, only Earnhardt Jr. has not finished in the top 10 at Homestead. His best finish was 13th in his rookie season (2000). His finishes have gotten progressively worse, from 15th in 2001 to 21st in 2002. Can Earnhardt Jr. can change his fortunes? Working in his favor, he has not finished worse than 13th in the last five races of this season.
In one career race here, Newman posted a sixth-place finish. Newman has been ridiculous recently with three consecutive poles - he is the series leader with 11 - and has finished in the top 10 in nine of the last 10 races. Not to mention that he won three of those races and leads the series with eight wins. The longest stretch Newman has gone this season without winning a race has been six races, and that was to start the season. Take note that this will mark the sixth race since his last win. Newman is building on his success for a run at the championship next season, and there would be no better way than to end the 2003 season than with another trip to victory lane.
The final contender capable of passing Johnson in the standings is Jeff Gordon -- his car owner. Gordon has put together a great streak himself, with seven finishes of seventh or better in the last eight races. He ran well last week before falling victim to a caution flag during green-flag pit stops. Gordon has three top 10s here but has not finished higher than fifth for an average finish of 12th. Gordon will need help to surpass Johnson but does not want to see his protégé finish ahead of him in the point standings.
It was a good thing that Kenseth locked the title up last weekend, because he has had plenty of problems here. In three career races, Kenseth has never finished in the top 20. Last year he was the only Roush driver not to finish in the top five, losing an engine midway through the race.
Ricky Craven has faired little better than Kenseth. Craven missed the event in 2000 and has finished no better than 24th. His 29th-place average finish ties Kenseth for the worst among the regulars.
Michael Waltrip was hunting for the first top 10 points finish of his career but saw his quest end after losing three engines in the last four races. He has not had engine problems here but rather troubles staying in one piece. Waltrip has finished multiple laps down in three of the last four races here. In the only race in which he was able to keep the car in one piece, he posted a second-place run. But Waltrip is likely to finish the year on a sour note given his recent struggles and historical record at this track.
Looking for a dark horse to have a top finish? Try Joe Nemechek. Nemechek has been in the MB2 Motorsports No. 01 car for just three races and has had some nice runs. In his first race with the team (Atlanta), Nemechek took home a 10th-place finish, the best for the team this season. He ran well last weekend but was also a victim of the caution flags, taking home a 25th-place finish. Still, Nemechek and his new team are building chemistry towards next season and would like to end the year on a positive note. In the season finale last year, Nemechek dominated the race until his car faded at the end. Nemechek ended up second to Kurt Busch despite leading the most laps in the event. He will have a strong shot at another top run.
Bryan Van Stippen is the ESPN fantasy racing correspondent and senior staff writer for www.fantasygms.com. Email any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.