Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Ford 400 Fantasy Preview
Bryan Van Stippen
It all comes down to this. The final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway where the first ever champion of the Chase for the Cup will be crowned. There are five drivers that have the opportunity to take home the honors - the closest race in NASCAR history. The Chase was created to provide some excitement at the end of the season and with so much at stake on Sunday NASCAR officials could not have asked for anything less.
The hottest driver over the last five races, Jimmie Johnson has posted four wins and a sixth place finish. He had struggled in the start of the Chase but has made a dramatic turnaround and looks to be the driver to beat on Sunday. Johnson has a pair of top 10s in three career races while averaging a 12th place finish at Homestead. He needs to pick up just 19 points to pass Kurt Busch for the championship and will be the sentimental favorite to win it all.
Although most of the focus will be on the five Chase contenders expect Jeff Burton to be running among the leaders. In five career races at the track Burton has the best average finish among all drivers at seventh place. He has three top 5s and has never finished outside the top 15. Burton has shown the ability to be competitive in the #30 AOL Chevrolet posting seven straight top 15s. He will be a factor on Sunday.
A Chase contender that has that been eliminated from the title hunt that still has plenty to race for is Tony Stewart. Stewart does not have a top 5 finish since the Chase began but does have five top 10s. If not for a wreck at Loudon in the first Chase race when he finished in 39th place Stewart could have been a contender for the title in the final race. Now, he will be looking for his third win at Homestead in the sixth race at the track.
There have been only four winners at Homestead including current points leader Kurt Busch. Busch, however, has not had much luck in three other races as he has just the one top 10 finish while averaging a 20th place finish. Still, Busch has been running very consistent in the Chase events with just one finish outside the top 10 due to a blown engine at Atlanta. He can record his first career championship with a solid finish, and the second consecutive title for Roush Racing.
Bobby Labonte has not run very well in the second half of the season until the last two races in which he posted back-to-back ninth place finishes - his first top 10s since the second race at Daytona. Labonte is the defending race champion taking the checkered flag after Bill Elliott had problems on the last lap. Labonte has four top 10s in the five races at the track for an average of ninth place. This would be the first time in 10 years that Labonte has not won a race and he would love to build momentum heading into next season. It would be a long shot but anything can happen once the green flag drops.
Last year's champion, Matt Kenseth, has not had very much luck at Homestead. He had the series title wrapped up by the final race last season and it was a good thing as he placed last due to a blown engine. Kenseth has never posted a top 20 finish at the track while having a pair of DNFs as he averages a 33rd place finish. It would be hard to imagine that he can finish last of the ten drivers in the Chase but another poor finish and he could end the year as the worst of the championship contenders.
Michael Waltrip made news this week when it was announced the he will not be back with the DEI #15 NAPA Chevrolet in 2006 if he does not finish in the top 10 next season. The news is not easy to take and Waltrip could not find out at a worse time as he has posted four finishes in five races at Homestead outside the top 30, including back-to-back 41st place finishes. He has not had that strong of a second half of the season and another poor finish this weekend will have Waltrip worried about his future heading into a crucial season.
This will be Robby Gordon's final race for RCR and he may be wishing the season had ended a week earlier. In two starts at Homestead Gordon has started both events in the 39th position and has not finished much better as he averages a 28th place finish. Gordon has run decent in recent weeks but has just one top 10 in the last nine races. He will be looking forward to building his own program for the 2005 season and will likely have a tough time on Sunday.
Bryan Van Stippen is ESPN's fantasy racing correspondent and the senior staff writer for Fantasy GMs (www.fantasygms.com). Email any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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