Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

Time For Some Unfamiliar Faces Up Front

First, I would like to thank everyone who commented on last week’s Predictions article as well as those who tweeted it, ‘liked’ it on Facebook, or just simply told a friend to read it. If you’ve been reading these posts all season, you noticed that I changed the way I did things last week. Instead of a full top 15 ranking, I just said what I thought about each of the Chasers as well as some “non-Chasers” that caught my attention. I decided I’m going to do that this week–as well as the for the rest of the season–because it takes less time and I didn’t hear any complaints. If you have any questions about a driver I haven’t listed on here, or would just like some advice on your fantasy roster, feel free to send me a tweet or leave a comment on here. That being said, it seems (to me) that Charlotte is typically one of the better tracks to take some risks when it comes to fantasy racing. There seems to always be some surprises near the front at the end (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 11th earlier this year, for example) and no one is really dominant at this track (only Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson have a average finish better than 13th here). I’m not guaranteeing anything, but with the way this season is going, we may see a surprise driver in victory lane on Saturday night.

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Breaking Down The Chasers:

Carl Edwards – I don’t know about you, but really the only thing in my mind that Carl Edwards has going for him this weekend is his starting position (3rd) and his team’s rebound in Kansas last weekend. The #99 Ford looked just alright in practice, ending up 15th on the average speed chart and 18th on the ten-lap average chart during Happy Hour. Carl’s best finish in the last four Charlotte races has been 12th, although he did have the fourth-best driver rating in the Coca Cola 600 earlier this year while leading 61 laps. He was 19th in both practice sessions on Friday. I don’t think he has a shot at a win, but Edwards should get a top 10 on Saturday night and make it eight straight in Sprint Cup action.

Kevin Harvick – This is Kevin Harvick’s second-worst track on the circuit, and let’s not forget that he had nowhere near the best car here in May when he snatched the win away from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Harvick starts 14th on Saturday and had the 9th-best average speed during the two practice sessions on Friday, though, which are a little out of character for “Happy” at Charlotte (he hasn’t started inside the top 20 at a Charlotte points-paying race since 2008) and he also had the fifth-best ten-lap average during Happy Hour. It would surprise the hell out of me if Harvick came home anywhere near the top 5 on Saturday night. Maybe a top 10, but I’m thinking a teens finish is more likely for the #29 Chevrolet.

Jimmie Johnson – JJ’s engine blew in the last race at Charlotte (how often does that happen?) and he finished 28th, but when you look at the last three October races here, Johnson’s statistics look like this: one win, a worst finish of 6th, and 174 laps led. This team has been dominant on the intermediate tracks as of late and, as I said in my Fantasy Preview, this team has kept their best cars for the Chase this year. Jimmie ended up in the top 7 in both sessions in terms of ten-lap average and was 12th on the average speed chart. For the second week in a row, I’ll say that Johnson is pretty much a lock for a top 5 and should challenge for his third win of the season.

Brad Keselowski – I have high expectations for Bad Brad on Saturday night despite him starting 26th. He described his car as “perfect” in the first practice session on Saturday after laying down one of the fastest laps of the day, and the Blue Deuce ended up 5th on the ten-lap average chart in that session. The team kept working on the car once Brad said not to touch it, and ESPN reported that they were trying to perfect it for the race. That’s why I’m not too worried about Keselowski being 20th on the average speed chart. He tweeted a couple times (here and here) about loving his car this weekend, and Brad generally don’t say much unless he has a good Dodge for the race. I expect BK to be near the front (top 10) by the end of the race Saturday night and stay right in the middle of this championship battle going into Talladega.

Matt Kenseth – In case you missed my tweet from Friday afternoon, Matt Kenseth has the best average starting position this year since the 2006 season, where he finished 2nd in the points standings. He will start from the outside pole on Saturday night, and although I don’t think he will stay up there, a solid top 10 is definitely within Kenseth’s grasps. In the last five points-paying races at Charlotte, Matt has four top 10s and a worst finish of 14th. His career average finish at this track is right around 15th.

Kurt Busch – I’m not as optimistic for Kurt on Saturday night as I am his team mate, but he should still have a good Dodge, and one better than what he showed in qualifying (Busch will start the Bank of America 500 in 20th). As I said in my Fantasy Preview, last week’s 13th-place finish at Kansas has been the worst for the elder Busch brother at the tri-oval intermediate tracks all season. His average speeds weren’t awesome on Friday, but the Double Deuce was in the top 10 in both practice sessions (in terms of one fast lap). I don’t see Busch finishing much worse than 14th or 15th, and he may have a shot at a top 10 Saturday night when it’s all said and done.

Tony Stewart – I don’t know about you, but “Smoke” winning the pole for this week’s race really surprised me. Since 2004, Stewart has had just one other pole on the intermediate tri-oval tracks, and he has just one start inside the top 20 in the last five points-paying races here. Stewart hasn’t had a top 10 at Charlotte since 2007 but I expect him to change that–with ease–on Saturday night. Both the #14 Chevrolet and his team mate’s #39 Chevrolet have looked wicked fast since they came off the truck. Obviously, track position is important and Tony already has that, but he also ended up in the top 6 in both practice sessions (in terms of ten-lap average) and Stewart was 4th on the average speed chart. I think “Smoke” will lead early and often on Saturday night and be challenging for the win at the end of the night.

Kyle Busch – I haven’t heard much on Kyle Busch and the #18 Toyota this weekend, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect out of his on Saturday night. He will start the Bank of America 500 in 25th, and he’s pretty much hit-or-miss at Charlotte (eight top 10s in twenty career starts along with seven finishes outside of the top 20). “Rowdy” would normally be the first driver I would pick to drive up through the field, but in four races at Charlotte where he has started outside of the top 20, Kyle has the following “stellar” finishes: 32nd, 38th, 34th, and 32nd. You can’t overlook the fact that Busch has seven top 10s in the last eight points-paying races here, though, as well as the best average driver rating in the past five. He was 8th in both practice sessions in terms of ten-lap average.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – As I said in my Fantasy Preview, avoid. 31st in first practice, 20th in Happy Hour, and not one single ten-lap run for Junior on Friday. Before his (lucky) 7th-place finish here in May, Earnhardt hadn’t posted a top 20 in five-straight Charlotte races. It’d probably feel like a win for this team to finish in the high teens.

Jeff Gordon – I’m just not seeing much of a reason to pick Jeff Gordon this weekend. Yes, he has found a lot of success at this race track–five wins and twenty total top 10s in thirty-seven starts–but this team struggled on these intermediate tracks earlier in the season and in the last two (Chicago and Kansas) Gordon has finished 24th and 34th, respectively. The last two points-paying races at Charlotte have ended with the #24 Chevrolet in 23rd and 20th, despite Gordon starting 1st and 11th. He was 10th out of 15 cars in the first Friday practice in terms of ten-lap average and 17th out of 26 in Happy Hour. Unless I see something incredible in the crew chief notes, Jeff Gordon won’t be on my rosters this weekend.

Ryan Newman – When he was interviewed after the first practice session on Friday, Newman said that this is the best car he’s had at Charlotte in a while. I had “The Rocketman” on my “Avoid” list in my Fantasy Preview, but I’m majorly backing off of that statement now. Newman’s ten-lap averages weren’t very impressive (12th in the first session, 11th in Happy Hour) but his team mate is very fast and Ryan obviously likes his Chevrolet. Be careful if you pick him, though: in twenty-one starts at Charlotte, Newman has just seven top 10s.

Denny Hamlin – He has two straight top 10s at Charlotte, but I wouldn’t advise picking Denny Hamlin on Saturday night. In twelve career starts here, he has just one top 5 and five total top 10s. Denny will start the Bank of America 500 in 17th place, and I’m expecting him to finish right around there as well, but maybe a little better. Hamlin had the 13rd-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour and was 14th on the average speed chart. In terms of one fast lap, though, Hamlin’s #11 Toyota wasn’t better than 20th in either of the practice sessions on Friday. I’ll pass.

“Non-Chasers” I Have My Eyes On:

A.J. Allmendinger – A.J. has had a couple good runs on the intermediates this season, but other than that he has been a late-teens or twenties driver on them. He will start the race on Saturday night in 4th, which is the third-straight top 5 start for Allmendinger at this track, but I just don’t see him staying up there all night like I see some of the others doing. The Dinger was 8th on the average speed chart, though, and ended up 9th in Happy Hour in terms of ten-lap average. He finished 5th here in May but was more of a teens driver for the majority of that race. 

Greg Biffle – Biffle will start Saturday night’s race in 5th and had the second-best ten-lap average during Happy Hour, so he may be able to contend for a while after the green flag has waved. However, it’s hard for me to overlook this team’s bad fortune on the intermediate tracks this season, and although he finished 8th at Kansas last weekend, you have to forget quickly in fantasy racing. Biffle ended up 3rd on the average speed chart and has just one finish outside of the top 20 in the last seven points-paying races here. If he doesn’t get a top 10, expect a finish around 12th to 15th out of Greg on Saturday night.

Paul Menard – As I’m typing this, Paul is holding his own in the Nationwide race after starting on the pole, and going into Saturday night’s race it looks like he may have a real good Chevrolet for the race. However, we’ve all seen this story before, so you can’t really rely on Menard. He was in the top 5 in both of Friday’s practice sessions in terms of ten-lap average, and he ended up 5th on the overall average speed chart. However, I just don’t see Menard being much better than a teens driver this weekend. His average finish in nine career starts here has been 24.4.

Kasey Kahne – I’ve foolishly avoided Kasey Kahne for the last couple weeks (I need to take my own advice of forgetting easily) but even though this team has been very unreliable this season, this little run that they are starting is comparable to Brad Keselowski’s in the summer. If there was a late caution in the Kansas race last Sunday, I think the #4 Toyota would have been in victory lane, and I think he’ll have a shot at the win on Saturday night as well. Kahne had the best ten-lap average in Happy Hour and had the best overall average speed during the two practice sessions on Friday. In fifteen career starts here, Kasey has three wins and an average finish of around 14th.

Trevor Bayne – In case you don’t remember the last race at Charlotte, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made his first Cup start in this #21 Wood Brothers Ford and ended up 11th after starting the race in 9th. Trevor Bayne is back in this car for the Bank of America 500 this weekend and he will start the race in 10th, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him get a solid top 20, although I just don’t see a top 10 happening. Bayne was 10th on the average speed chart but didn’t make a single ten-lap run in either practice on Friday and was in the twenties on both charts. 

Marcos Ambrose – His team mate, A.J. Allmendinger, is getting a lot of attention this weekend, but I think Marcos Ambrose has a better Ford than The Dinger for the race on Saturday night. Marcos went out and qualified in 12th on Saturday night and had the 7th-fastest lap in Happy Hour after posting the 11th-fastest in the first session on Friday. The #9 Ford was 16th out of 26 cars in terms of ten-lap average during the final practice, but Ambrose ended up in 6th on the overall average speed chart and he finished 6th in the Coca Cola 600 in May after starting 24th.