The midsummer return to Daytona International Speedway is always one of the most anticipated races of the season. The 2012 edition did not fail to disappoint.
The first 200 miles of the race went completely caution free with all the drivers minding their manners. The second half, however, created plenty of sparks. Two big crashes happened as the miles wound down, and drivers started fighting for every inch of track they could get.
As is sometimes the case at Daytona, survival is key. Even coming to the finish line there were positions to be had as the field began colliding as it fought for every spot. Tony Stewart was the driver that had the measure of the field, though, and he held off the rest of the pack in the closing laps to claim victory. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle appeared to have the strongest cars on track, but just like in Talladega, they couldn't get the job done.
This week, the circus heads northeast to New Hampshire International Speedway. The track historically makes passing difficult, though progressive banking was added to spice up the show in recent years. The flat track is sometimes compared to Martinsville Speedway and often delivers its fair share of bumping and grinding.
Tony Stewart - As the summer wears on, Stewart heats up. It is an annual tradition that typically begins after the halfway mark of each season. He was forced to start at the back Saturday after having his qualifying effort disqualified. Much like his traditional late-season form after the halfway mark, Stewart started working his way forward. Before too long he was at the front of the field, and was in position to duke it out for the win, claiming it as his own off of the final turn. His New Hampshire record proves the late-season pickup trend, too. In the last five races at the track his average finish is an impressive 8.6 with a win and three top-5s. Stewart is set to continue his hot streak.
Kyle Busch - It looks as though Joe Gibbs Racing has finally cleared the engine problems that plagued the No. 18 in recent races. Busch was at the front of the field Saturday night at Daytona until the pile up after the final turn stole what should have been a top-5 result. Busch won the last three NASCAR Nationwide Series races at New Hampshire, and has an average finish of 14.4 in his last five Cup races at the track. This driver is hungry for a win after moving beyond his midseason stumble, and when Busch has momentum on his side he is difficult to beat. He scored his first top-10 in four races at Kentucky Speedway, and nearly had top-5 last week. He makes a good fantasy option this week.
Jeff Gordon - Pit road was Gordon's nemesis Saturday night. Not once, but twice he was hit, once exiting and once entering, and neither was his fault. The night typified the No. 24's season to date. Gordon has shown potential in 2012, but has arguably suffered the worst luck of the field. Gordon was very fast at Daytona, staying near the front of the field the entire night, but two bouts of car-on-car bumping were just too much to overcome. To look on the bright side, Gordon is Sprint Cup's best finisher in the last five New Hampshire races. He picked up two top-5s and three top-10s to help him to an 8.0 average result. This could be the week he gets the monkey off of his back.
Ryan Newman - Newman could be a valuable utility player for fantasy rosters this week in New Hampshire. He typically performs pretty well at the northeastern oval, and his average finish in the last five races at the track is 9.4. He usually qualifies very well here too, averaging a start of 9.8 as well. In Daytona, contact on pit road with Gordon put Newman on the back foot with almost half of the race distance left to run. He picked his way through the last lap carnage to finish fifth and is setting his sights on this week's race. He swept both poles last season in New Hampshire and took victory in the July race. Look to Newman with confidence this week.
Kurt Busch - After winning last week's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, Busch finally had a smile back on his face. The lift is good timing too, since he visits one of his best tracks this week. Busch's average finish in the last five New Hampshire races is 10.8, and he owns one of the best recent records in the field. He became impatient in Daytona last week, making an ill-advised change of lanes that saw him lose control of his car and pin bystander Trevor Bayne in the wall. The damage to Busch's car was extensive and made the rest of the race an uphill climb. Up until that point Busch was having another strong night. Playing Busch comes with its risks, but this might be one track where the gamble could pay off.
Kasey Kahne - Averaging a 21.8 finish in the last five New Hampshire races makes Kahne a fantasy selection without much upside this week. He finished on the lead lap just three of those last five tries, scoring one top-10. Kahne is getting the job done at Hendrick Motorsports so far this season with a win and four top-5s. That resume might be able to get the job done this week, but past performances would suggest a struggle for the No. 5 when compared to other weeks. Kahne finished seventh in the lottery finish that was the Coke Zero 400, but that shouldn't be enough to make him a favorite this week. Kahne wouldn't be the worst fantasy choice this week, but his Hendrick Motorsport teammates have more potential.
Brad Keselowski - Saturday night in Daytona produced more of the same for Keselowski at the Florida track. While he has won and had great races at Talladega Superspeedway, Daytona has been a different story. He was an innocent bystander in the pits when Gordon and Newman came together with Newman's car damaging the rear corner of the No. 2. Later in the race he lost control and spun completely out of contention. The last lap crash enabled him to claim an unlikely eighth-place finish. Keselowski led just three laps in the last five New Hampshire races. He picked up one top-5 in those, but failed to finish on the lead lap three times. The No. 2 may have won three races this season, but New Hampshire success has eluded him thus far.
Paul Menard - Menard is a driver all fantasy players might want to avoid this week. In the last five New Hampshire races, he has failed to score any top finishes or even lead a single lap. That span of races includes just one lead-lap finish despite running at the end of each of those events. Menard's average running position before Daytona was 18.2, which just doesn't measure up for a driver in the second category of the three-tier driver format. Menard's average New Hampshire finish in the last five races is 26.8, and that is not a statistic that will impress fantasy owners. While he might be a solid option some weeks, this probably wouldn't be considered one of those times.
Matt Kenseth - Teammates Kenseth and Biffle were the cars to beat Saturday night in Daytona, but failed to complete the job. Kenseth continues to lead the points, but will feel like he lost a win Saturday evening. New Hampshire might be the only track where fantasy owners should hesitate before selecting Kenseth. In the last five races at the oval, the No. 17 has only managed to score a 17.8 average finish and one top-10. He also didn't lead a single lap in that time. The points leader has been near picture perfect so far this season, and there is no reason to expect this week to be a disaster, but it also isn't the week you'd expect a guaranteed top-5 from the driver either.
A.J. Allmendinger - Allmendinger ran afoul of NASCAR's substance abuse policy before last week's Coke Zero 400, knocking him out of the cockpit. We expect a little more background this week, but as things stand Allmendinger is suspended. A.J. can request a second test within 72 hours, according to NASCAR rules, but even if everything comes clean, this is a big bump in the road. The No. 22 will most likely be piloted by Sam Hornish Jr. until 'Dinger returns, but being suspended just after scoring back-to-back top-10 finishes sure puts a damper on the team's progress. Even if Allmendinger were to get back in the car this week, it would be wise to give him a rest to see how he copes.
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