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Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Preview and Fantasy NASCAR Predictions

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Hurricane Matthew, wreaking havoc on much of the southeast coast, clearly isn’t much of a NASCAR fan. Friday morning, the hurricane made its trek within miles of Daytona Beach, putting the sport’s $400 million Daytona International Speedway renovation project under dangerous wind and rainy conditions. Gusts were reported at more than 90 mph; meteorologists predicted a storm surge of as much as seven to 10 feet. Although it will take days for a full damage assessment, the track released a statement Friday evening that said it experienced “moderate damage.” Here’s hoping the storm didn’t wash out one of the more beautiful renovations in all of major sports over the past decade.

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The wet weather has extended northward and will clearly affect this weekend’s racing in North Carolina. Already, the XFINITY race scheduled for Friday night has been postponed; on Saturday morning, the call came for the Cup race to join them. Both events will run Sunday, the Bank of America simulcast on NBC and NBCSN beginning at 12 noon. (The XFINITY race will follow on NBCSN only).

NASCAR had held onto hope their 500-mile Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway would run as scheduled Saturday night.  But at some point, the safety of fans as well as the realism of a nasty forecast took center stage. Kudos to track officials for calling it before making everyone wait hours at the track, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way while making life more difficult for an area that is already filled to the brim with evacuees and facing several inches of rain in its own right.

Best wishes to all those affected by Matthew’s wrath. As for the race, how will Sunday affect things? For one, it might make Martin Truex, Jr.'s life a bit more difficult. Truex has dominated the Chase thus far, leading 98% of the laps in May's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte but didn't accomplish that with a green track in daytime conditions. Starting 7th, how he and others adjust to the changes will dictate who winds up in Victory Lane; in some ways, the hurricane levels the playing field.

Track position also gains importance and gives a little extra edge to pole sitter Kevin Harvick; he and crew chief Rodney Childers have won here before. Also keep an eye on surprise front row starter Alex Bowman in second. While unavailable to start in some leagues, Bowman's better performance as of late bodes well for a race in which everyone is suddenly starting from scratch. If there's going to be an upset, a non-Chaser mixing it up at the front Bowman stands as good a chance as anyone with new Hendrick Motorsports discoveries driving speed behind the wheel of the No. 88.

2016 Bank of America 500

Time: 12:00 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway

TV: NBC & NBCSN

Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex, Jr. or Jimmie Johnson

Take your pick. Truex, winning two of the three Chase races in Round 1, is having a career year. His four victories, a career high total more than he’d earned in the past decade of Sprint Cup competition combined. So far, he’s led 1,594 laps, nearly three times his previous high for a season and has a career-best average start of 8.9. Running Joe Gibbs Racing chassis, he’s run circles around the four JGR “teammates” to start the playoffs and looks to be in the strongest position amongst all of them to earn a championship.

Johnson, while not close behind on paper, is the only one who’s shown enough speed to keep up (208 laps led during the playoffs compared to 360 for Truex). Dominant at times at both Chicagoland and Dover, pit road penalties in both races were all that kept the No. 48 team from running away with both races. After a summer slump, the lead Hendrick Motorsports outfit has found long-run speed. Now, it’s just a matter of cleaning up those mistakes, mastering the late-race restarts and benefitting from a little bit of racing good luck.

Who’s at the Back: Ryan Blaney

At one point, Blaney looked poised to challenge fellow freshman Chase Elliott for the coveted Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award. But while Elliott has bounced back from two months of terrible finishes to make it into the Chase Round of 12, Blaney has been in a bit of a freefall with the single-car Wood Brothers No. 21. Two top-5 results have been mixed in with three wrecks over the past seven races; that’s resulted in a middling average finish of 18.1.

Some would kill to have that type of result, but the pace is far behind Blaney’s pseudo-teammates at Team Penske. With their focus on the championship, both serious Chase contenders, it’s clear this freshman could continue to get left out in the shuffle – and see his chances for that ROTY award drowned out for good.

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News Briefs

Multiple news outlets are reporting drivers are advocating a bonus program, beginning next season where NASCAR would award the regular season points champion in some way. Rumors surround everything from a first round bye to extra bonus points throughout the 10-race playoff; a monetary award also is being floated. NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell claimed to Motorsport.com, “It’s not just snapping your fingers” and “There’s a lot of things that need to go into” making another change to the playoff format. However, momentum is building that you’ll see at least this small change designed to protect better-performing drivers all year from an untimely exit after the Round of 16.

Atlanta Motor Speedway, joining the humanitarian effort in the midst of Hurricane Matthew, has opened up its camping facilities free of charge for evacuees. Millions living on the Georgia and South Carolina coast joined Floridians in fleeing the hurricane entering the weekend.

Juan Pablo Montoya lost his IndyCar ride this week at Team Penske, replaced by Josef Newgarden, to spark rumors about his driving future. The Colombian, a former NASCAR full-timer, is expected to stay in open wheel rather than work his way back into stock cars, though.

We put it in here every week but poor TV ratings continue to dog NASCAR’s Chase three races in. Dover was the lowest number yet, a 1.5 that have this postseason the lowest rated since NASCAR came up with the idea of a 10-race playoff after the 2003 season. With the sport seeking a new title sponsor, now is not the time to be showing off what appears to be a major downturn in popularity despite better competition throughout 2016.

NASCAR by the Numbers

0
Incidents involving more than one car on the track through the first three races of NASCAR’s Chase. Only one-car spins, debris and mechanical failures have caused yellow flags in what’s been a tame ten-race playoff thus far.

20
Age of rookie Chase Elliott, a Round of 12 participant. Elliott, whose father Bill won the championship in 1988, would be the youngest to win the Cup Series title.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson have been consistently in this space during the Chase. It’s not laziness that we’re keeping them there; it’s the reality they should be the first two choices on your roster. Truex, for his part led a series record 392 of 400 laps in May en route to his first victory in Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600. Considering the hot streak his No. 78 team is on, now would be the worst time possible to sit him.

As for Johnson, third at Charlotte in May, this race offers perhaps the best opportunity for him to win within the Round of 12. With seven career victories at this 1.5-mile oval, it was once known as “Jimmie’s house” when the track was sponsored by Lowe’s, his primary sponsor. Pit road mistakes are always a concern (don’t “tragedies” tend to come in threes?) but at some point, this team is going to finish where they deserve.

Middle Tier

Ryan Newman may not be in the Chase but he’s posted three top-20 finishes to start NASCAR’s three-race playoff. Tenth at Charlotte in May, the 1.5-mile oval plays to his strengths and it’s a track where he’s run no worse than 15th since the start of the 2013 season.

Newman’s teammate, Austin Dillon, heads into the Round of 12 after the gift of mechanical failure knocked both Chip Ganassi Racing cars out ahead of him at Dover. His Charlotte career average finish is 12.8, the young talent has finished no lower than 16th in a Cup car there, and he’s officially playing with house money. All those add up to good upside on your roster if you can squeeze him in.

Lower Tier

It’s been a season to forget for single-car JTG Daugherty Racing and driver AJ Allmendinger. However, the No. 47 team has flashed some speed at Charlotte this week; the ‘Dinger also has three top-16 finishes here in five starts. As someone you likely haven’t used that often this season he’s worth a flyer.

What Vegas Thinks

Westgate Las Vegas had Martin Truex Jr. leading the way at 4/1 odds to win as of Friday morning. Kevin Harvick, the winner at New Hampshire two weeks ago, trailed close behind at 5/1 while Jimmie Johnson was third in line at 6/1.

What I Think

How could you bet against Truex? With Johnson, of course. The No. 48 team has been knocking on the door and they’ll put it all together at Charlotte – whenever Hurricane Matthew decides to get out of their way.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photo by ASP Inc.)