To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its Sprint Cup Series driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s nine-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
Next: Advocare 500k
Race: 312 miles (500k)/312 laps (1-mile D-shaped oval)
February 2013 winner: Carl Edwards
A-List (Pick two, start one)
There’s little doubt that Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth will venture to the front this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. But there’s also little doubt that many fantasy players are cashed out of starts for the two title contenders. That’s why you should look toward Brad Keselowski for Sunday’s 500-kilometer race.
Keselowski hasn’t won at Phoenix, but he does have a pair of top-5 finishes (including one a year ago that propelled him toward the championship when Johnson suffered trouble) and average finish of 8.2 since the repave. More telling? Keselowski has been incredibly consistent in the four races since the track’s 2011 overhaul. He’s run 90.6 percent of the four races (1,140 laps) inside the top 15. That’s the best in the series by nearly seven percent.
Denny Hamlin probably doesn’t have fond recent memories of Phoenix. Back in February, Hamlin was fined by NASCAR for innocuous comments he made about the Gen-6 car after a follow-the-leader affair. But Hamlin has otherwise been very good at Phoenix — especially since the repave. In those four races, he’s finished 12th, first, second and third.
That gives Hamlin an average finish of 4.5 at Phoenix since the reconfiguration, easily good enough for the best in the series. He’s also the only driver to have three top-5 finishes since the 2011 repave and one of two to have three top-10 runs.
Also consider: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick
B-List (Pick four, start two)
It was his pit crew that gave Carl Edwards the big assist to land a win in the season’s second event at Phoenix earlier this year, but the Missouri native has long been good at the track. Edwards trails only Hamlin among drivers who have scored the most points at the track since the repave in 2011 (151 points) and he’s led 149 laps along the way. He joins Hamlin as one of two drivers to score lead-lap finishes in all four of those races, too. Edwards may start a bit further back — he’s averaging a start around 15th in the last four races — but expect him to nab positions as the race wears on.
Joey Logano left Texas Motor Speedway with an impressive yet silent third-place finish. He could easily roll that in to another good finish as his first season as a Chase contender comes to a close. Logano has the second-best percentage of laps raced inside the top 15 among B-List drivers (76.5 percent) in the last four Phoenix races. Logano would have a better average finish at Phoenix in that span (it’s currently 18.5) but he was a victim of the Jeff Gordon vs. Clint Bowyer mess at the track last fall.
After leading 237 laps last fall at Phoenix and finishing third, Kyle Busch looked like a good pick for the spring race after he qualified fourth. But then he started at the back thanks to an engine change and was scrambling to the front when he lost it on Lap 48 and slapped the wall. Busch was able to continue, but the damage hurt the car’s handling and he was only able to salvage a 23rd-place finish. Without the pressure of coming through the field, Busch figures to be pretty good Sunday. He has two top-10 finishes on the new Phoenix layout.
We’ve been waiting all season for Kurt Busch to finally take the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 to victory lane. Among the two chances he has left, Phoenix strikes as the best opportunity. Busch finished an unremarkable 27th in the spring race, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the team had to bring out a backup car after a leaking radiator put him in the wall during qualifying. Busch drove the car all the way to sixth by Lap 140 before he had some handling trouble later in the race, smacked the wall and finished a lap down. A year ago, in one his first starts with FRR, Busch drove to an eighth-place finish here.
Also consider: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton
C-List (Pick two, start one)
As of now, the 2000 Sprint Cup Series champion has no ride lined up for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and has nothing secured for the 2014 season. In other words, Sunday’s race at Phoenix has the chance of being Labonte’s last in a Sprint Cup car. He’s a good sentimental pick for that reason, but also a decent choice for the C-List. In the four races in the current configuration, Labonte has an average finish of 19th.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has one start at Phoenix in his Sprint Cup career — the one he made in February at the one-mile track. He finished a very respectable 16th that day, following up on success he’s found in the desert during Nationwide Series races. In six of those starts, Stenhouse has nothing but top-10 finishes. In the races since the 2011 repave, he was fifth, third and third. Obviously, Phoenix isn’t a track that has mystified the Roush-Fenway Racing driver.
Also consider: David Reutimann, J.J. Yeley