The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has hit the all-star break this week, with no fantasy racing on the schedule. With the brief break in action, now is a great time to assess your year up to this point in the season, examine a few trends through the first 11 races and look ahead to next week's Coca-Cola 600.
While this year has seen a number of surprises, it’s also been somewhat predictable.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart picked up right where he left off in 2011, winning two races with new crew chief Steve Addington, and currently holding the seventh spot in the championship points. The No. 14 team has been up-and-down from week-to-week, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 to counter his two wins and four top 5s. Stewart is typically a slow starter, coming to life during the summer months and in the Chase, but it appears the defending champion is poised to continue his strong season throughout the entire year.
The Roush Fenway organization has been on its game thus far, with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth sitting atop the standings, each with a win to their credit and separated by only two points. Last year's championship runner-up, Carl Edwards, has yet to show his full strength, but sits 10th in the standings. Biffle has been the most consistent driver up to this point in the season, with an average finish of 7.5, and is looking to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
Fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led the charge for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, scoring four top 5s and eight top 10s. While he is still looking to break that ever-daunting winless streak, Earnhardt is third in points and has been one consistently strong throughout the early part of the season.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was able to overcome a potentially season-long setback early in the year, when the National Car Racing Appeals Board, led by John Middlebrook, overturned a NASCAR penalty handed down to the No. 48 team after Daytona. Never missing a beat, Johnson is fifth in the standings and scored Hendrick Motorsports' 200th career win last Saturday in Darlington.
After a disappointing performance in 2011, Denny Hamlin has come back strong with new crew chief and defending champion Darian Grubb now calling the shots atop the pit box. Hamlin already has two wins to his credit, along with five top 5s and six top 10s, leading the way for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization.
Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. has also been one of the more consistent drivers this season, earning four top 5s and seven top 10s in the first 11 races. Still battling a winless streak that dates back to 2007, Truex is sixth in points, in the midst of a contract year, and running stronger than he has in years. This promising start has led to a more confident driver, and thus, big fantasy points.
On the other side of the spectrum, a few teams and drivers have not lived up to expectations throughout the early part of the season.
Jeff Gordon's 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series has been disappointing, to say the least. Despite having strong cars nearly every week, Gordon's season has unraveled, leaving him 24th in points with only one top 5 and two top 10s and seven finishes outside the top 20.
Perhaps most notably, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's two-car organization with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray has floundered. Team owner Chip Ganassi made some major changes during the off-season to help turn the team around. After a strong 2010, the EGR cars struggled for much of the 2011 season, leaving Ganassi to demand a shake-up behind the scenes. To date, however, those changes have produced few results. Montoya and McMurray are 19th and 20th in the standings, with zero top 5 finishes between them.
Keep an eye on this team through the summer months, though, as tracks such as Sonoma, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen are right around the corner. If the performance does not improve at these venues, perhaps more significant changes are in order.
So, now that we've reflected a bit on the early season performances, what does it mean for our fantasy outlook? Each week, we've listed a number of weekly favorites, undervalued picks and darkhorse drivers. In all, we have eight winners already in the season from those groups.
However, our picks have not always panned out. Our fantasy favorites have also struggled this season at times. Kasey Kahne finished 34th in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was 32nd in Bristol, Jeff Gordon was 21st in Kansas and Brad Keselowski was 15th in Darlington.
This goes to show, anything can happen once the cars take the green flag each weekend. As I try to mention each week, pay careful attention to each practice session and the best 10-lap average statistic before setting your lineup.
Also, at this point of the season, be sure to keep tabs on how many times you are starting a driver. In some leagues, drivers can only be used a certain number of times throughout the season. It can be very tempting to start someone like Earnhardt Jr. (who we have listed as our fantasy favorite three times this season) multiple times early in the year, but remember you might need him in the bank later in the season.
Now looking ahead to this weekend's action at Charlotte Motor Speedway: There are few opportunities in the Sprint Cup Series to get a preview of the action a week before your next race. The Sprint All-Star Race and Sprint Showdown are two events that can show you a lot in terms of what to expect for the annual Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
With nothing to lose and $1 million on the line, teams will be pulling out all the stops in preparation for the All-Star Race. This exhibition event allows crew chiefs and engineers the ability to try more aggressive and experimental setups, gaining knowledge and insight into how to make their car fast for 600 miles the following week.
Keep tabs on which teams and drivers are running strong in the Sprint Showdown, as well. Even if they are unable to transfer into the night's main event, fantasy players could learn a great deal for next week. This is where a lot of your darkhorse picks will come from.
So, enjoy this weekend's All-Star festivities. Take the time to examine your fantasy season thus far, take the early-season trends into consideration and keep a careful eye on this weekend's action to stay ahead of the curve heading into the Coca-Cola 600.
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter:@JayWPennell