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NASCAR: Track and driver guide

6/21/2007

It should go without saying: all racetracks are not built alike. Some are short, some are long. Some are shallow-banked, some are steep. Some are asphalt, some are concrete. Some actually have right-hand turns. Nextel Cup teams necessarily treat each racing venue as a separate entity, but like Lenny Kravitz deciding which Beatles song to rip off next, drivers take things they've learned at one track, and apply it to similar venues.

Driver history at individual venues is perhaps the single most important tool when you evaluate which fantasy drivers you want representing your team each week. But what happens when the Smokeless Set heads to a one-event place like Chicagoland or Kansas? Can you really count on what Jeff Gordon did five years ago? That's why equivalents are so important. Look at the configurations of a racetrack and find ones that are similar, and look at results at those other venues as well.

The chart below gives summary information for all the venues currently on the Nextel Cup schedule. When you make picks in a given week, we recommend you consider the current and previous years' performances at similar tracks. Use this chart, and soon you'll be thinking ahead like a fantasy racing god. Of course, soon enough we're going to also have to start tracking how Car of Tomorrow results differ from "traditional car" results; but for now, this is the data we've got:

Track Grouping Explanations

Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas: Other than perhaps the road courses and superspeedways, this is the tightest grouping, because these cousin cookie-cutters are damn well near identical. If a guy dominates one, it's often safe to assume he's going to perform quite well at the others. The only caveat here is that Charlotte made a complete mess of its racing surface in 2005; it smoothed it so fine and gave the track so much grip that the softer Goodyears couldn't stand the speeds, which led to a comical number of blown tires. As a result, the track's owners had to repave the track surface with a "next-generation" asphalt (one, presumably, voiced-over by Jean-Luc Picard), and the two '06 Charlotte events did feature fewer accidents.

Kansas-Fontana-Michigan-Chicagoland: This isn't a straight-up foursome. The tracks which bear the most similarity are the two 2-milers, Fontana and Michigan. They're both Penske creations, and while the Fontana venue doesn't get the winters that the Michigan track does up in the Irish Hills, they still ride relatively similarly. (As we'll see, the Roush cars tend to dominate races at these places.) Kansas and Chicagoland both have single events each year, and are basically stand-alone tracks. However, Kansas bears a semi-strong resemblance to Chicagoland, and a somewhat fainter resemblance to Fontana, while Chicagoland bears a semi-strong resemblance to Kansas, and a somewhat fainter resemblance to Michigan. Yes, Kansas and Chicagoland are both 1.5-milers, but they really don't resemble the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate.

New Hampshire-Martinsville-Phoenix-Richmond: Ah, the flatties. These flat tracks certainly have variations among them, not least of which is length. One-mile Phoenix and New Hampshire tend to feature rather similar results (though their layouts are quite different), because they require similar car setups. Martinsville and Richmond are both short tracks, but have very different layouts (Martinsville is a paper clip, while Richmond has some pretty good banking). Not everyone who's good at one of these tracks is good at all of them. But as a season progresses, take a look at which drivers have performed well at a couple of these venues, and that will be a guy you can ride hard later in the season, as the cars return to these places.

Bristol-Homestead-Las Vegas-Dover-Darlington: These are steep tracks that don't adhere to the cookie-cutter formula, and they're certainly the loosest group on this list. Bristol is often referred to as a "mini-Dover" (or, rather, Dover is referred to as a "Big Bristol"); at 36 degrees, Bristol is the steepest-banked joint on the circuit, and is basically a big concrete bowl. Dover is also concrete, and the high torque and aggressive driving styles that work on one usually work on the other. Same for the new configuration of Homestead, which used to be a flat track, but acquired some steep corners a few years ago. That grouping of three has worked pretty well for us in the past. The wild cards here are Darlington and Las Vegas. Darlington, also known as "The Lady in Black," is definitely steep-banked enough to qualify for this group, but its sandpaper racing surface and difficult, narrow exits out of the turns make it its own animal. Darlington also encourages sliding out of the corners, which gives it something in common with Texas, among others. Meanwhile, like Homestead, Las Vegas Motor Speedway used to be a flat track, until its owners rebuilt the track's turns in the fall of '06. Now its configuration is something like the new Homestead, though we haven't seen a Nextel Cup race here yet.

Indianapolis-Pocono: These two tracks are shallow-banked, but they're much larger than the Phoenix group we mentioned above, so they warrant their own category. The Brickyard in Indy obviously requires a lot of horsepower, but it's a shallow-banked place, so it's not at all an equivalent of your superspeedways. Pocono is a tri-cornered place set up to run partly like a speedway and partly like a road course; teams tend to set their cars up to work best off of Turn 3, the 6-degree turn, which is why we find that racers who do well at shallow Indy tend to do well at Pocono.

Daytona-Talladega: This grouping should go without saying. These are the only two restrictor-plate tracks on the Cup circuit. Metal plates are placed over the carburetors, limiting the amount of air intake into the cars, which inhibits their speeds. Basically, before restrictor plates, cars were going too fast, both for proper safety and for competitive races. What results is a pack of cars going around and around about 6 inches from one another. He who can draft best in these packs, and avoid "The Big One," will win races.

Watkins Glen-Sears Point: Our last grouping is equally obvious: it's the only pair of tracks where drivers make right-hand turns. These are road courses, and you'll find any number of savvy Nextel Cup veteran reduced to blubbering by these twisty venues. Only a few drivers are worth starting at these places: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon and perhaps Kevin Harvick are chief among them. In addition, you'll notice that a series of "Road Course Ringers" will descend upon the circuit in those two weeks; guys like Boris Said, Scott Pruett and Ron Fellows are names you need to know for just such an occasion.

Track Aces

Of course, while track similarities are a good starting place, it would be oversimplifying things to say that the groupings above are the be-all and end-all of race analysis. Some venues simply suit certain drivers because of their history, their crew, their geography, the proximity of their headquarters, etc. So let's take an anecdotal look at each track, and which drivers come to mind for each.

Elsewhere in this kit, you'll find a far more statistical representation of how every driver fares at every Cup track. But here are some nice rules of thumb, discussing which drivers have tended to be consistent threats at which tracks. We'll look venue-by-venue, and give you our favorite notes about the drivers to consider when the Cup cars come calling. (Note: we're not saying these are necessarily the best guys every single race at a given track; we're just saying they're consistent, and worth mentioning.)

Driver Mentions:

11: Tony Stewart

7: Jimmie Johnson
Matt Kenseth
Carl Edwards
Kevin Harvick

6: Denny Hamlin

4: Greg Biffle
Jeff Gordon
Kasey Kahne
Kurt Busch

3: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Robby Gordon

2: Brian Vickers
Clint Bowyer
Jeff Burton
Kyle Busch
Ryan Newman

1: Casey Mears
Dale Jarrett
Jamie McMurray
Jeremy Mayfield
Joe Nemechek
Mark Martin
Martin Truex Jr.
Reed Sorenson

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