Best Bets - Phoenix
March 10, 2018
By Daniel Dobish
Be sure to follow VegasInsider.com on Twitter @TwitVI for the latest NASCAR updates and trends. Daniel E. Dobish can be followed on Twitter at danieledobish. Among the younger drivers, there are a few guys who could make noise. And they're very familiar with the track from their days on the Xfinity Series. Hendrick's Chase Elliott (10/1) hasn't gotten off to the start he would like, either. He was collected in a wreck last week, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Kurt Busch (40/1) got a little sideways. Elliott has fans not only because of his iconic No. 9 car, his legendary last name or his fresh face. If he wins or even finishes in the Top 10, there are free chicken wings on the line from a famous restaurant chain. So remember that. Elliott will go off third on Sunday.
Each week during the Monster Energy Cup Series (MENCS) regular season through the Chase, we'll take a look at the best Fantasy plays, as well as Futures and Wagers when applicable, to get you ready for the upcoming race week.
The MENCS heads to the newly rebranded ISM Raceway, formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway, for the Ticket Guardian 500. The race is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.
It's the first race on a short-flat track for the 2018 MENCS season, but so far the track type hasn't mattered to Kevin Harvick (2/1). He won in cooler, cloudy conditions on the intermediate mile-and-a-half oval at Atlanta, and he blew the doors off of everyone at the steep, mile-and-a-half tri-oval at Las Vegas last weekend. The bad news for everyone else - Phoenix might be his best track. Harvick has won eight times at this track, leading 1,484 laps while posting an Average-Finish Position (AFP) of 9.73 in 30 career starts. All marks are the best among drivers with at least five career starts at the Avondale, Ariz. run, and his eight checkered flags are twice as many as any other active driver. If you're tried of seeing the No. 4 doing burnouts, and want to see someone else showering their team with beer and soda in Victory Lane, you might have to wait until Auto Club Speedway next week to get your wish. Spoiler alert, though...Harvick is third in Driver Rating over the past five years, too. Harvick will begin his race Sunday from the 10th spot, looking to move up the order quickly for those Place Differential points.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson (25/1) hasn't struggled much over the years. He has been like the New England Patriots of NASCAR, rattling off seven championships while gaining throngs of haters along the way because of his success. This season has been a struggle for the team, as the No. 48 squad tries to jell with an assortment of younger faces. It hasn't gone really well, but all it takes for Johnson is one strong race and he seems to snap right back into form. It could happen at Phoenix, where he has four victory in 29 career starts with an AFP of 10.0. Only Harvick has more wins and laps led than Johnson, who has led the pack for 990 laps. And he has 15 Top 5 and 20 Top 10 finishes, both one more than Harvick in one fewer start. J.J. could be a fantasy and betting sleeper this week if he and crew chief Chad Knaus has adjusted properly going in. Johnson will go off 17th on Sunday.
Another youngster making noise at the track might be Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones (20/1). Vegas gives him a more-than-good chance of finishing in the Top 10, and he could be a dark horse. NASCAR's Loop Data shows him ranked sixth in Driver Rating (98.0) over the past five seasons while turning 95.7 percent of his laps inside the Top 15, which is even better than Harvick (93.1 percent) during the stretch. Jones has made three starts at ISM in a Cup car, posting an impressive 10.3 AFP, ending up fourth, eighth and 19th in his three tries. Like the Cup series, Jones never won an Xfinity race here, either, but his averages are fairly similar. He made four starts on the Xfinity Series, posting three Top 5s with an AFP of 4.5 while leading 109 laps. He knows how to handle this track, and is a driver to watch. Jones starts from the ninth position.
In the No. 18 Toyota, Kyle Busch (5/1) has been breathing down Harvick's neck in recent seasons at the track formerly known as PIR. Loop Data shows him with a Driver Rating of 111.7 across the past five runs, leading all drivers with 98.2 percent of his laps run inside the Top 15 (min. five starts). That's rather impressive, as is his 101 fastest laps, which is something DFS players enjoy for extra points. Overall Rowdy has managed just one victory in 25 career Phoenix runs, but he has 17 finishes inside the Top 10 while posting a stellar 12.2 AFP. He has also led 699 laps at the track. The No. 18 will start from the seventh spot in the lineup.
As far as the elder Busch brother, Kurt, he owes the nation a round of chicken after collecting the No. 9 in a smash-up in Vegas. Across the past five runs at ISM he isn't among the Top 10 in Driver Rating, and historically this hasn't been one of his better tracks. He has just one victory and seven Top 5 finishes in 30 career starts while posting a 13.7 AFP. His 751 laps led are impressive, third-most among active drivers, but it's more of a longevity thing than anything else. He also has one DNF and he has finished outside of the Top 20 in 33.3 percent of his starts at the track. Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer (40/1) has also been a train wreck at this stop over the years. He has never raced to victory in Phoenix in 25 career starts, and he has a dismal 18.9 AFP while posting just two Top 5s and six Top 10s. He has led the pack just 22 times, which averages out to less than a lap per start.
Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski (8/1) certainly should not be overlooked in the No. 2 Ford. He took checkers in the DC Solar 200 Xfinity race on Saturday, getting a lay of the land. Of course, the victory came under cool, cloudy and rain-interrupted conditions, which is rather surprising for Arizona. Keselowski ranks outside of the Top 10 in Driver Rating over the past five Phoenix runs, but his overall numbers are pretty good. He has never won in a Cup car at the track in 17 career starts, but he does have eight finishes in the Top 10 with a solid 14.1 AFP. Teammate Joey Logano (12/1) has had a lot more success recently, ranking fourth in Driver Rating (100.8) over his past five starts, while posting 140 laps led. He has one victory at Phoenix in his pocket, posting nine Top 10 finishes in 18 career starts at the track. However, he has a surprising number of DNFs (three) given his relatively low career starts (18). He is the definition of high-risk, high-reward this weekend. Keselowski will start 25th and is the more attractive fantasy play for his Place Differential potential, while Logano goes off from Row 3.
Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. (8/1) is on the pole, and in practice and qualifying he certainly looks like a guy who has the car to challenge SHR's No. 4. MTJ has had mixed results over the years at this track, failing to win in 24 career starts. He has just eight Top 10s with a 16.9 AFP, leading just 101 laps. Over his past five starts at the track, he hasn't led one single lap while posting a marginal 90.8 Driver Rating, 10th-best among all drivers. He certainly has the machine to do it, but he could also bomb out and get negative points as his trickles down the leaderboard.
Among the low-priced DFS sleepers, Alex Bowman (25/1), Daniel Suarez (80/1) and Aric Almirola (40/1) are a trio to watch. Bowman has just two Cup races under his belt at Phoenix, but he has a 91.4 Driver Rating during the past five years to check in ninth among all active drivers. He actually has led 194 laps in the No. 88 when he was subbing for retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he has a modicum of success in the Xfinity Series here, too. Suarez has made two Cup starts at the track, posting finishes of seventh and 18th, and he too has Xfinity history at the flat run, too. Almirola has made the most starts of the group, running 14 times at the track with 11 finishes inside the Top 20. His AFP of 17.0 is rather impressive for a mid-tier DFS option. While he has never led a lap, he also has zero DNFs, too.
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