Jordan’s Atlanta Fantasy NASCAR Predictions – Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

What a start to the 2015 season. First we had youngster Joey Logano take the Daytona 500 crown, possibly solidifying his spot as a top tier Sprint Cup driver and legitimate championship contender. He continued his hot streak into Atlanta by winning the pole on Friday, beating Kevin Harvick by over a tenth of a second. For the full Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 starting lineup, click here. The cars got quite a bit of track time this weekend as there were two test sessions on Thursday (Test#1 speeds — Test #2 speeds) followed by official practices on both Friday and Saturday (Practice #1 speeds — Happy Hour speeds). Be sure to check out Ryan’s notes for each session by clicking here: Practice #1 — Happy Hour.

Many teams had issues in qualifying with their cars failing technical inspection so there are quite a few big name drivers that will have to start in the back of the pack this weekend. Be sure to keep an eye on those guys and their strategy; tire falloff is big here at Atlanta Motor Speedway so that will make it that much more difficult for those drivers. It’s been a while since we’ve visited this track this early on in a season so Sunday has the potential to be quite an interesting race. We’ll get to see how these cars (and drivers) react to the decreased horsepower on intermediate tracks and also get a glimpse whether or not the field has caught up with Penske and Hendrick at the cookie cutter venues. As you can tell below, I don’t think it will be a big deal for drivers to start in the back, so don’t let that keep you from picking the favorites.
Final Top 15 Ranking For The QuikTrip 500:

1. Joey Logano – Starts 1st – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 4th
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

It’s a little too early for Joey Logano to pack it in and wait for the Chase, so I don’t see that happening–just for the record. As we saw last season, “Sliced Bread” is one of the best Sprint Cup drivers on the intermediate race tracks and if you don’t think he’s going to be challenging for the win here at Atlanta on Sunday, prepare to be surprised. Yeah, Logano’s career average finish of 21.5 at this race track leaves a lot to be desired, but let’s keep in mind that he really didn’t come into his own until last year and we only visit ATL once a year. In the 2013 race here Joey led 78 of the 325 laps and ended up finishing 3rd. If I’m being totally honest, I was a little surprised that the #22 Ford got the pole on Friday but then I remembered at how dominant the Penske Fords were at qualifying in 2014 so it makes perfect sense. In the testing sessions on Thursday, Logano didn’t look that great on the speed chart, but I want to believe that the #22 team learned a bunch. It’s been evident that their Ford has just been getting faster and faster as the week has progressed, so Logano should be in very good shape for Sunday. In Happy Hour, the #22 Ford was 12th in overall speed and ranked 14th-fastest in ten-lap average. I’m not sure if Joey can pull off back-to-back wins to start off the 2015 season but I wouldn’t count him out, either. A top 10 finish (at least) should be expected out of the #22 Ford on Sunday.

2. Kevin Harvick – Starts 2nd (rear of the field – engine change) – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 1st
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

I’m sure pretty much everyone can agree that Kevin Harvick probably should have won the race here at Atlanta last August. Hell, we could’ve said that exact same thing for at least 5 more events in 2014. NASCAR’s defending champion will be looking to show that this #4 team really is that good while defending the championship win of 2014. In my mind, there’s no reason to believe that Harvick will slow down any on the intermediate tracks this season. If anything, he might be even more of a threat at these venues if they can keep the mechanical issues to a minimum. Yeah, that’s kind of scary to think about. Well that didn’t happen this weekend as the #4 Chevrolet’s engine blew halfway through Happy Hour. Positive note? Harvick was near the top of the speed charts all weekend long, including being the fastest car in that final practice by about two tenths. Because of the engine change, however, he’ll have to start in the back on Sunday. If that didn’t happen, Harvick would definitely be a threat for the win in this year’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Now I’m not as confident but he should still make his way up to the front on Sunday. Late-race shenanigans kept Harvick out of victory lane here back in August but remember that he started on the pole for that race and led 195 of the 335 laps. Six of the last eight Atlanta races have ended with “The Closer” inside the top 10 and that should easily be seven-of-nine after the checkered flag waves on Sunday. When it comes to fantasy racing, the only thing you can do is pick the fastest cars and hope for the best, and the #4 Chevrolet is one of the premier options this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway–Harvick just doesn’t have the optimal starting spot.

3. Jeff Gordon – Starts 35th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 6th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

I’m not about to say that Jeff Gordon’s final season couldn’t have started off any worse, but there’s definitely plenty of room for improvement. After having arguably the strongest car at Daytona last weekend but wrecking late and ending up 33rd, Gordon got to Atlanta and had a very strong test session on Thursday (1st in overall speed and ten-lap average) only to miss his chance to qualify up front because of the technical issues teams were having with NASCAR’s standards. Jeff verbally expressed his disappointment with the organization. So, Gordon’s got some spots to make up on Sunday, but I’m not too worried about it. The #24 Chevrolet ranked 13th in Happy Hour and had the 2nd-best ten-lap average in that session as well. Looking back at the Atlanta race last August, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field but hit the wall mid-race and ended up finishing 17th. With that being said, he had a driver rating of 111.4 in that race, which was good enough for 4th-best in the field. Yeah, the #24 Chevrolet was that strong. Jeff is a five-time race winner here at Atlanta Motor Speedway and has finished 9th or better in eight of the last eleven races here. The 35th-place starting spot for Gordon might be worrisome for some fantasy owners, but keep in mind that this is a 500-mile race and they’re not going to be lapping people incredibly fast. The #24 Chevrolet will be a solid top 10 car on Sunday with a good shot at a top 5 finish.

4. Jimmie Johnson – Starts 37th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 2nd
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

“Six Time” owns the best average finish here at Atlanta Motor Speedway–as he does with many tracks on the circuit–and has visited victory lane three separate times in his 23 career starts here, the most recent happening in 2007. When you look at his history overall at this track, it’s almost boom or bust; Johnson has registered 14 top 10s in those 23 starts and 12 of the 14 have also been top 5s. His finishes of 30th or worse (usually from mechanical issues) are what really bring down his average finish. Jimmie was one of those drivers who weren’t able to get out for qualifying on Friday so he’s going to be starting in the back of the pack for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Obviously I don’t think we’ll see a dominating effort out of this #48 team but there’s no reason to think that Johnson won’t be fighting for a top 5 finish when it’s all said and done. Until I see otherwise, I’m going to go ahead and assume that the Hendrick organization has a full leg up on the competition when it comes to horsepower–and Speedweeks showed that. Penske might almost be up there with them but right now Hendrick is the lead horse. Johnson had the 3rd-best ten-lap average in that second test session on Thursday and was 3rd on that chart in Happy Hour as well. If there’s any duo that I fully trust to come from the back of the pack it’s Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

5. Denny Hamlin – Starts 4th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 7th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

I’m very excited to see what Denny Hamlin can do now that he has gotten rid of Darian Grubb. This is a move that I’ve been hoping for for two years now and I really think that Denny can now be included in the championship talk. Yeah, he was mentioned with it before, but I always felt that Grubb was really holding Denny back. Anyway, it’s a long season so let’s talk about Atlanta. Hamlin went out on Friday and qualified 4th after posting some really strong lap times in both test sessions on Thursday as well as the official practice on Friday. In Happy Hour on Saturday, the #11 Toyota was 4th in overall speed and ranked P1 in ten-lap average. Historically, Atlanta has been a decently good race track for Hamlin, but it’s been very good for him as of late. Last season, Denny came home 3rd in the August race after starting 17th and leading 37 laps. He won here back in 2012 and has finished 8th or better in three of the last five Atlanta races. The two races he didn’t end up near the front were in 2013 and 2010, where Denny ended up 38th or worse. The reason? Blown engines both times. This track can be hard on the powerhouses of these cars but if Hamlin can avoid mechanical issues on Sunday I don’t see why he won’t be able to challenge for a top 5 finish. It’s worth noting that Denny has led at least 23 laps in six of the last nine events at this race track. That doesn’t happen by accident: Atlanta is a very good race track for Denny Hamlin, and that should show on Sunday.

6. Kyle Larson – Starts 6th – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 10th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

I was actually a little disappointed that Kyle Larson qualified 6th for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Obviously it’s still a very good starting spot for the young man but I was expecting a legitimate run at the pole. Oh, well. When it comes to fantasy, it’s all about where he finishes anyway. Larson has been strong all week long here at Atlanta and he’ll be looking to prove that his 8th-place run here last season–as well as his entire rookie campaign–wasn’t a fluke. I have my own concerns about Kyle hitting a “sophomore slump” but a solid top 10 run here on Sunday will go a long way to making me forget about that. Larson posted top 5 lap times in both test sessions this week and was fastest in the official practice session here on Friday. In Happy Hour, the #42 Chevrolet was 11th on the overall speed chart and 4th in ten lap average. Charlotte is the track that is most similar to Atlanta and “The Phenom” ended up 6th there in the fall race last season. I’m expecting at least a top 10 finish out of the #42 team on Sunday with a shot at a top 5 well within reach. One interesting statistic is that in the 13 races that Larson started inside the top 10 in 2014, he only finished inside that mark four times. The good news is that one of those four events was right here at Atlanta.

7. Carl Edwards – Starts 5th – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 8th
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

Atlanta is Carl Edwards’ best track on the circuit, and I will say that with confidence. He’s a three-time winner here, and when you look at his overall record, he has finished inside the top 5 more often than not in the races here at AMS (9 top 5s in 17 starts). Carl’s career average finish here is a disappointing 14.7, but that’s because he’s had his fair share of issues along the way–whether it be mechanical or getting parked by NASCAR for aggressive driving. However, when things go smoothly, Carl Edwards is pretty much a lock for a single-digit finish, which is exactly what us fantasy racers need. And now that he’s moved on top Joe Gibbs Racing and is no longer in mediocre equipment, I full expect Cousin Carl to have a very strong showing here in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday. He got off to a good start on Friday by qualifying 5th, and the #19 showed top 10 speed in that second test session on Thursday where teams worked on race runs. In Happy Hour on Saturday, Edwards did his normal thing of running less laps than most, but he was 5th on the speed chart and had the 19th-best ten-lap average. This team got off to a disappointing start last weekend at Daytona when they finished mid-pack, but now the real season starts, and we’ll finally get to see just how much Carl Edwards was being held back by the Roush Fenway team and equipment. Personally I think we’ll see him in victory lane quite a few times this year.

8. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Starts 9th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 9th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

Believe it or not, Atlanta Motor Speedway is (statistically) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s best track on the Sprint Cup circuit. He owns a very impressive 12.3 average finish over 27 career starts here with one win and just five results outside of the top 20. That’s what I call dependable and consistent. As mentioned numerous times before, I think Hendrick Motorsports has the edge on the rest of the garage right now, and that shouldn’t change on Sunday in the QuikTrip 500. Junior finished 11th here last year and is on a three-race streak of finishes inside that mark here at Atlanta. I fully expect him to make it four in a row on Sunday. Last year, qualifying was Dale’s Achilles heel, so Junior fans can rejoice this weekend because the #88 Chevrolet will roll off the grid in 9th. I’m not sure how much of that to attribute to a fast race car or a new crew chief. I guess we’ll find out Sunday. Earnhardt had strong test sessions on Thursday, posting top 10 lap times in each. He also had the 8th-best ten-lap average in the second test. During Happy Hour, the #88 Chevrolet ranked 14th and 10th on those charts, respectively. Junior tends to get off to a fast start when the NASCAR season starts so it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him inside the top 5 when it’s all said and done on Sunday.

9. Matt Kenseth – Starts 36th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 3rd
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

This has been an especially quiet weekend out of Matt Kenseth and the #20 team, so I have a feeling he’s going to be on a lot lower number of rosters than he should be. Matt has never won here at Atlanta, but it’s bound to happen soon, and he’s been very consistent here over the course of his career. In 26 career starts at this track, Kenseth has averaged a finish of 12.3 while posting 15 top 10s. Want even better stats? Kenseth hasn’t finished worse than 13th here at Atlanta since the 2005 season. Yeah, you can almost consider him a lock for a top 10 finish when we stop here no matter where he starts. The #20 team was one of those that got burned during qualifying on Friday so they will have to start the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 from way back in 36th. I’m not overly concerned about it, though, because this is a long race and Kenseth is used to starting mid-pack or worse–it’s kind of been his defining factor over the years among fantasy experts. I would’ve liked to see more speed out of this #20 Toyota in practice on Saturday but 16th-fastest isn’t the worst ranking in the world. Kenseth was 20th in ten-lap average during that session and I’m expecting a solid top 10 out of him on Sunday.

10. Kasey Kahne – Starts 10th – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 11th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

If you regularly read my fantasy advice, you know for a fact that I don’t trust Kasey Kahne at all. Very rarely will I confidently recommend that you pick him, but if you like to gamble the #5 Chevrolet usually provides a pretty good option. Kasey is the defending race winner here at Atlanta Motor Speedway but I’ll be the first person to tell you that he didn’t have the best car in that race. Still, a win is a win and that’s how you get the most points in fantasy. Although Kahne is a three-time winner here at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his career average finish here is 18.6. That actually shouldn’t be all that surprising because of how up-and-down Kasey is at pretty much every venue on the Sprint Cup circuit. Before his win here last August, Kahne had four-straight finishes outside of the top 20 here at Atlanta, but before that he went three races in a row finishing 7th or better. The #5 Chevrolet will roll off the grid in 10th on Sunday and Kahne should be able to pull off a top 10 result if he can keep his nose clean. I’m a little more confident in picking him simply because of how strong the Hendrick cars look this season. The gap may be even bigger than it was last year. In Happy Hour, Kahne ran the 2nd-fastest lap and ranked dead-last in ten-lap average (I’m not sure what happened there).

11. Brad Keselowski – Starts 12th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 5th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

I’m just not getting the vibe that the Blue Deuce is a great race car this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Now, keep in mind that when this exact scenario happened last season, Keselowski usually went on to challenge for the win. When you look at the Penske organization, when one car is very good–like Joey Logano is this weekend–the other one usually experiments in practice a bit, which is what I expect Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe did on Saturday. However, BK was mid-pack on the Happy Hour speed chart and ended up with just the 11th-fastest ten-lap average, and he wasn’t overly fast in the test sessions on Thursday eighter. He’ll roll off the grid in 12th when the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 goes green on Sunday, but even that is a little worse than expected for “Bad Brad.” Heading into Sunday I’m just not too excited with picking Keselowski, and (for the most part) it’s due to the fact that there are just better options out there. Kez has a 24th-place average finish here at Atlanta Motor Speedway with two top 6 finishes and four results outside of the top 20 over the course of his six career starts.

12. Ryan Newman – Starts 7th – Yahoo! A Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 12th
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

Test session #2 on Thursday was the one where the teams really worked on race runs, so it was somewhat surprising for me to see Ryan Newman’s name up in P2 when it was all said and done. He also ranked 7th on the ten-lap average chart. Then Friday came and the #31 Chevrolet qualified in 7th, which isn’t all that surprising considering that Newman has won the pole for SEVEN separate Atlanta races. He almost has more poles than top 10s at this race track, which is both funny and sad at the same time. On a positive note, “The Rocketman” has recorded back-to-back finishes here at Atlanta, and the result in 2013 was 5th-place–a career best for the Richard Childress Racing driver. That last sentence tells you everything you need to know about Ryan Newman and his fantasy value this weekend; at best, expect the #31 Chevrolet to battle for a 7th- to 9th-place finish, with somewhere in the realm of 10th through 12th being much more likely. In Happy Hour on Saturday afternoon, Newman was just 17th-fastest on the speed chart with the 9th-best ten-lap average.

13. Jamie McMurray – Starts 3rd – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 13th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

I’ve had my eye on Jamie McMurray all week long, and I actually had him ranked 13th in my Early Week Rankings here at ifantasyrace. I thought that might backfire on me but I’m even more confident in it now that we’re through with qualifying and practice. Jamie Mac will start Sunday’s QuikTrip 500 in 3rd, and while I don’t think he will be able to stay up there for the whole race, a top 10 definitely isn’t out of the question for this #1 team. Let’s not forge that McMurray really improved on the intermediate tracks throughout 2014 and actually posted top 5s at Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead before we crowned a champion. Remember, Charlotte is the track that is most like Atlanta. In the two test sessions here on Thursday, Jamie was consistently one of the fastest, posting the best lap time in the first session and ending up 6th on the board in Test #2 (with the 5th-best ten-lap average). In Happy Hour on Saturday, McMurray ranked 10th in overall speed with the 8th-fastest ten-lap average. He has finished 12th and 11th in the last two Cup races here at Atlanta so there’s definite sleeper potential there; I’m glad I made a last-second switch and put McMurray on my Yahoo! roster because there’s a good chance he makes my starting lineup. Sleeper-wise the #1 Chevrolet is your best bet this weekend because it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see McMurray post a solid top 10 on Sunday.

14. Austin Dillon – Starts 15th – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 19th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

The driver of the #3 Chevrolet now has a full season of Sprint Cup action under his belt, and near the end of his rookie campaign Austin was really starting to improve on the intermediate tracks. He ended up finishing 13th at at Charlotte last October, which–as I said before–is the track most similar to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Austin has been right around that mark on the speed charts all week long and I’m expecting another top 15 finish out of his here on Sunday–and a career-best result at Atlanta. In two career starts at this track, Austin has ended up 19th and 24th. The reason I have Dillon ranked above guys like Menard and Truex heading into Sunday is because of how Happy Hour went for this #3 team: Austin was 3rd-fastest overall and ran more laps than most other drivers, which makes me think he’s really happy with his race car. Personally I think 14th or so is the ceiling for this #3 team right now, but that’s a pretty good result when you consider the fantasy tier Dillon is in. There are certain leagues where Dillon may be a viable option, it just depends on how the league is set up.

15. A.J. Allmendinger – Starts 11th – Yahoo! B Group
Pre-Practice Rank: 20th
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

Allmendinger was one of my sleeper picks heading into the race weekend and I slipped him into 20th-place in my Early Week rankings. My opinion hasn’t changed, although now I think there is some definite potential for a top 15 finish out of the #47 Ford on Sunday. A.J. went out there on Friday and made it to the final round of qualifying and will roll off the grid in 11th once the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 goes green. He posted the 6th-fastest lap in Happy Hour but didn’t find his way on to the ten-lap average chart, which is a little bit concerning. The speed shown there isn’t the only thing to like about Allmendinger this weekend; Atlanta Motor Speedway is the best intermediate track on the circuit for this driver…and most people might not even know that. A.J. has only posted two top 10 finishes over 9 career starts at this race track but his career average finish is 17.2 and he’s only finished outside of the top 20 once. That’s what I call reliable–especially at the tier of equipment that Allmendinger uses. That will be exactly what limits A.J. this weekend (as usual) and the reason you should temper your expectations as well. If everything goes perfectly (which it probably won’t) Allmendinger might be able to sneak in a 10th-place finish. However, there are plenty of leagues that it will be a great week for you if you can get a top 15 out of a guy like A.J. Take a chance if you’re feeling lucky, I might.
The Next Ten:

16. Paul Menard
17. Martin Truex, Jr.
18. Greg Biffle
19. Clint Bowyer
20. Tony Stewart
21. Danica Patrick
22. Casey Mears
23. David Ragan
24. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
25. Sam Hornish, Jr.