Welcome to Fantasy Stock Car!
I know what you are thinking:
"If only the football season lasted 36 weeks."
Well, it doesn't. It turns out that playing more than, say, 20 NFL games in a calendar year tends to kill you. So as December turns to January, and as Bill Belichick's thoughts turn to those brand-new hoodies he got for Christmas, the fantasy football owner is left with a void as wide as Ted Washington's thigh.
But don't worry: Jeff Gordon is here to fill it.
Fantasy NASCAR 2008 is coming, and it's good. Honestly. Believe me, five or so years ago, I was as skeptical as you are. I had a pre-existing bias against stock car racing that dated to my wasted youth, spent envying Bo and Luke and their proximity to Catherine Bach, and thinking that hooking up your car horn to whistle "Dixie" was kind of lame. Indeed, until around the turn of the century, NASCAR itself intentionally kept me at a distance, highlighting its more rednecked qualities by naming its events after "headache powders" and allowing luminaries to dip during interviews. The thing I've learned, though, is that underneath its flag-draped, pork-rind exterior has always beat the heart of a strategy-bound sport with more depth than an 80-ounce Pabst. When the sport's "purists" complain (and oh, do they complain) about NASCAR "losing touch with its roots" and "going corporate," that's code for "taking a shower."
Divorce yourself from the sweatier aspects of NASCAR fandom (or, if you like, don't), and what you are left with is a sport in which it is unbelievably hard to win. It requires technical precision, top-notch communication, dynamic thought, in-race strategy and dumb luck, all of which can combine to produce a fascinating viewing experience, not to mention an even better fantasy experience. Whether you join the kind of "draft-and-trade" league that closely resembles fantasy football (this year, ESPN.com is offering such a league, called "Fantasy Stock Car") or a "salary cap" league (made popular by ESPN.com's ongoing "Stock Car Challenge"), you'll find mountains of historical driver and track data that offer insight about which drivers make the best fantasy plays each week.
And that's the key. NASCAR-disdainers envision each weekend in the sport's massive nine-month season as an identical series of left-hand turns, but it's not true. Each week brings a new track with a new configuration, requiring dramatically different driver skills and car setups. And if you know, for instance, that in 2007, Denny Hamlin had the fourth-best finishing average on flat tracks, you have a leg up on the competition. No two races are the same, influenced as they are by the track (configuration, age, surface condition), weather (temperature, cloud cover) and how the event unfolds. But there are tea leaves we can read, things we know about teams and drivers, hallowed halls in which the sport's stars struggle and succeed. In short: It's as fun to predict as any regular-season NFL game.
Get over your anti-NASCAR bias, and you will find a fantasy sport that actually is an awful lot like fantasy football. Both are "once-weekly," event-oriented games that don't require the daily attention of baseball, basketball and hockey. Both can feel cruelly random, whether you are suffering through a football championship loss to your office secretary because Tony Romo decided it would be fun to suck in Week 16, or whether you are watching Kurt Busch lead a race's first 290 laps, only to wreck minutes before the checkers. And both can deliver sublime pleasure at the end of a long Sunday of rooting, when one's intuitions have proven sage. Believe me: When your four starting drivers all finish inside the top 10 of a race, it's every bit as sweet as having drafted Marques Colston in the last round.
Extend the metaphor to individuals, and NASCAR's leading personalities tend to take on the personae of some of the most fun-to-own players in the NFL. To wit:
Jimmie Johnson = LaDainian Tomlinson. Johnson is the two-time defending Cup champion and won a ridiculous 10 races in 2007. His car even has the swank blue-and-yellow color scheme with which LDT graces the covers of national magazines.
Jeff Gordon = Tom Brady. Admired and loathed, each of these dudes is a fearful competitor you would rather not square off against, a pretty boy with the soul of a hired assassin. Each also has a ridiculously hot significant other, a new baby and a chin cleft a half-mile wide.
Matt Kenseth = Brian Westbrook. Consistency, thy name is Kenseth. The 2003 Cup champ is smooth and deadly, extraordinarily reliable on all surfaces and just a half-notch down from the best guys in his sport.
Tony Stewart = Chad Johnson. Love him or hate him, half the fun of owning Tony the Tiger is wondering what will come out of his mouth next. At Daytona this past summer, he was in second place and drove up on the back bumper of the first-place driver, his own teammate, and smacked him in a turn, wrecking them both. After the race, naturally, Stewart vehemently blamed the teammate.
Kasey Kahne = Eli Manning. One of the sport's most popular drivers, the mercurial Kahne can't get out of his own way a lot of the time, and he spent most of 2007 getting lambasted in the media for subpar performances. Of course, the second you write him off, he posts a second place in the Bristol night race.
By this point, perhaps you have cast a wary eye my way. "Whatever," you say. "You get paid to pimp stuff like this, even if you don't believe it." But I promise: I was as hardcore a hater as you could get, yet, once I let go of disliking the idea of paying attention to NASCAR, I started having a lot of fun playing these games. (And come on. Aren't there people who don't "share your values" who root for your NFL team? Dismissing an entire sport out-of-hand because you have a pre-existing notion about its culture seems pretty dumb, doesn't it?) If you want a low-impact introduction to fantasy NASCAR, try a salary cap game like "Stock Car Challenge," in which you pick from among all drivers for each race, trying to assemble the week's most productive team while staying under a salary cap. If you want more of a fantasy football experience, join a "Fantasy Stock Car" league and draft with five friends, then start/sit, add/drop and trade.
Whom do you take with the first overall pick? Who should go third, after Gordon and Johnson? Who are this year's sleepers? Should you trade away an early season surprise race winner at the peak of his value? Should you give up on the guy who is off to a disappointing first month? See that? Just when you were sad about the NFL's end: nine more months of fantasy-related ulcers. Now, get out there and play.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.