Spin the Black Circle: Aaron's 499
Put 'em in a hat.
That's probably the sagest advice anyone can give you regarding making picks when NASCAR is heading to a restrictor-plate track. The cars won't be but six inches from each other, traveling at about 180 miles per hour. There won't be an aerodynamic advantage. Horsepower advantages will be minimized by the draft. Cars will shoot from first to 20th in a lap. And your selection could be rocking and rolling near the front all day, but get caught up in the Big One with two laps left and post a 35th. It's just the way things go at these places.
Adding to the confusion is the question of which team is apt to be best at plate tracks in the new Cup car. Back at Daytona, we saw Penske run one-two (Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch), but wasn't that a little out of nowhere? Didn't the Gibbs guys dominate large chunks of the race? And what does the fact that Jeff Gordon swept Talladega last year mean? Nothing? Chevrolets in general, and Hendrick in particular, have just killed it at this track over the past decade. Chevy has taken 17 of the past 18 Cup races at Talladega, and either a Hendrick driver or new Hendrick guy Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 11 of the past 13 Cup races here. What does this all mean? Nothing?
Let's see what's what with our best fantasy bets of the week.
(Last Race: Denny Hamlin, 3rd; Jimmie Johnson, 1st)
I'm bucking the Chevy trend. Insofar as this race is at all predictable (p.s. -- it's not), I'm guessing that Gibbs will rule the day. I'm that impressed with the Toyota horsepower advantages we've seen at the bigger tracks, and while I know I just finished saying horsepower advantages tend to be negated by the draft at these behemoth venues, that slight advantage could be enough to push a driver over the edge. So Kyle Busch is my upset pick to win this race. The Shrub led 86 laps in the Daytona 500 in February before finishing fourth. I know he has only one Talladega finish better than 32nd in five career tries, and I know he's a super-risky nut-job most weeks, let alone when he's this close to his competitors all race long. But if you saw the past two races at Daytona, you get the sense that the superspeedways owe Busch.
I'm also giving a nod to Tony Stewart, despite the big controversy about him potentially leaving Gibbs. First off, it would be just like Smoke to win a race in a week when he has everyone scratching their heads about what he's thinking. (For the uninitiated, you can check out the latest insanity involving Smoke here.) Next, remember: Stewart has six career second-place finishes at this track, so while he's not exactly the greatest bet to close the deal and win, you have to believe he's going to be near the front in the end. And finally, Stewart led 16 laps at the 500 in February and would have taken the race if the Penske guys hadn't gotten a better push on the last turn.
(Last Race: Casey Mears, 11th; David Ragan, 27th)
Kasey Kahne finished seventh at Daytona in February in the new Cup car and has four finishes of 16th or better in his past five tries at Talladega. Add to that the fact that Kahne also has been 11th or better in four of the past five Daytona races, and it's clear Evernham Motorsports is quietly becoming a fantasy factor at the plate tracks. Kahne typically does not wreck in these things, which is something else we need from our picks this week.
And while I don't think Penske will run out and win its second plate race in a row, you have to think Kurt Busch will continue to have some very nice horsepower in his Penske Dodge. Busch has seven consecutive finishes at Talladega in which he's been eighth or better, making him the closest thing to a solid fantasy driver at a plate race. The elder Busch pushed teammate Ryan Newman to the Daytona 500 win, and it's possible the No. 12 will return the favor for the No. 2 late Sunday. It's never bad to have a strong drafting partner at these tracks. A few folks I know are predicting doom and gloom for Busch, as his team hasn't looked very "together" over the past month. But I think plate racing can cure a lot of ills and that the Blue Deuce will be strong.
(Last Race: Kurt Busch, 23rd)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'm staying away from Greg Biffle. Roush just isn't as strong as the other major teams when it comes to plate tracks, and while The Biff did win a plate race in the summer of 2003 at Daytona, that was a fuel-mileage affair in which he had nothing resembling the best car. Biffle never has finished better than 13th at Talladega and has a career 26th-place finishing average at the joint. He also hasn't topped 23rd here since the spring of '05.
(Last Week: Jamie McMurray, 17th; Bobby Labonte, 12th)
I'll let myself get carried away by Evernham to the extent that I'll also select Kahne's teammate Elliott Sadler, who's known around the garage as a real beast on the plate tracks. He finished sixth in the 500 and has been sixth or better in four of the past five Daytona events. Talladega hasn't been his thing quite to the extent Daytona has (remember Sadler in the No. 38 doing about a thousand barrel rolls down the front straightaway in the fall of 2003?), but he does have two finishes of sixth or better here since the spring of '03.
Brian Vickers posted the only win of his Cup career at this track in the fall of '06, albeit under extremely controversial circumstances (he pushed aside JJ, his teammate, who then wrecked into Dale Earnhardt Jr., giving Vickers the win). Vickers probably won't have the car to contend for a victory and might find it a bit tough to find a loyal drafting partner all day long, but have I mentioned I like Toyota's horsepower this year? I think the No. 83 can give you a top-15.
(Last Week: Regan Smith, 35th)
David Gilliland disappointed at Daytona earlier this year. He never was fast during Speed Weeks, never got close to the lead and finished the race 28th. But that isn't enough to erase the memory of the No. 38 finishing eighth and 11th at Daytona last season, and finishing fourth in this Talladega event last spring. Yates has good engines, and Gilliland is a surprising 21st in the points standings. He's owned in only 22.1 percent of ESPN leagues, and I definitely think he's worth a one-week pickup this Sunday, if you've been struggling or if one of your drivers fails to qualify.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.
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