Spin the Black Circle: Daytona 500
It's been a long couple of weeks for yours truly, after the Patriots inhaled backward against the Giants, and I'm about dang ready to get the nasty taste out of my mouth. (I know: I was in the minority of Super Bowl watchers, but you can't help whom you root for, right?) And considering it's been more than three months since the last meaningful Sprint Cup race (the '07 Chase was, let's face it, a little bit of a drama-free letdown), the fact that we start with the Granddaddy Of 'Em All right off the bat sure is sweet.
The 50th Daytona 500 will be the first in the Car of Tomorrow (or "Car of Today" or "Winged Car" or "Dump Truck On Steroids"), but if the practices and exhibitions of Speedweeks are any indication, Sunday's racing should be just fine. I'm a bit worried about the COT in Fontana and Vegas in subsequent unrestricted events, not only because we might see a huge game of "Follow the Leader," but also because our years of pristine data that have made fantasy picks easier may fly out the window. Nevertheless, we're going to get another thrill ride this weekend.
In case you're a newcomer, let's recap: ESPN.com has two ways to play fantasy NASCAR in 2008. First off, we've introduced Fantasy Stock Car, which works just like fantasy football: You hold a live online customizable draft, you can trade and add/drop drivers, and you score based on how your drivers perform on race day. And we've also still got the "Stock Car Challenge," our salary-cap game, in which you're given $100 million to spend on five drivers each week. Both games are free.
This column, Spin The Black Circle, will focus generally on drivers I expect to be good or bad in the upcoming race, which is advice you should easily be able to apply to both of our games. So let's get right to the Daytona 500.
Hendrick. Hendrick. Hendrick. Did I mention Hendrick? Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked strong and in charge leading 47 of 70 laps in the Bud Shootout, and there's little reason to believe he won't be there at the end of the 500, especially considering who might be pushing him (more on that in a moment). Little-E was the dominant plate-track driver on the NASCAR scene from 2001 to 2005, and that wasn't all just DEI's technical advantages. Junior is a spectacular drafter who's rounding into the full bloom of maturity. In other words: He's not Tony Stewart. Earnhardt Jr. won't push the issue until it matters. Talladega is actually his better track, but even on the bumps and swales of Daytona, Junior is terrific: two wins and nine top-10s in his 16 events, and from '01 through '06 (discounting his bummer of a 2007 with DEI), his Daytona finishing average was 9.3. In the land of the Big One, that's good enough for me.
Jimmie Johnson is the other high-dollar guy I'd be sure to nab in the Stock Car Challenge. First of all, he's good everywhere, so it's never a bad thing to lock him in at his current price, because dollars to doughnuts, his price tag will begin rising next week. More importantly, J.J. has the blend of confidence, conservatism and gumption to be great nearly every time he runs Daytona. In his 12 career starts, Johnson has eight top-10 finishes, five top-5s and a win in the '06 Daytona 500. If he's not near the front late on Sunday, it'll be because he got caught in a big wreck, but given the fact that he's on the pole, Johnson has a decent chance of staying out in front of the Big One, at least if it happens early. Also remember: Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson have Jeff Gordon and even Casey Mears ready to push them, and no other team has four such strong teammates. I know it's fashionable to claim that Gibbs and Roush have closed the gap on Hendrick's advantages in the COT, and maybe we'll discover that's true. You also have to consider the fact that all four Hendrick cars had to have engine parts replaced on Wednesday, because of faulty valve lifters. But for the moment, to me, Sunday's deck still looks stacked in Hendrick's favor.
Whether you're playing Fantasy Stock Car or the Stock Car Challenge (or both), Mark Martin makes an interesting case. He'll run only 24 of the 36 events this year in DEI's No. 8 car (Aric Almirola runs the other 12), so you'll have to keep a serious eye on the respected and wrinkly Martin. Certainly, you're not going to be able to hold on to him all season in the Challenge, nor will you be able to start him every single week in Fantasy Stock Car. Regardless, when he's in there, Martin stands to be a bargain, because he's the smoothest guy around. There are no promises at Daytona, where huge wrecks are the norm, but if anyone can survive the carnage, it's Martin. He was a heartbreaking second to Kevin Harvick in last year's Daytona 500, and in 45 career starts at this track, he's finished in the top 10 16 times, including six of the past 12. DEI may not quite be what it once was, but that No. 8 car sure has enjoyed some fun times here.
I'd also consider giving Jamie McMurray some play. Jamie-Mac hasn't lived up to the hype that surrounded his jump from Ganassi to Roush a couple years back, but he did win the Daytona race last summer after coming back from a lap-down penalty. His past five times out on this track, McMurray has a first, a second and an eighth, and while Chevy cars have won 15 of the past 19 Sprint Cup events at this track, at least Jamie-Mac has an army of Roushketeers ready to push him to a win if circumstances arise, as they did last July.
Toyota has looked stout during Speedweeks. Joe Gibbs Racing is a megateam with three impossibly talented drivers, any of whom could zip to the front and stay there on Sunday. But I might as well start the year with a bang, which means ticking off about a quarter of my audience by saying I'd avoid Tony Stewart this week. Listen, Smoke finished second at the Bud Shootout, has two wins at summer Daytona events and has finished in the top 10 in exactly half of his 18 tries at Daytona. He's a stud. But he's also a madman. Who doesn't remember his act here last summer, when he and teammate Denny Hamlin were leading the race, and Stewart jacked up Hamlin in a turn, wrecking them both? And who doesn't think if Kurt Busch gets the chance, he might give Tony the Tiger a little "unintentional nudge"? Daytona is a bad place to have people with grudges racing against you, and at this point, there aren't a lot of people left who don't have a grudge against Stewart. I can't say I'd be surprised if Stewart wins this race, but I just don't think he's worth the risk, fantasywise, because he could also finish 40th.
He hasn't looked all that impressive yet, and his team is clearly in rebuilding mode, but David Gilliland is an interesting sleeper every time we come to a plate track. Gilliland won the pole for last year's 500 and hung in there all day, eventually finishing eighth (while leading 18 laps). He also finished 11th at the summer Daytona event, and fourth at the spring Talladega race. If Gilliland is your fifth driver in Fantasy Stock Car, this might be the week to get him off your bench and into the starting lineup. Yates is banking on young drivers (Gilliland and Travis Kvapil) and smaller sponsorships, but when you get those engines on this track, magic does seem to happen.
Dave Blaney might also make an interesting start this week. We've been yapping all winter about Gibbs' change to Toyota, and how the infusion of cash might be a rising tide that raises all Toyota boats. Well, Blaney would be a primary beneficiary, and he showed some chops in Saturday's Shootout, leading seven laps and finishing seventh. Blaney has never posted a top-10 at Daytona, and he's led exactly one lap in 16 points races. But Bill Davis Racing does still remember that glorious day in 2002, when Ward Burton piloted the No. 22 to a Daytona 500 win.
When he drove for Hendrick Motorsports, Brian Vickers turned in seventh-place and ninth-place finishes at Daytona, and won his only career Cup race (albeit under controversial circumstances) at Talladega. Which is to say: The young man can go fast. He proved it again Thursday, with a strong 11th-place finish in the first duel qualifying event, which means he'll go off 23rd on Sunday. Vickers and all of Team Red Bull need some good news; 2007 was very tough indeed, and failing to get inside the top 35 in owner points by the season's fifth race would make the sledding very tough in '08 as well. Toyota has the second, fourth and sixth starting positions for this event (four Chevys, three Toyotas and three Dodges will start ahead of any Fords), which could bode well for an improved-horsepower engine. Clearly, Vickers is startable in deeper leagues only, but in, say, a 10-teamer? He's worth a Hail Mary.
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.