Is the Lady in Black still the "Track Too Tough to Tame"?
The powers-that-be at Darlington determined that tradition wasn't enough any longer, and that having a track surface that resembled an alligator's back was bad for business. So Darlington's famously sandpaper-like asphalt is no more. It's repaved, and it no longer will chew through tires in five laps, will no longer cause cars to get extremely loose almost from the outset, and will probably cause all kind of controversy this week between Tony Stewart and Goodyear.
After all, we've seen this movie before. Old-style track gets a new surface, which makes it crazily fast, which causes all manner of blown tires, which causes drivers to ask for some cheese with their whine. The new Darlington surface is extremely grippy and will cause cars to run higher than 200 mph at a track where, well, they've never actually done that before.
Saturday night should be fun, but hopefully it's safe. Everything I hear about the new track makes me think Darlington is now a downforce race; even though the configuration has fewer gradual turns than your traditional cookie-cutters and is 1.3 miles long instead of 1.5, there's a good chance we'll soon be thinking of this race like we think of the new Las Vegas, the new Charlotte and good ol' Atlanta. Let's take a look at the best fantasy plays for Saturday night.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Denny Hamlin, 24th; Jimmie Johnson, 30th)
Since my contention is that this new/old joint is going to drive something like a cookie-cutter, it makes sense that my favorite to win the race is Carl Edwards. King Carl has been dominant at all the 1.5-milers so far this year, as he seems to have found something in his Car of Tomorrow that the rest of the garage hasn't (yet). This run of dominance won't last forever, heck, it probably won't last the entire season. But until further notice, this track style is going to favor the No. 99. It's worth noting that last season, Edwards had one of the best cars of the day at Darlington, but incurred a pit lane penalty and finished fifth.
I'll also give Denny Hamlin another spin. I had Hamlin as my top choice last week at Richmond, and he led 381 laps before running over debris and popping a tire. D'oh. Hamlin certainly has troubles closing the deal on wins, but in fantasy, all we need him to be is close to the front. He had the best car at Darlington one year ago before -- surprise, surprise -- he suffered a terrible late pit stop, fell behind Jeff Gordon, and couldn't make up the ground, finishing second. If he duplicates that effort Saturday, though, that'll make for a mighty fine fantasy day.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Mark Martin, 3rd; David Ragan, 17th)
Ryan Newman has never won at Darlington, but he's finished in the top six in four of his past five tries here, including a fourth-place finish in the COT here last year. Flyin' Ryan has also been fast at pretty much all the downforce races this year, coming in 10th at Fontana, 14th at Vegas, 14th at Atlanta and fourth at Texas. He's had a couple terrible finishes so far this year (33rd at Bristol, 43rd at Phoenix), but has run relatively well just about everywhere. He'll be a threat Saturday night.
I'll also give a nod Kasey Kahne's way. In five career starts at Darlington, Kahne has posted a third and a fifth, and has never finished in the field's bottom half. He was a solid ninth at Fontana and sixth at Vegas way back in the second and third events of the season, and deserved better than 25th at Texas back in April.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Race: Matt Kenseth, 38th)
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 Kurt Busch. I've been on the elder Busch at the plate-track races this year, and he ran mostly well at both Daytona and Talladega. But otherwise, 2008 has been a chamber of horrors for the Blue Deuce. It's been six races since he's posted a finish better than 23rd, and Darlington isn't a place you want to visit while you're struggling. Busch has four career top-10 finishes at Darlington (though none have come since the fall of '04), but there are far safer places to put your fantasy bets this week.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Bobby Labonte, 13th; Jamie McMurray, 35th)
Mark Martin is a legend in Sprint Cup circles, and is probably nobody's idea of a genuine sleeper. But because he's only running a part-time schedule this year, most fantasy games are valuing him below where his skills and reputation would nominally place him. (For instance, Martin is currently the 18th most-expensive driver in our Stock Car Challenge salary cap game.) I'll go with the wily vet at the "Track (Maybe) Too Tough to Tame". He has 25 career top-10 finishes here, and while I don't automatically expect his recent success at the flatter tracks at Phoenix and Richmond to carry over to this event, I still think he represents very nice value this weekend.
I'll also give David Ragan a nod in the land of sleepers. (Is it a bad sign that the two "midrange" guys I picked last week at Richmond are my "sleepers" for Darlington?) Ragan has been money at the downforce tracks this year, as befits his status as a Roushketeer. Roush Fenway seems to have discovered some technical or aerodynamic trick at the circuit's fastest, highest-banked venues, and has put it to good use. Ragan was 14th at Fontana, seventh at Vegas, 23rd at Atlanta and 13th at Texas, which makes me think he's got a top-15 in him Saturday.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: David Gilliland, 41st)
I didn't exactly cover myself in glory reaching for David Gilliland last weekend; consider that a lesson learned: don't pick a Yates car at a non-horsepower track. But hey, Darlington's going to be horsepower-intensive, so I'm picking Gilliland's teammate, the driver of the No. 28, Travis Kvapil. At the sport's fastest venues in '08, Kvapil has surprised a lot of people. His eighth-place finish at Las Vegas was his coming-out party as a legitimate fantasy option, and since then, he posted a top-20 at Texas and a top-10 at Talladega. Kvapil is owned in just 8.7 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, making him an option if you're completely fed up with the last driver on your fantasy squad.
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.