- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Racing fans, rejoice. Sunday is one heck of a day.
First there's the Indy 500, the Granddaddy of 'Em All (wait, I think that's the Rose Bowl). Then there's the Coca-Cola 600, the longest endurance test of the Sprint Cup season.
It should go without saying that the driver who's best at the beginning of Sunday's race (which will almost certainly be Kyle Busch, since he smoked the field in qualifying and took the pole) won't necessarily be the guy who's best at race's end, five-plus hours later. The track will change, the cars will change, the drivers will get tired, and no doubt the less patient among them (et tu, Kyle?) will have all the more opportunity to do something stupid.
Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte is a super-grippy version of the cookie-cutter, mile-and-a-half tracks at Atlanta and Texas, where we've already run this year, which should give us a mighty fine sense of which cars should be strong all through the afternoon and into the evening. So let's take a look at your weekend's best fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Carl Edwards, 2nd; Denny Hamlin, 7th)
Ho hum, another downforce track, and I'm taking Carl Edwards again. I know he qualified only 30th for this race, but remember, he qualified 36th at Darlington, meandered around in the back half of the field for a couple hours, then made a frantic charge and finished second. Considering Edwards won at Texas and should've won at Atlanta (he blew an engine with a big lead late), you could say the No. 99 has this whole intermediate speedway thing sussed out. Plus, he makes for a nice safe fantasy play, considering he's got five top-10 finishes at Charlotte in six Sprint Cup races run here.
And yes, I have to go with Kyle Busch. The Shrub won at Atlanta and was third at Texas, plus won at newly downforce Darlington two weeks ago and seemed to have the field covered in the All-Star race on this very track last weekend, before his engine blew. As I already mentioned, it doesn't hurt that Busch took the pole on Thursday, though you do always have to worry about Kyle doing something stupid in a race this long.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Ryan Newman, 37th; Kasey Kahne, 22nd)
Believe it or not, as ESPN.com's Stock Car Challenge has reshuffled its driver values after the season's first segment, Matt Kenseth currently doesn't qualify as "elite." Milwaukee Matt is 20th in Sprint Cup points and 19th in the SCC, which makes him a relative bargain. I'd bite this week. Kenseth turned in the 12th-quickest lap during Thursday's qualifying session, and even in this year of terrible struggles, the No. 17 has been good at the cookie cutters. He finished eighth in Atlanta and ninth at Texas.
Brian Vickers has seen his value jump in the SCC, but I'd still make a play for him this week. He qualified third for Sunday's event, but more importantly, he's been a quietly solid driver at the wider, faster tracks this season. He was 11th at Fontana and ninth at Atlanta, and was a decent 16th at Texas. Right now he's the 20th-rated driver in the Stock Car Challenge, and I think he'll post a finish better than 20th on Sunday.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Kurt Busch, 12th)
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 Travis Kvapil. All right, that's kind of a cheat; Kvapil suddenly finds himself rated 12th in the Stock Car Challenge, which means you should stay far, far away from him. He's been good, and I can see him posting another top 20 this week in Charlotte, but he's just as likely to give you a poor effort, and you can't afford to spend such a high percentage of your cap on a guy like that. But since that's cheating, I'll give you another name: Ryan Newman, and not just because he qualified 38th. Newman was very good at Texas, finishing fourth, and was decent at Atlanta, coming in 14th. But his recent Charlotte record is very bad. In the past two seasons, Newman has finished 35th, 27th, 39th and 28th at this track. Of course, we're racing in the Car of Tomorrow now, so some of that data isn't as relevant as it once was. But still, there are enough warning signs that I'll stay away from Flyin' Ryan.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: Mark Martin, 16th; David Ragan, 5th)
It's a little boring, but I keep coming back to Mark Martin. Hey, he's been a factor in just about every race he's run on his part-time schedule, and he's currently the 22nd-most-expensive driver in the Stock Car Challenge. That puts him safely in the "sleeper" category, but when ol' Apple-Head-on-a-Stick is driving the No. 8, it's probably going to be fast.
Casey Mears's only career Sprint Cup victory came in this race last season, when he held on during a fuel-mileage victory despite not having the best car. Still, considering his fantasy value is just about at its nadir, you could do worse than take a shot on an inexpensive Hendrick car, right? I'm not guaranteeing a top 20, but Mears should come close to finishing in the field's top half.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: Travis Kvapil, 8th)
So much for my boy Kvapil in this spot, huh? And David Ragan is no longer the bargain he once was, either, though I do like them both in this race. Instead, I'll cast my deep-sleeper lot with Paul Menard of DEI. Menard is owned in just over half of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, and if he's available in your deeper league, I'd consider grabbing him. He was 19th in Atlanta and 17th in Texas, which gives him a passing chance at another top 20 Sunday.
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.