I'd be lying if I said I look forward to Pocono.
I've got nothing in particular against rural Pennsylvania; in fact, I have a cousin who lives near the track. But oh, that track. A huge, tri-cornered-hat of a monstrosity, Pocono Raceway looks big but drives surprisingly little, because its three turns are shallow, shallower and shallowest. It's designed as an homage to three other race tracks: Turn 1 has a (relatively) sane 14 degrees of banking, and is meant to resemble now-defunct Trenton Speedway, Turn 2 (aka the "Tunnel Turn") is patterned after Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its eight degrees of banking, and Turn 3 is modeled after the Milwaukee Mile and its meager six degrees of banking. They call this place the superspeedway that drives like a road course, but I ask you: Do we really need one of those?
My complaint is that races tend to get stretched out at Pocono, leading to long green-flag runs, precious little passing and thus very little juggling in the field. The main excitement in last year's two Pocono races consisted of whether the rain would wash away this same event last June. Whoopee!
But ours is not to reason why. The larger problem we have this week, fantasy-wise, is that the Sprint Cup set has never run the Car of Tomorrow at a venue like this. The cars need to be aero-sensitive on the giant front straightaway like they are on traditional downforce tracks, but they need to be able to brake hard in the triangular turns like they would at a flat track. That's the bad news. The good news is Sunday's results should help us when it comes to predicting the Brickyard next month. Let's look at the best speculative fantasy plays this weekend.
Even though the Smokeless Set has run only the "old car" at this joint, it's still hard not to be bamboozled by Denny Hamlin's record here. In four career Pocono starts, he's got two wins and three top-5 finishes. The Toyotas have more than held their own on all track types this year, and in places on this raceway where horsepower matters, Hamlin should have plenty.
I also like Dale Earnhardt Jr. He ran very well here in the second race last season, sticking near the front at the beginning of the event, then falling all the way to the back to change his shocks, only to zoom back to second place by the day's end. Junior has three finishes inside the top 15 here in his past four tries, and wants to get the nasty taste of last week's early wreck at Dover out of his mouth. Of the Hendrick cars, I actually trust him most this weekend.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Martin Truex Jr., sixth; Mark Martin, 23rd)
When I tape my fantasy segment for "NASCAR Now" (which runs Sunday morning on ESPN2 before the race), I'm typically asked to mention my picks for the best elite and midrange fantasy drivers for the week, then for yuks I give them my pick for the race winner. This week, I went completely off the board, and took Kurt Busch to win. I know the Blue Deuce hasn't been good this year (that's an understatement; he's currently an unthinkable 21st in points), but it did win the most recent Cup race at this track, last August. More importantly, the elder Busch hit it out of the park during a Pocono test session a couple weeks ago, posting the fastest lap time of the week by a fair margin. All evidence points to this being a dumb pick, but I'm making it anyway: I think Kurt Busch will shock the field and win on Sunday.
I'll also take Martin Truex Jr. for the second straight week. Like Busch, Truex was strong at Pocono testing a couple weeks back, and in four career starts here, he's got two top-10 finishes. The No. 1 car is currently 15th in points and needs a big push to get back into Chase contention. When the year started, I predicted that Truex would barely miss the Chase, but I said he would be closer than he is now (I had him 13th overall).
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Tony Stewart, 41st)
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 Kasey Kahne. Kahne is currently 12th in points, thanks to a quasi-lucky win in Charlotte a couple weeks ago, but his Pocono record isn't good. His past six finishes here look like this: 27th, 27th, 7th, 31st, 22nd and 27th. I know I just finished saying everything will be different because of the COT's first race at this track, but I still have to believe there are safer fantasy options out there.
If Mark Martin refuses to run a full schedule (and he does) and thus hurt his fantasy value, I'm gonna keep calling him a sleeper. Martin tested well in the COT at Pocono a couple weeks ago, and has a steady record here: he has seven top-10 finishes at Pocono in the past 12 Cup races, including three seconds and a third. Clearly, he doesn't have the same level of equipment he did when he drove the No. 6 for Roush, but last year's seventh and ninth make me believe the DEI horsepower can keep him in the field's top half.
Brian Vickers hasn't gotten the results he's deserved during the past month. He ran pretty well at Darlington, great at Charlotte and very well at Dover, but didn't manage a top-10 in the bunch. During his time with Hendrick, Vickers posted a second-place and two fourth-places at Pocono, and like many of my picks this week, was strong in the recent test at this track. At some point, this Red Bull team is going to start getting the finishes it deserves again.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: David Reutimann, 27th)
Despite the fact Travis Kvapil's fantasy value has increased substantially in our Stock Car Challenge game (he's currently the 13th-highest-salaried driver), his ownership in our Fantasy Stock Car game hasn't jumped much; he's still owned in only 8.7 percent of leagues. Now, that's likely because most FSR leagues are shallow, meaning you'd have to waive a pretty big name to use Kvapil. But if you've got someone like, say, Casey Mears on your team? This week I'd swap him out for Kvapil. I trust the Yates horsepower quite a bit, and both Kvapil and his teammate David Gilliland have been strong at bigger tracks this year. I'd try the No. 28 over Mears, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya or several other big names.
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.