Spin the Black Circle: Veteran savvy will take day
Here's where I'm supposed to make a joke about right turns.
That's because this weekend, the Smokeless Set heads to the road course at Sonoma, a winding course that will test the drivers' finesse as much as their power. Instead, I'd like to take a minute to talk about fuel mileage.
If you watched last weekend's event at Michigan, you know something about fuel mileage: Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have the day's best car, but he stayed out there while most everyone else pitted, enabling him to break his long losing streak with a popular win. Well, expect more of the same Sunday at Sonoma. Last season, there were five drivers who managed to finish the Sonoma race with only two pit stops, chasing around the track on the final few laps running on fumes. That's how Juan Pablo Montoya, a celebrated road-course driver, was able to notch his first (and to date only) Sprint Cup win. The rest of the field simply wasn't using gas as efficiently and had to make the typical three Sonoma stops. Meanwhile, the Childress cars of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer tuned their engines way down, removed a couple of gas-guzzling parts and sacrificed power for efficiency. They finished the race second, third and fourth, respectively.
Whether cars can make it on two stops (with fuel cells that hold three gallons less, as of the '07 race) will depend a lot on cautions falling in the right spots, but if it comes down to it, expect more of the road-racing experts (like a couple of the guys I name below) to take more risks with their fuel in the name of a desperately needed win.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Carl Edwards, 7th; Kyle Busch, 13th)
Tony Stewart had the day's fastest car at Sonoma last year, but his Chevy couldn't make it on fuel mileage, so he finished sixth. But in nine career tries at this track, he's got two wins and five top-10s, and overall, Smoke has six wins in 18 career starts on road courses. He's in a Toyota now, and he's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.
The other top Sprint Cup driver who's an ace on this track format is Jeff Gordon. In 15 career starts at Sonoma, Gordon has a whopping five wins and 11 top-10s; if you throw Watkins Glen into the mix, the No. 24 has nine career road-course wins in 30 career starts. He was right behind Stewart last year, finishing seventh (and second among teams who needed to stop three times). I think it makes a lot of sense to play it conservatively with your high-dollar fantasy guys this week.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: David Ragan, 8th; Kurt Busch, 21st)
The place to take chances is with less-expensive drivers, and there are a ton of fun options to mix things up as we move further down the board. As much as I don't think Juan Pablo Montoya had the best car last year, he is a terrific road-course driver, hailing as he does from both F1 and IndyCar. Like the rest of Ganassi, the No. 42 team has been in disarray this year -- Montoya is on his third crew chief -- and has exactly one top-10 finish all season. But I do think Montoya can rise to the occasion and provide a top-10 Sunday.
I'll also give Jamie McMurray a try, and I'll discipline myself to call him "midrange" instead of a "sleeper" (as I did when I took him for his 10th-place finish at Michigan last week). Jamie Mac has been consistently inconsistent this season, but he's working on a string of three straight top-20 finishes and has worked his way up to 21st in points. It's very possible McMurray is driving for his job with Roush, and he's turned himself into quite a good road-course driver these past few seasons. He ran near the lead for most of this race last year before crashing and finishing 37th, but he's got a second-place finish here and a third at Watkins Glen in his young career.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Jimmie Johnson, 6th)
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 a whole bunch of stars who don't really like to race on road courses, including Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin. Now, occasionally, one of these guys will toss in a fine road-course result because -- let's face it -- they're some of the best drivers in the world. But statistically speaking, it's been hard to predict when good road-course results are going to happen for guys like these, so let's stick to the drivers we know grew up making right-hand turns.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: Brian Vickers, 4th; Jamie McMurray, 10th)
Robby Gordon is a perennial favorite when we head to northern California (and upstate New York), because he's one of those guys who can drive anything with four wheels and be competitive. A longtime road racer, the other Gordon is someone you keep around on your fantasy team to use exactly twice per season. And this is one of those weeks.
He has to the make the race during qualifying later today, but assuming he does, ESPN's own Boris Said is always a fun and profitable fantasy player to own at road courses. Clearly, before you sell the farm to use him on your team, make sure he's in the field. But if he is, this road-course ringer is always a threat to post a nice result at Sonoma: He's finished in the top 10 in four of the past five Sprint Cup events at this track.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: David Reutimann, 35th)
Oh, boy, do you have options this week. If you've been struggling along with a crummy back end of your Stock Car Challenge team, this is the time to make a temporary switch because there are several drivers who specialize in this kind of track and -- if they make the field -- are threats to post top-10s. That's the key: You have to pay attention to Friday's qualifying because most of the "road-course ringers" will have to qualify on time. Some names to keep in mind: Dario Franchitti, A.J. Allmendinger, Ron Fellows, Marcos Ambrose and Patrick Carpentier. Sam Hornish Jr. is guaranteed a spot in the field, though while he's an open-wheel veteran, road courses were never his favorite thing in Indy cars; still, he's an intriguing option. And a guy like Michael McDowell, also guaranteed a place in Sunday's field, is a road-course expert who could surprise. Since I have to write this column before qualifying, I'll go with McDowell as my Hail Mary this week.
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 those sports. You can e-mail him here.
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