Spin the Black Circle: Coke Zero 400 preview
The Silly Season is officially upon us. Teams are taking cold, hard looks at their organizations and making tough decisions. Or they're swallowing hard, grabbing their checkbook off the kitchen counter and writing promissory notes. Though Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte and Clint Bowyer all recently re-upped with their current teams for boatloads of cash, the following situations bear the most watching in the coming weeks and months:
Casey Mears: It's ironic that Mears was told he'll be let go from the No. 5 between two races in which he finished fifth and seventh, his best two-race stretch of the year. I swung and missed badly on Mears this January, when I pegged him as a Chase contender. Mark Martin will take over at least part of this ride for Hendrick Motorsports in '09, with a young guy like Brad Keselowski possibly filling in one-third of the schedule. (Hendrick is scheduled to make an announcement Friday.) Mears is a strong possibility to head up Richard Childress Racing's projected fourth team in '09.
Dario Franchitti: Mr. Ashley Judd (Hey, I've resisted calling him that all year, cut me some slack) was informed after his dramatic spin at Loudon last week that Ganassi is disbanding the unsponsored No. 40 car, effective immediately. No word on whether Ganassi plans to field a third team in '09; Franchitti says he wants to stay in NASCAR. Reed Sorenson's deal with Ganassi is also up, and there's been heavy speculation that he'd be canned, but Ganassi is in such flux that it's hard to know what's true.
Tony Stewart: The rumors won't go away; Smoke is signed through '09 but is apparently serious about leaving Gibbs and moving to Haas CNC Racing to drive either the No. 66 or No. 70 and become a part-owner of the organization. There's a chance that Nationwide sensation Joey Logano could take over the No. 20 if he stays hot this summer and fall.
Ryan Newman: The Daytona 500 champ's deal expires at the end of '08, and he's "exploring his options." Those include going to DEI to drive the No. 1, going to RCR to start a fourth team, or maybe even replacing Stewart at Gibbs.
Martin Truex Jr.: Could he follow his mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr. out the door at DEI? Folks have speculated that Truex is an option at all the same places I just listed for Newman (including Newman's Penske ride), and also for Stewart's potentially revamped Haas CNC unit.
Jamie McMurray: Roush and Jamie Mac swear that both sides will live up to their contract through '09, but Roush has to get down to four teams by the end of next season, and the disappointing No. 26 team would make for natural liquidation fodder.
Guys such as Paul Menard, Dave Blaney, Scott Riggs, David Ragan, Travis Kvapil, David Reutimann and Johnny Sauter are all free agents for '09 at the moment. It should be quite a silly couple of weeks.
Now let's get down to business at Daytona.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last race: Denny Hamlin, eighth; Clint Bowyer, 22nd)
I'll also go with the enigmatic one, Tony Stewart. You'll recall that Smoke had the lead on the final lap of the 500 in February and almost won, but was passed by Newman and Kurt Busch in the last turn. Stewart hasn't won yet this year, and I'm not guaranteeing he'll post a victory Saturday night. But like Busch, he has that nice straightaway horsepower that can keep him up front and out of harm's way for much of Saturday night.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Elliott Sadler has been a good plate-track driver for years and has really shown signs of life lately, posting three top-10s in the past six races (though all drivers who finished in the top seven last week at Loudon really need to look in the mirror and decide whether they want to take credit for what was, let's face it, one heck of a lucky result). Sadler finished sixth in the Daytona 500 and has thus finished sixth or better in four of the past five races at this racetrack.
I'll also take Brian Vickers, who was 12th in the 500 and fifth at Talladega, and who has been reasonably impressive on pretty much all surfaces so far in his second year with Team Red Bull. Remember, even though it was a little cheesy (in that he spun out his teammate Jimmie Johnson and took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the process), Vickers does have a plate-track win on his résumé, from Talladega in '06.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last race: Greg Biffle, 21st)
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 Carl Edwards. Can the Roush cars get their plate-track acts together and threaten for a win? Well, sure. After all, there are five of them. But although Edwards was fourth in this race last season (pushing his teammate McMurray to a win), that's his only top-10 finish at this place in seven tries, and his past three Talladega efforts have gone 42nd, 14th, 40th. There are less-risky picks.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last race: Jamie McMurray, 41st; Kurt Busch, first)
The vultures have been swirling around Ganassi lately, and Reed Sorenson, who's currently an ugly 31st in points, certainly isn't exempt. It sure seems like a long time ago that Sorenson ran near the front the entire day during the Daytona 500 (it was only five months ago) and finished fifth. Sorenson was the first man to crash out of the spring Talladega race, but he did post a 10th-place finish there in the first superspeedway Cup car event last fall.
Remember how good David Gilliland was at the plate tracks in '07? He finished eighth and 11th in the two Daytona races and fourth in the first Talladega event. That hasn't translated to great success in the Cup car plate-track shindigs, as Gilliland finished 28th (and never really threatened) in the 500 and 15th at Talladega. But Yates horsepower does tend to be, well, pretty powerful in these 2.5-milers. I give Gilly a chance to get into the top 15 Saturday night.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last race: Travis Kvapil, 36th)
Picking Robby Gordon as a flier this week is extremely nerves-inducing because he's so overly aggressive, but it isn't the craziest notion I've heard. After all, the other Gordon has placed eighth and 11th in the two restrictor-plate races so far this year. Now, the sage among you will respond, "Ah, but that just means Gordon is due to do something stupid and wreck half the field." And I can't argue much with that. But if you're in desperate need of an unowned driver in your Fantasy Stock Car league, you might try the No. 7. Another top-20 isn't entirely out of the question.
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.