Spin the Black Circle: Previewing Chicago
Tony Stewart could be in for a long ride in '09.
For the uninitiated, the second major shoe in Silly Season 2008 dropped this week (Mark Martin taking over for Casey Mears at Hendrick was the first), as Stewart announced he'd leave Gibbs a year early to take a half-ownership stake in Haas-CNC, to be renamed Stewart-Haas. Smoke will finish out '08 in the No. 20 and then jump ship without his longtime crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, or any of his current staff, and essentially build a new race team from scratch.
Ask Michael Waltrip how easy that is.
Now, Stewart is a more talented driver than Waltrip. He also has something that Michael Waltrip Racing didn't have when it opened its doors in 2007: full support of a championship-caliber team. Stewart-Haas will essentially be an extension of Hendrick Motorsports; Hendrick will provide cars and technical support. So no problem, right? Hendrick is great, Stewart is great, so clearly whatever car number Stewart decides to field in '09 will be great, too, yes?
No. Owning a Sprint Cup team -- hiring the right people, setting the right tone, latching onto exactly the right race setups, managing dissension and ineffectiveness, answering to the media, and winning -- is way harder than fielding a championship Chili Bowl team, which Stewart says is the experience that gave him a taste for ownership. Tony Stewart is a terrific driver, but he's an immature guy. What happens when he has one of his patented meltdowns about the Car of Tomorrow, or how someone wrecked him, or how unfair the media is to him? You think everyone at Stewart-Haas won't be looking at him, wondering about his volatility, wondering what he might do next? Guys like Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush and Richard Childress are fiery competitors, for sure, but they're also like fatherly influences to their race teams. Stewart has rarely shown that kind of maturity.
That's not to say he can't eventually learn. People change. And in building a race team from the ground up, Stewart will have one advantage that even the marketable Waltrip didn't: money. Smoke is probably the sport's second-most-popular driver (far behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.), which means he'll have all the sponsorship dollars he'll ever need. Money buys you get-out-of-jail-free cards. It should make Stewart-Haas respectable right away.
But respectable won't be enough. I don't believe Stewart will make the Chase in 2009.
Let's get to Saturday night's race, at Chicagoland.
"Given To Fly" (Featured elite drivers)
(Last Race: Kyle Busch, 1st; Tony Stewart, 20th)
This is the first COT event at the 1½-mile track in Joliet, Ill., so we'd do well to look at other downforce results from this season, including the race last month at Michigan. In that event, I thought Matt Kenseth had the best car and probably would've won if not for some fortunate fuel strategy by a couple guys in front of him. Kenseth also can get around this track well: He's finished second in two of the past three races at this place. Finally, he's red-hot: He's up to ninth in points and has finished in the top 10 in eight of the past nine Cup events. I think he puts an end to Roush's relatively dry spell (they haven't won since April 6) with a victory.
I'll also go the steady route with Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team had COT downforce issues to start the year, and had difficulties hanging on the lead lap at tracks like Las Vegas and Atlanta, but since then has improved by leaps and bounds. Except for a dropped engine at Charlotte, Johnson has been in the thick of all the recent COT downforce events. He's also finished in the top 6 in five of the six Sprint Cup events he has run at Chicagoland. I think he has at least a top-10 in him Saturday.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange drivers of note)
(Last Race: Elliott Sadler, 39th; Brian Vickers, 11th)
I'm remembering Brian Vickers at Michigan in June; he had the day's second-best car, after Kenseth, and probably would've finished second without those fuel-mileage shenanigans. Really, Vickers has been impressive almost everywhere, and currently sits 16th in the standings, just 102 points out of the Chase. (Stewart himself is currently 12th.) Considering where Team Red Bull was last year, when Vickers couldn't even qualify for the event at this track, that's an amazing feat. (Stewart could learn a thing or two about second seasons with a brand-new team from Vickers.) Vickers also has a top-5 in his past at Chicagoland.
I'll also try out the young Roushketeer David Ragan, who's quietly 15th in points, one spot ahead of Vickers, and who, in terms of finishing average, has been the eighth-best driver on the aero-sensitive tracks so far this season. Roush's advantage on the cookie-cutters does seem to have abated since the beginning of the year -- one need look no further than Carl Edwards's dominance to start the year at such tracks and his relative mediocrity since -- but Ragan has done a terrific job keeping himself out of trouble at these more wide-open venues.
"Not For You" (Beware of this driver)
(Last Race: Carl Edwards, 2nd)
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 Clint Bowyer. Now, the 1½-mile "cookie-cutter" tracks tend to favor the big teams who spend the most time refining their cars in wind tunnels and tweaking their engine packages, so I expect to see mostly favorites near the front Saturday night, and Bowyer could easily be one of those. But he hasn't put up many good results at the downforce tracks so far this year: 19th at Fontana, 28th at Las Vegas, 25th at Charlotte, 26th at Michigan. But he did finish sixth at Atlanta, 10th at Texas and 12th at Darlington, so it's not like Bowyer doesn't have a good race in him. It's just that there are safer options.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly sleepers)
(Last Race: Reed Sorenson, 22nd; David Gilliland, 40th)
Both Travis Kvapil and Paul Menard have put up good enough results on this track type that I think each could give you a surprise top-20 finish on Saturday night. Kvapil was eighth at Las Vegas, eighth at Darlington, 16th at Michigan and 18th at Texas, and really only seems to struggle on the flatter tracks. Menard finished 19th at Atlanta, 17th at Texas and 11th at Michigan, so he's potentially got a nice run for DEI in him as well. Now, both of these drivers have also turned in some crash-filled stinkers in the COT at this track type. But hey, we're talking sleepers, right?
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: Robby Gordon, 6th)
Speaking of sleepers, I think Sam Hornish Jr. might be a good play if you're frustrated with the last guy on your Fantasy Stock Car team. Hornish is unowned in more than a third of FSC leagues, and finished 13th at Charlotte and 22nd at Michigan in the past six weeks or so. That shows me that the Penske No. 77 is starting to figure out what it takes to be competitive at the cookie-cutters, so Hornish might have another top-20 in him this weekend.
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.