Spin the Black Circle: Pennsylvania 500
Imagine if the NFC Championship Game were played on ice skates. Or during the ALCS, all the hitters accidentally wore blindfolds. Or during the Western Conference Finals someone forgot to inflate the basketball.
That's how bad it was last week. In NASCAR's second most important event, the Brickyard 400, Goodyear brought the wrong tire, NASCAR blithely believed it had tested well enough, and the Cup cars couldn't go more than 10 laps on a set of new tires. Sprint Cup's wizards had to put out a competition caution six times during the race, and on five other occasions the tires took care of a caution themselves (by blowing up and causing wrecks).
It was, in short, an absolute joke.
There's plenty of blame to spread around. NASCAR knows this, but I'll say it anyway: Rhere's a sizable portion of the sports-conscious American public with a strong resistance to watching stock car racing. That probably explains why, after tremendous ratings growth in the early- and mid-2000s, the sport's popularity has leveled off. Every time something like this happens, it gives fodder to the smirking non-fan who doesn't believe Sprint Cup racing is a sport. Having the Daytona 500 end because of a little rain is bad. But having a yellow flag waving on lap 150 of a 160-lap race at the Brickyard when there's no wreck on the track? That's a punch line, pure and simple.
Plus, it messes up our fantasy teams.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Kasey Kahne, 7th; Denny Hamlin, 3rd)
This week, we're back at Pocono, another track not exactly known for its scintillating racing. But one can only make do with what one is given. My top fantasy play of the weekend is Denny Hamlin; in five career starts at Pocono, he has two wins and has never finished worse than sixth place. And in the first-ever Car of Tomorrow race at Pocono back in June, Hamlin finished third. This is probably his best track, and a nice steady top-10 is a good bet.
I'll also take last week's winner, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson, too, has won twice at Pocono (in the spring and fall of '04), and finished sixth here in June. The reason I'll take him over Kasey Kahne (who dominated here in June) is how hot he is: Over the past month, almost nobody's been better than J.J., and the fact that he had the day's best car at Indy should translate to a great performance Sunday. For the record, Kahne should be good, too, and Pocono is a track that lends itself to season sweeps, but I didn't love the way Kahne looked at Indy last week, so I'm going with the No. 48.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Brian Vickers, 42nd; Mark Martin, 11th)
I'm not going to hold Brian Vickers's blown engine last week at Indy against him; he's still a very dangerous driver on the faster, shallow-banked tracks. In his career at Pocono, Vickers has two second-place finishes (including one in June in the COT) and two fourth-place finishes. Yes, Team Red Bull still comes with attendant risks, as Vickers showed last weekend, but I'll still take a piece of the No. 83 on Sunday.
And in the department of redundancy department, I'll also go right back to the well with Mark Martin. Hey, don't blame me for the same old boring picks as last weekend. Blame NASCAR. Indy and Pocono share some characteristics (including Turn 2 at Pocono, which was modeled after Indianapolis Motor Speedway), so we're apt to see some of last week's usual suspects be good again this week. Martin finished 11th at Indy last weekend and 10th at Pocono in June, so this moderately inexpensive driver figures to potentially have another top-10 in him Sunday.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Greg Biffle, 8th)
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 Kyle Busch. Now, in 2008, that hasn't been a healthy thing to say. Yet if there's one track style that's given the younger Busch fits this season, it's the flat/fast tracks of Indy and Pocono. The first go-round at Pocono, he fell directly to the back of the pack before wrecking and finishing 43rd, and while he did lead 14 laps at the Brickyard last weekend, that was mostly due to tire strategy, and any time the guys got going for slightly longer stretches, he'd fall backwards (he eventually finished 15th). Listen, this is a hypocritical pick, because in our weekly Power Rankings, I put Kyle Busch fifth. But if you're playing a fantasy game where your salary cap has just reset, or if you're limited by the number of times you can use a particular driver, this might be a week to stay off of Busch.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: AJ Allmendinger, 10th; David Reutimann, 30th)
Once again, Allmendinger needs to qualify on time, but assuming he does, I like him again. Allmendinger finished 12th in the COT here in June, finished 13th at Chicagoland and posted a career-best 10th-place finish at Indy last weekend. The No. 84 has this type of track setup figured out, and is a decent bet to finish at least in the top half of the field Sunday.
Finally, I'll go with Bobby Labonte, whose fortunes have fallen far enough by now (he's 19th in points) that I feel justified calling him a sleeper. Whereas the No. 43 team has struggled at the higher-banked tracks that Labonte used to dominate in his younger days with Joe Gibbs Racing, they've been solid and steady at the flatter tracks: Labonte posted a 10th-place finish in the rain-shortened Loudon event last month, was 11th at Pocono in June and was a respectable 16th at Indy last week. Even in his latter-day incarnation as a Petty driver, Labonte has managed a top-20 finish in four of his five trips to Pocono, and I think another one's coming 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. You can e-mail him here.