Spin the Black Circle: Amp Energy "500"
I wish I had some cool new insight into how you should assemble a fantasy squad for a restrictor-plate race, but I don't.
OK, it's not random. There are a few factors that give certain drivers advantages. To wit:
• Multi-car teams that can run a few cars near the front have an advantage because of the draft. If your car is alone among several other teams' tandems late in the race, finding a drafting partner can be mighty hard, indeed.
• As is the case at just about any track longer than a mile, the best-financed teams have an inherent advantage at a plate track, because they can do as much wind-tunnel testing as they need. Blown engines at Daytona and Talladega are somewhat less of a concern for smaller teams, as most lease their motors from the big guys anyway. But draft performance tends to come easier for Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, et al.
• Some guys are just constitutionally predisposed to being good in the draft. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still considered the best, though he hasn't won a plate race in four years. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart also stand out as master strategists at the superspeedways.
But the fact is: when push comes to shove, it's just really hard to know when the Big One will take out your fantasy driver. Not only that; it's also hard to know whether your guy will time his late charge correctly. You could own the first-, second- and third-place drivers with five laps to go, but if they don't line up, they'll get freight-trained, and could finish 15th or worse.
Past stats are nice, and I'll certainly be quoting a few below. But you also need a heaping helping of luck. The best you can do is try the guys with the steadiest finishing numbers at plate tracks in general, and specifically in the Car of Tomorrow at plate tracks. Then cross your fingers.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Kevin Harvick over Greg Biffle
Jeff Burton over Jeff Gordon
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Clint Bowyer
Tony Stewart over Matt Kenseth
Kyle Busch over Denny Hamlin
Carl Edwards over Greg Biffle
Jimmie Johnson over Kevin Harvick
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Kyle Busch
Jeff Gordon over Matt Kenseth
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 1st; Carl Edwards, 2nd)
I foreshadowed a moment ago, but I am, in fact, picking Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win his sixth career Talladega event. It seems nearly impossible that it's been exactly four years since Junior has taken a plate race, considering his reputation as current King of the Draft is securely intact. In three Car of Tomorrow restrictor-plate races this season, Little E has finished ninth, seventh and eighth; while I've no doubt he isn't happy with that kind of near-great consistency, I'll bet his fantasy owners were thrilled. It's about time Hendrick won a plate race in the COT, and Junior has the teammates to push him to the checkers.
And for my other elite fantasy play of the weekend, I'll take one of those teammates: Jimmie Johnson. Now, if you were playing it strictly by numbers, you'd probably take Kyle Busch; after all, Busch has won two straight plate races in the COT. But I worry the Shrub's head might not be in the game after the disappointing way the Chase has started, so even though I give him a decent chance of winning, I don't think he's a good fantasy play, since another 43rd is possible. So I'll take J.J., who's Mr. Steady. Could he get caught up in a huge wreck? Of course: in fact, he's finished 27th, 13th and 23rd in three plate races this season. But he's so locked in right now, and he's so steady in general, I think he'll give you a top-5. Remember: he finished second in the first-ever COT restrictor-plate race at this track last season.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 15th; David Ragan, 8th)
I haven't liked the Penske cars very many places this season, but I'll take them on a plate track. Kurt Busch has seven top-10s at Talladega in his past eight tries here (his only non-top-10 came this April, when he finished 39th after an early wreck). Busch also finished second and fourth in the two Daytona races this season.
And I'll take the other Penske car, too: Ryan Newman. It seems like a mighty long time ago indeed that the elder Busch pushed Newman across the finish line in the Daytona 500. Who'd have guessed that eight months later, Newman would be a lame duck in the No. 12, just counting down the hours until he gets to bail for Stewart-Haas? I think Newman will stir the echoes Sunday, and ride with his soon-to-be-ex-teammate near the front most of the afternoon.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Denny Hamlin, 11th)
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 Matt Kenseth. (Remember, during the season's final 10 races, I'm only allowing myself to select "Not For You" drivers who are actually in the Chase.) Per usual, I issue my regular disclaimer that Kenseth (and every team in the Chase) has tremendous equipment and always has a chance of flat-out winning nearly any event he enters. And I also think that Milwaukee Matt is a better plate-track driver than he gets credit for, and better than his stats indicate. But the fact is: something usually does happen to him on these tracks. He finished third at Daytona this summer, but his past two Talladega trips have ended 26th and 41st. Roush doesn't tend to be the strongest of the mega-teams on a plate track, so I'll skip the No. 17 this week.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: A.J. Allmendinger, 9th; David Reutimann, 19th)
Juan Pablo Montoya hasn't always been good on superspeedways in the Car of Tomorrow, but he sure was back in April, when he managed a second-place finish at this very track in Talladega. Considering he finished 15th in this race last season, he's a pretty good value pick this week. Now, he's by no means a lock: he finished 32nd and 38th at Daytona this season. But I still consider him a nice low-dollar guy at the end of your fantasy team.
And get this: I'm also taking Robby Gordon. I know, I know: he doesn't exactly have the temperament (or friends on the track) you'd typically associate with a good plate-track driver. But I took Gordon at Talladega back in April, and he rewarded me with an 11th-place finish, and he also finished eighth and sixth at Daytona this season, giving him the third-best finishing average on this track type this season. Use him, then cross your fingers.
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.