Spin the Black Circle: No surprise, Johnson the favorite
Half of the six remaining races in the '08 NASCAR season will take place at the nearly identical high-banked intermediate speedways at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas, meaning whoever's good in Saturday night's race should have a tremendous opportunity to make up a ton of ground in the Chase (or, in the case of one particular favorite, widen his points lead).
The two men who've stood out in the three races in the A-C-T triumvirate so far this year have been Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Busch won in March at Atlanta, though Edwards clearly had the day's best car before he popped his engine while enjoying a huge lead very late in the proceedings. At Texas in April, Edwards absolutely crushed the field and cruised to a win, while Busch finished an impressive third. And at the Labor Day race at Charlotte, Busch was again third as his car came to him after dark, while Edwards faded to ninth.
The real questions for these two guys involve whether the technical advantages they seemed to have over the field in the Car of Tomorrow at aero-sensitive tracks earlier in the season still apply. In addition, the Shrub invites worries about focus; though Busch led 20 laps last weekend at Talladega, he only managed a 15th-place finish, and of course he has famously wrecked and cracked his way out of first place in the Chase, to the point where he's a noncontender. Heck, I actually give the younger Busch a decent chance to win this race, considering how steady he's been on downforce tracks this year, but I wouldn't use him in a fantasy league. The downside is just too great.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Jimmie Johnson over Kyle Busch
Matt Kenseth over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Carl Edwards over Greg Biffle
Kevin Harvick over Tony Stewart
Jeff Gordon over Denny Hamlin
Jeff Burton over Clint Bowyer
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Matt Kenseth over Kyle Busch
Greg Biffle over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff Gordon over Clint Bowyer
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 28th; Jimmie Johnson, 9th)
Qualifying for Saturday night's race was rained out, so Jimmie Johnson will start from the pole. That doesn't particularly matter, because good cars can pass easily on wide-open tracks like this one. What does matter is Johnson has five career wins at a venue whose name ("Lowe's") is stenciled across his hood, though he hasn't won here since this race three years ago. I can't say I'm positive J.J. cruises to Victory Lane on Saturday, but I feel fairly confident saying that on a cookie-cutter, he's as sure a bet as there is right now for a top five.
And heck, yeah, I'll also take Edwards. Really, despite the fact his downforce-track technical advantage that helped him win Fontana, Vegas and Texas early this season may no longer be in play, I still think King Carl gives you all the upside of Kyle Busch without any of that nasty, massive risk. Edwards ran second to Johnson at Kansas just a couple weeks ago, and while that track's configuration is by no means the same as A-C-T, it is an aero-sensitive track. I think the No. 48 and the No. 99 will duke it out Saturday.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Kurt Busch, 21st; Ryan Newman, 43rd)
By just about any measure, Kasey Kahne is having a crummy season, and if you remove a four-week span in late May and early June when the No. 9 won two races and also posted a second-place finish, 2008 would've been an unmitigated disaster. Kahne ran badly at Kansas a couple of weeks ago, and hasn't shown much of anything lately, but I'm banking on the idea that when this team comes to Charlotte, it lights up. Kahne won here in May, his third career win at this venue (and first in the Car of Tomorrow). It's a riskier pick, but I like Kahne's fantasy value this week.
And while I think David Ragan and Brian Vickers are nice plays any time we come to a downforce track, I'm going to officially call them "too good" to be considered midrange (though if you can afford them on your fantasy team, I'd definitely use one or both). Instead, I'm going to mention Elliott Sadler, who finished ninth in the second Michigan race and 10th at Kansas two weeks ago. Kahne's teammate definitely has the most momentum of the Evernham cars right now, and perhaps he'll share some of that mojo with the No .9.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Matt Kenseth, 26th)
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 Denny Hamlin. (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 Hamlin (and every team in the Chase) has tremendous equipment and always has a chance of flat-out winning nearly any event he enters. But in Hamlin's case, I'm concerned he may not be entirely physically ready to race. After a really big crash at Talladega last week, Hamlin spent the night in an Alabama hospital for observation, and while he was well enough to be discharged and will suit up Saturday night, I'd rather not spend high fantasy dollars to find out exactly how sharp he is.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Juan Pablo Montoya, 25th; Robby Gordon, 8th)
David Reutimann has been a tremendous story over the past couple of months: five consecutive top-20s before a Talladega wreck last week (and six out of seven). In his first go-round at Charlotte this summer, Reutimann finished an impressive 10th. Michael Waltrip Racing is all the better for having locked Reutimann in for another season.
And if I'm looking for one last, very inexpensive fantasy driver to round out a team of studs, I can think of worse plays than Sam Hornish Jr. He finished a career-best 13th at Charlotte back in May, in his maiden event at this track. Does he have another top-20 in him? I say it's possible. He also looked strong way back in March during the first Atlanta race for a time, before fading back to 25th. He'll start this one 36th because of owner points, but I give Hornish's Penske No. 77 a good chance to improve on that position.
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.
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