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Spin the Black Circle: Menard could ride Martin's coattails

10/24/2008

Give me one good reason why we shouldn't use the Charlotte race from two weeks ago to make our picks at Atlanta. And come to think of it, give me one good reason why we shouldn't just plug this week's results in when we're looking at Texas next week.

(This is a much-traveled topic better explored at another time, but suffice it to say, having three Chase races in four weeks at the nearly identical tracks at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas is not the way to siphon attention away from the World Series and the NFL regular season.)

All right, well, I suppose you can't come down too hard on Matt Kenseth for finishing 41st in that Charlotte night race a couple Saturdays ago, considering he got wrecked by Travis Kvapil. And you don't hate on Dale Earnhardt Jr. for blowing a tire and smashing into the wall, which led to a 36th-place finish. And Carl Edwards battled ignition problems that night, which led to him finishing 33rd. Still, it's instructive to remember, for example, that the omnipresent Jimmie Johnson led the most laps but faded a little toward race's end, that Greg Biffle looked like he had the car to beat late and that the consistent Jeff Burton made a smart call in the pits late and wound up winning, while Kasey Kahne pulled his typical Charlotte act and wound up finishing second.

Simply put, they call these tracks "cookie-cutters" for a reason. Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas are all 1.5-miles long, and each is banked 24 degrees in the turns and five degrees on the straightaways. Yes, the straightaways are a little longer in Atlanta than at Charlotte, which of course means that the turns are a little less gradual (and in the Car of Tomorrow require even more "looseness"), and the racing surfaces are a bit different (Texas and Charlotte have been resurfaced in the past few years). Drivers will tell you the tracks don't feel exactly the same, and there are surely slight variations in car setups. But if you think the good cars from Charlotte a couple weeks ago aren't coming straight to Atlanta with a few minor tweaks, you're crazy. So when you build your fantasy team this week and next, make sure you remember Charlotte.

Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:

Jimmie Johnson over Kyle Busch
Tony Stewart over Kevin Harvick
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Matt Kenseth
Carl Edwards over Greg Biffle
Jeff Gordon over Denny Hamlin
Jeff Burton over Clint Bowyer
Greg Biffle over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Clint Bowyer over Jeff Gordon
Kyle Busch over Matt Kenseth

"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 1st; Jeff Gordon, 4th)
First off, I'll go with the points leader again, and the guy who led 67 laps at Lowe's Motor Speedway earlier this month: Jimmie Johnson. Now,don't expect Johnson to push the envelope on Sunday afternoon, which happened at Charlotte. He's locked in on his third straight points title with a huge (149-point) lead with just four races left. But he's going to finish in the top five this week. J.J. finished "only" 13th here in Atlanta way back in March, but the educated among us remember that the No. 48 struggled with their downforce package in the first few COT speedway events, often going a lap down startlingly early in races. That's a thing of the past, as Chad Knaus and company are now locked in.

I'll also go with the Charlotte race-winner from two weeks ago, Jeff Burton. Did Burton definitely have the best car that night? Maybe not. A call to gas-and-go on the race's final pit stop gave Burton the track position he needed, and he was able to hold off the field and win after leading a second-highest-in-the-race 58 laps. Even better, Burton has the second-best finishing average at the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate in the COT: His average finishing position in those four events is fifth. (Only Kyle Busch is better.)

"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Juan Pablo Montoya, 14th; Martin Truex Jr., 10th)
Mark Martin will be undervalued in his final three events of 2008 simply because he didn't run a full-time schedule this year, but when you get him on a high-banked speedway, few drivers are smoother or likelier to give you a top 20. Martin has top-10s at Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte this season, and figures to challenge for a top spot again on Sunday in his wind-down as a DEI driver. Next year, of course, he replaces Casey Mears for Hendrick Motorsports.

I'll also take a shot on Kasey Kahne. I know, I know: The fact that he was good at Charlotte (finishing second) doesn't mean much; even when the No. 9 team is utter dog meat (which it's been most of the time over the past couple months), they're able to pull out good finishes at Charlotte. But I just have to believe that eventually, the good performance and setup at Lowe's Motor Speedway will translate to such a similar track. After all, Kahne has a career win at this venue (albeit not in the COT). I've got him marked down for a surprise top 10 this week.

"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Greg Biffle, 12th)
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 as I mentioned earlier, it's not fair to count Kenseth's wreck at Charlotte against him. But the No. 17 has been caught up in an alarming number of incidents this season, and what's worse, he just hasn't been "on" very many times. By his own admission, Kenseth has had inferior setups in many races this season, and has found himself puttering along, doggedly hanging in and finishing 10th an awful lot. I think your big-money fantasy guys can probably produce more for you this week than Kenseth will.

"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Travis Kvapil, 19th; Aric Almirola, 20th)
In the four COT events held at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas this season, Scott Riggs has two top-20 finishes: an 18th the first time around at this track, and a 19th a couple weeks ago in Charlotte. Now, is that a ringing endorsement? Not exactly. Add to this the fact that he's winding down in the No. 66 (which will be taken over by Ryan Newman -- driving for Tony Stewart -- in 2009), and the fact that he's still working on finding a full-time ride for next season, and you could argue that Riggs may be a bit distracted. But I also think that a guy who's driving as an audition could be termed "motivated."

And I'll also case a deep-league look at Paul Menard, who finished 19th the first time around in Atlanta, and then 17th at Texas a few weeks later. Unfortunately his two Charlotte runs didn't go as planned (41st and 26th), but the fact that Mark Martin is expected to run so well this week means that it's not unheard of for DEI to find setups that work and get their other drivers into the field's top half at tracks like this. Hey, at the superstar-dominated cookie-cutter venues, it's tough to find true sleepers who'll actually contend for top-5s. So we have to be content with guys we think might be able to slink into the top 20. I think Menard's one of those guys.

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.