- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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In the three seasons since Texas Motor Speedway was given a second event (and that event was placed directly after the second Atlanta race), we've had back-to-back race winners at Atlanta and Texas. What more proof do you need that it's borderline moronic to hold your fourth-to-last and third-to-last events at basically the same track?
For the uninitiated, as I mentioned at length last week, Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas are all basically the same venue. Their surfaces vary a bit (Charlotte's is older) and their turns are slightly more or less gradual. But their similarities vastly outweigh their differences. Most of the teams who left Atlanta with a relatively unblemished car will bring that same jalopy to Fort Worth this week. They'll probably start with similar setups. And they'll do it all over again.
Take a look at the evidence: In 2005, Carl Edwards won at Atlanta and then at Texas. In 2006, Tony Stewart did the same. And in 2007, Jimmie Johnson pulled off the double. Guess what that means? Get ready to raise some six-shooters while wearing a 10-gallon hat Sunday afternoon, Carl Edwards. Are we in Phoenix yet?
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Carl Edwards over Jimmie Johnson
Matt Kenseth over Denny Hamlin
Kyle Busch over Jeff Gordon
Greg Biffle over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Kevin Harvick over Tony Stewart
Jeff Burton over Clint Bowyer
Carl Edwards over Kevin Harvick
Greg Biffle over Jeff Gordon
Kyle Busch over Tony Stewart
Jimmie Johnson over Matt Kenseth
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 2nd; Jeff Burton, 18th)
My logic last week was that Jimmie Johnson might not win, but he'd be the safest pick on the board for fantasy purposes. Well, he did finish second in what otherwise was a brutal week for me, but I wouldn't exactly call his ride "safe." Johnson sped in the pits and fell a lap back early, then spent most of the race trying to recover. He earned the Lucky Dog, then took tires during a late caution and was able to zoom past the entire field, save one guy, and finish an improbable second, prompting the race winner (see below) to proclaim, "He's magic." Either way, I don't think JJ will speed in the pits again this week, and his car was obviously more than merely "competitive." He's a great play again this week.
And this time, I'm taking last week's winner, Carl Edwards. I know he's maybe a little bit too hell-bent-for-leather to be comfortable, but he had the best car last week, slightly better than Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin (and Johnson), who'll also be factors this week. Edwards won at Texas back in April, his second career win at this track. The No. 99's downforce advantages are still in full force.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Mark Martin, 22nd; Kasey Kahne, 33rd)
Jamie McMurray finished fifth at Charlotte and seventh at Atlanta in the past three weeks, which means he's learned something from the cookie-cutter programs of his more successful teammates and is ending the year on a relative high. Jamie Mac finished 14th at this track back in April, and I think he'll do at least as well on Sunday.
I'll also take Kurt Busch, who's suddenly come alive at the downforce tracks, too. The elder Busch finished third at Charlotte and sixth last week in Atlanta (despite having cracked the outside wall very hard). He was only 23rd the first time around at this track this season, but it's hard to argue with his current trend. Of course, as soon as you start relying on the Blue Deuce is when Busch blows a tire on the third lap and finishes 43rd.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Matt Kenseth, fourth)
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 Tony Stewart. (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 Stewart (and every team in the Chase) has tremendous equipment and always has a chance of flat-out winning nearly any event he enters. But you know that feeling when it's the third day before school's out for summer, and your teacher gives you a pop quiz? On the one hand, you like to do well on pop quizzes. On the other hand, three months of sleeping late and playing Nerf football and chasing after ice cream trucks is dancing in your head. Let's just say, sometimes your concentration can wane. And that's probably how Tony the Tiger feels right now: he's got a lot of work coming when he officially launches his new team in just a few weeks, and while no doubt he's saying all the right things and pushing it hard, he also must have moments when he's like, "Dude, do I really care?"
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Scott Riggs, 43rd; Paul Menard, 31st)
AJ Allmendinger took the helm of the No. 10 at Martinsville a couple weeks ago and finished a surprising 15th. Then he stayed behind that Gillett-Evernham machine last week at Atlanta and finished 14th. Should we still be surprised? In just a couple races in Patrick Carpentier's ride, the 'Dinger has looked excellent, and never let it be said that when a guy is racing for a new job (Reed Sorenson will take the helm of the No. 10 car next season) he doesn't push hard. Considering the similarities between last week's venue and this one's, you can use Allmendinger as an intriguing sleeper.
I'll also take a shot with none other than Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Bill Elliott had a new car and a lot of speed last week in Atlanta, but unfortunately he wrecked early, thanks to Sam Hornish Jr., and limped around the rest of the day, finishing 38th. ESPN.com's own Mark Garrow tuned me in to how strong Elliott looked all last week, and I'm with him: the No. 21 could be a surprise entry in the top 20 when the Texas checkers fly Sunday afternoon.
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.