Spin the Black Circle: Hamlin should continue success at PIR
Call them the Roush Assassins.
Let's face it: If Carl Edwards is going to have any chance to make up his 106-point deficit with two events left, he's going to need some help. And that help probably won't come from Jimmie Johnson. True, JJ has gone a lap down early in each of the past two events, and at Texas last week, he could never get that lap back and finished 15th, while King Carl won the race. But the odds of that happening again twice in the season's final two events are remote. Well, the chances of Johnson struggling on his own are remote.
But Edwards has four Roushketeer teammates, doesn't he? Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth won't be winning points titles this year, and Jamie McMurray and David Ragan didn't even make the Chase. So while Edwards is trying to win events, those other Roush drivers will merely be logging laps. It's time to put the No. 48 in their crosshairs.
Who'd be the wiser at Phoenix this week? It's a flat track, not exactly super fast (relatively speaking), but certainly prone to mysterious "brake failures" and "loose conditions" which could "accidentally" get Johnson "caught up" in a "teeth-rattling wreck." A soft little nudge from one of the Roush Assassins, combined with a great Edwards run, could actually give us some drama. After all, Edwards made up 77 points last week. Give him another 77 after Sunday afternoon's event, and then we'd really have something heading to Homestead. So what do you say, Roush boys? Up for a little two-car demolition derby?
Then again, Johnson has a phalanx of teammates who won't win the title, either: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and (for another couple races) Casey Mears. Heck, Mark Martin is primed to join the team in '09, too. So the Hendrick Honchos need to "get their protect on," and build a hard-candy shell around JJ's Chevy. Just picture it! Kenseth comes up on the outside, bearing down on Johnson's back bumper. But no! Gordon sweeps in and crashes nose-first into Kenseth's driver's side door, taking them both out of the race! Here comes Ragan, a lap down, slowing to get a nice cheap shot on the nose of the Lowe's Chevy. But can you believe it? Dale Jr. just tossed a water bottle through Ragan's windshield!
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Denny Hamlin over Jeff Gordon
Clint Bowyer over Tony Stewart
Jeff Burton over Kevin Harvick
Kyle Busch over Greg Biffle
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Matt Kenseth
Denny Hamlin over Clint Bowyer
Jimmie Johnson over Jeff Gordon
Greg Biffle over Carl Edwards
Kyle Busch over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 15th; Carl Edwards, 1st)
I can think of two separate occasions when Denny Hamlin had the best car at Phoenix but didn't win. Once he sped in the pits early, fought from a lap down, made it all the way through the field but finished third. And this past April, he looked primed to take a victory, but a couple drivers stayed out on fumes and managed to finish the race without a final refueling. Hamlin is very good in the Car of Tomorrow on flatter tracks (like Richmond and Martinsville), and this time around, if there's a chance of him "going for it" on fuel mileage, you can be sure he'll try.
And while it's boring, I'll also take the well-protected Jimmie Johnson to post at least a safe top-5 finish Sunday. He was the fuel-mileage winner at this track this spring, plus he's won at the flat tracks at Martinsville and Richmond this season, and finished second at Loudon in the Chase's first race. There'll be pressure on JJ after two straight shaky efforts, but this guy usually (as they say) rises to the challenge. NASCAR would like nothing more than to have the points tighten up a ton more before Homestead, but I don't see it.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Jamie McMurray, 3rd; Kurt Busch, 41st)
Mark Martin had a real shot at winning the April event at Phoenix, outdueling Dale Earnhardt Jr. at race's end, before having to stop for gas and watching a couple guys zoom past him. He finished fifth in that event, and I'm just not sure DEI has it in them to post wins at this point. But this is Martin's swan song in the No. 8, and I think he'll make it a memorable enough one that he should be in your fantasy lineup one final time in '08.
I also like the "other" Martin: Martin Truex Jr. He finished eighth here in the spring and seventh in this COT event last fall, plus is a perennial beast at the relatively similar mile-long track at Loudon (having finished fourth and seventh there this season). So I guess I'm saying there's value in the DEI cars this weekend.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Tony Stewart, 16th)
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. Plus, I'm tempted to go back to Tony Stewart, who's still got a serious case of senioritis as his Gibbs career winds down. But Roush really doesn't have a strong flat-track program these days, and Kenseth has had a hard time keeping it wheels-down at this venue type this year: He has a 30th at Martinsville, a 38th and a 39th at Richmond, a 40th at Loudon and a 38th in the spring event here at Phoenix. I grant you that most of those bad results came because of buzzard's luck, but you know what? I'd rather take the guy who's luckier at this track type.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: A.J. Allmendinger, 26th; Bill Elliott, 31st)
David Reutimann's fantasy value has steadily risen the past couple months, as he's posted three top-10s and six top-20s in the past 10 races, while leading laps in five (and leading the most laps in the second Richmond race, back in September). He also has a couple top-20s at Loudon this year, and finished 18th the first time around at Phoenix. The future is brighter for Michael Waltrip Racing, and let there be no doubt that sticking with Reutimann was the smartest thing that team could've done.
And he didn't do a ton for me last week at Texas, but I'm going right back to A.J. Allmendinger, who's wrapping up his short stay with Evernham in the No. 10 car. He started 39th at Martinsville a few weeks ago, but moved his way all the way up to 15th, and looked very strong in the process. One of the biggest non-Chase media stories in NASCAR right now is "Dinger's Drive" for a new job, as Allmendinger is running really well, trying to prove he deserves another full-time crack. A top-20 Sunday is a strong possibility.
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.