- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Well, the drama NASCAR wanted for its season finale failed to materialize yet again. For the second straight year, Jimmie Johnson has made the Chase his personal attaché: ordering it around, telling it to do the dishes and forcing it to sleep out in the servants' quarters. Also, the final gala, at Homestead/Miami, is typically a Roush-fest, thus you'll see my fantasy picks below are pretty Roush-intensive.
So instead of dwelling on the dregs of 2008, I'm going to take a quick peek at '09. Which drivers have found new homes? Which ones are still looking? Read on:
Tony Stewart: was the No. 20 for Gibbs, now the No. 14 for Stewart/Haas. Stewart is pleased to be back in a Chevy, and will essentially be a satellite Hendrick team. It's always tough building an operation from scratch, but Smoke should have tons of sponsorship dollars and lots of technical support. A Chase berth is unlikely, but not impossible.
Mark Martin: was the No. 8 (part-time) for DEI, now the No. 5 for Hendrick. Martin was one of the sport's best fantasy plays this season because when he ran, he ran great, but he didn't drive a full schedule, so his cap value tended to be low. Next season, he'll run that full schedule for Hendrick and try to make his first Chase since '06.
Ryan Newman: was the No. 12 for Penske, now the No. 39 for Stewart/Haas. Flyin' Ryan's attention seemed to flag in the second half of '08, but he's a superstar and he'll be driving the Army car for Tony Stewart next year.
Casey Mears: was the No. 5 for Hendrick, now the No. 07 for Childress. Mears heated up toward season's end, and jumps from one mega-team to another. A piece of good news for this team is that they'll likely inherit Clint Bowyer's owner points, as Bowyer heads to a fourth RCR squad. So Mears won't have to qualify during the '09 season's first month.
Joey Logano: was not a full-time Sprint Cup driver, now the No. 20 for Gibbs. Logano turns 19 in May, so while he's universally hailed as having great potential, these are mighty big shoes for a kid to step into. His crew chief will be Greg Zipadelli, though, which gets him off on the right foot.
Reed Sorenson: was the No. 41 for Ganassi, now the No. 10 for Evernham. Was Sorenson's problem the fact that he's not a good driver, or that Ganassi was under-funded and overzealous? Ganassi has merged with DEI, and Sorenson has jumped to a bigger team, so we'll find out the answer in '09.
Aric Almirola: was part-time driver for No. 8, now will be full-time No. 8 driver. Almirola impressed at some of the shorter tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit this season, and tightened his hold on one of the four rides that'll be remaining after the DEI/Ganassi merger. (Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya are also staying put, and the new company hasn't announced its fourth driver yet.)
David Stremme: was out of Sprint Cup, now the No. 12 for Penske. Stremme wasn't ready when he got his full-time ride with Ganassi a few years ago, and it showed. He inherits Ryan Newman's old ride at Penske and has Kurt Busch for a teammate, but he's certainly got a lot to prove.
Scott Speed: was not a full-time Sprint Cup driver, now the No. 82 for Team Red Bull. Speed has had terrible results during his first month-long stint as a Sprint Cup driver, failing to finish better than 30th. But he takes over the ride alongside Brian Vickers on this up-and-coming Toyota outfit.
Paul Menard: was the No. 15 driver for DEI, now driving for Yates, number unknown. It helps when your dad brings along a massive sponsorship from one of the Midwest's biggest retailers. Yates will expand to three teams to accommodate Menard, Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland.
Chad McCumbee: was out of Sprint Cup, now the No. 44 for Petty. Kyle Petty hasn't decided if he's going to drive at all next season, but either way, Petty Enterprises seems committed to rebuilding around Bobby Labonte and McCumbee.
Marcos Ambrose: was part-time for Waltrip, now the No. 47 for Daugherty. ESPN's own Brad Daugherty is making a foray into ownership (while getting cars and support from Michael Waltrip Racing), and Bob Hoskins look-alike Ambrose will get his first full-time Cup ride.
Same Team, New Number:
Clint Bowyer (was the 07, now is the 33 for Childress)
David Reutimann (was the 44, now is the 00 for Waltrip)
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Carl Edwards over Jimmie Johnson
Greg Biffle over Jeff Burton
Clint Bowyer over Kevin Harvick
Jeff Gordon over Matt Kenseth
Denny Hamlin over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Kyle Busch over Tony Stewart
Greg Biffle over Jimmie Johnson
Jeff Gordon over Denny Hamlin
Carl Edwards over Matt Kenseth
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Tony Stewart
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Denny Hamlin, 4th; Jimmie Johnson, 1st)
Roush has been very strong at the mile-and-a-half tracks in the Car of Tomorrow, so it's no surprise they'll be favored to perform well this weekend. The reconfigured track at Homestead isn't quite as high-banked in the corners as the cookie-cutters at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas, but it has very similar (nearly un-banked) straightaways that require a loose race car. My first choice for fantasy teams Sunday is Carl Edwards, who won at Atlanta and Texas just a couple of weeks ago, and finished fifth, eighth and fourth his past three times out at Homestead. He doesn't have a legit shot at the trophy he really wants, but that'll allow him to drive free and easy and get his series-high ninth win of '08.
I'll also take Roushketeer Greg Biffle as a nice fantasy play. He won here (in the old car) in 2005 and '06, and finished a respectable 13th last season. (Fellow Roush driver Matt Kenseth won here in '07.) The Biff finished seventh, 10th and fifth at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas just this past month, so he's a terrific bet to be well inside the top 10 in Sunday's finale.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Mark Martin, 14th; Martin Truex Jr., 43rd)
Did somebody say Roush? Jamie McMurray has vindicated himself and saved his season (and maybe his job) with a terrific run in the past five weeks. Not coincidentally, three of those five events came on 1.5-mile cookie-cutters. McMurray finished fifth at Charlotte, seventh at Atlanta and third at Texas. He hasn't topped 14th at Homestead his past three times out at this track, but I think he'll be much better than that this week.
Finally, a non-Roushketeer! In his final race for Hendrick, Casey Mears can continue his successful ways at the bigger tracks. He finished 12th in Atlanta and 14th at Texas during the Chase, proving that he knows how to manage a decent sendoff. Mears still comes cheap in fantasy games because of his overall disappointing season, but he really has been much stronger since it was announced that he was leaving Hendrick for Childress.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Matt Kenseth, 15th)
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. I've mostly been dead-on in my regular predictions about Stewart: His focus isn't with the No. 20 team any longer and he's been playing out the string. Most of the Chase racers will be good this week. I worry Smoke might not be one of them.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: David Reutimann, 25th; A.J. Allmendinger, 16th)
David Reutimann runs well at these big, wide-open tracks (witness his 10th-place finish at Texas a couple of weeks ago), so I'll give him another nod in his final ride for UPS on Sunday. He's still inexpensive in fantasy games, but has been one of the sport's best guys for return on fantasy investment this season, with his four top-10s and (more importantly) 18 top-20s.
And Sam Hornish Jr. could make an adequate last-guy-on-your-fantasy-team-in-the-last-race-of-the-season. He's probably not a threat to come near the top 10 during his second career run at Homestead (he finished 40th here last fall), but he's been up to speed during the cookie-cutter races of late, finishing 22nd at Charlotte, 24th at Atlanta and 23rd at Texas. That's a lot better and more consistent than many of the bottom-level options for your fantasy squad.
Thanks for reading Spin The Black Circle again this year, and I'll see you next February in Daytona.
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.