NASCAR: Spin the Black Circle
Would you like some cheese with your whine?
Man, Nextel Cup drivers sure can complain, can't they? After the Las Vegas event this past Sunday, grievances were filed, protests were registered, and objections were raised about the new racing surface. Jeff Gordon (surprise!) told the Associated Press, "I felt like I was on ice from lap one until the last one. There is no reason for us to show up at racetracks and be at a white-knuckle experience for an entire weekend." And he finished second. Other reactions, according to the AP:
"It was out of control pretty much all day," Clint Bowyer said.
"It was the poorest race I've ever been in. It wasn't fun to drive," David Stremme said.
"You couldn't run side-by-side," Matt Kenseth said. "When you got alongside of somebody, you were scared to death you were going to wreck."
"There's just no grip at all," Casey Mears said. "Everybody is having a hard time getting a hold of their cars."
("I loved it! Much better than Cats! I'll see it again and again!" Jon Lovitz said.)
Now, listen, that's easy for me to say. I'm sure it's no fun racing a tire you think is too hard on a new racing surface you think is too hot. But I'm just not sure how complaining to the press or the fans is going to help. Am I going to picket Las Vegas Motor Speedway the next time I visit Sin City? Will I punch track owner Bruton Smith if I meet him in an elevator? Should I make a trip to the garages next weekend with a towel across my shoulder, so these drivers can have a good cry? No, no and ew. Frankly, I thought the racing looked pretty good this past weekend, at least as good as Fontana. I did see side-by-side racing, I did see passing, and I didn't see an ungodly number of cautions.
Anyway, there'll be far less kvetching this weekend at Atlanta, which is known as the fastest track in NASCAR. It's an unrestricted, high-banked intermediate speedway that's kissing cousins with Charlotte and Texas. In fact, the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate tends to have fairly consistent results, so those tracks are also a decent place to go for historical data. Let's take a look at who'll be good this week.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
It's hard not to lead with last week's winner, Jimmie Johnson. JJ probably didn't have the best car in Vegas, but he put on right-side tires late in the race and was able to get around his teammate Jeff Gordon and hold on for the win. The A-C-T track style really suits the No. 48: He's absolute aces at Charlotte (his average finish from 2002 to 2006 at Lowe's Motor Speedway is 2.5; his average finish at LMS from '05-'06 is 1.5), he's never finished lower than 11th at Texas, and he's posted a victory in Atlanta, back in the fall of '04. Take a look at Johnson's record on these three tracks over the past five years:
That's nuts, kids. Johnson is a smooth driver who adjusts well to race conditions, stays out of trouble, doesn't ask too much of his car early and can come back from just about any deficit if he's got the car to do it. Anything can happen, but a top-10 from JJ seems like a lock.
Carl Edwards was The Man at this track in 2005, winning both Atlanta events on his way to a third-place finish in the Chase for the Cup. And the truth is, despite the fact that the toothy Edwards finished 40th and seventh, respectively, in the two Atlanta races in 2006, he had a car good enough to win both times. In the spring of 2006, he wrecked on Pit Row early in the race, and, in the fall of that year, he faded late after leading laps. Edwards also has a win at Texas and has never finished outside the top 10 in four career Nextel Cup events at Charlotte. Given his strength at Vegas, I think we'll see him contend Sunday.
Kasey Kahne was the best A-C-T driver in 2006, winning four of the six events on this track type, so you've got to strongly consider him. Of course, he hasn't finished particularly well in two consecutive cookie-cutter events, and that's causing me to hedge my bets a little. While I'm willing to give Kahne a try on his absolute favorite style of track, the more risk-averse among you could shift your attention to Jeff Gordon, who's partying like it's 1999. Gordon sits second in points after consecutive second-place finishes, and he led the most laps at Las Vegas. When Gordo can keep his wheels down at Atlanta, he's just about a lock for a top-10 finish. From '02 through '06, Gordon found the top 10 seven times in the eight races where he didn't blow an engine or wreck.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
It's time to start taking Mark Martin seriously, people. Martin is still leading the points heading into the season's fourth event, and if he puts together a smooth Atlanta ride on Sunday, you're crazy if you think he's not continuing in the 01 car all year. Count on it happening. Martin has shown he's among the easiest riders at these downforce tracks. He'll faster cars past him and wont force the issue. So he probably won't win, he will give you a solid fantasy finish. Granted, he was driving a Roush car, but in his past five Atlanta events, Martin has four top-four finishes, and his engine popped in the fifth.
Dare we give Casey Mears one more try? Mears has gotten progressively worse in '07, from a 20th at Daytona to a 31st in Fontana to a 40th on Sunday, though, of course, that poor finish was courtesy of Robby Gordon driving like, well, Robby Gordon. Mears doesn't have a fantastic record on the Atlanta track (a 23rd-place average), but the No. 25's previous driver, Brian Vickers, managed three top-15 finishes in six Atlanta tries. Plus, Mears has performed very good at Texas (two fourths and two sevenths in the past three years), which you'd think would bode well for Atlanta. I keep saying this: Mears' rope is getting shorter and shorter, but at some point, isn't the Hendrick magic simply bound to kick in?
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
Last week I put Dale Earnhardt Jr. on this list, so who the heck am I? (Junior had a top-five car all day before a pit mistake bumped him down to 11th.) Anyway, the guys I'm staying away from on the high-banked intermediate superspeedways are guys who haven't performed well on such tracks recently. That's not to say they can't turn around pull a good one out of their hat; it's simply to say that their downforce programs haven't been strong of late. Kurt Busch definitely falls into that category. His first Penske season on this track type was pretty awful:
Is the nose of the new Dodge better this year? The results haven't been there yet (Dodges have accounted for only 17.5% of the top-20 at the two downforce tracks this year, and 10% of the top-10). We should know a lot more after Sunday.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
J.J. Yeley could be worth a reach this weekend. In his rookie season, Yeley finished 15th and 16th here, and he currently sits ninth in points. Several pundits have said they believe Yeley has been far more efficent at the track so far in '07, and he did stayed calm when his top-10 car turned into an 18th-place finish at Vegas. Yeley's teammates, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, figure to be strong this week, so here's hoping they tow the No. 18 along with them.
I'm going very deep with this last one, but taking a chance on Paul Menard might not be a terrible decision this weekend, either. You'll have to make sure Menard qualifies for the race on Friday, but if he does, there's a chance he puts together a presentable fantasy finish. In his only Cup race at this track, in the spring of '06, Menard put together a surprising seventh-place finish. Do that again on Sunday, young man, and you'll have a legion of fantasy friends.
Christopher Harris covers fantasy baseball, football and NASCAR for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.