NASCAR: Spin the Black Circle
Too bad there's nothing significant about Sunday's race at Bristol, huh?
First off, the points leader, Mark Martin, won't actually be racing. That's pretty weird.
Next, the Car of Tomorrow makes its debut, meaning NASCAR will almost literally never be the same.
This is also the fifth race of 2007, meaning it's the last race in which 2006's top 35 in points will automatically qualify, meaning teams like Scott Riggs, Dave Blaney and (unbelievably) Kasey Kahne would have to qualify on time at Martinsville next week unless their fortunes change on Sunday, and guys like Jeff Green, Kyle Petty, Casey Mears and Ricky Rudd are on the borderline of suffering the same fate.
Oh yeah, and the whole thing just happens to be scheduled at a half-mile bullring. This track, a carbon-monoxide-choked bowl with 160,000 screaming fans perched precariously atop and around it, is unlike any other in the world.
Just another Sunday, right?
Of all these factors, the Car of Tomorrow is what really throws us fantasy players into a swivet. Our entire reason to exist is predicting future performance based on past results. As the cars these good ol' boys drive radically change, it's possible all our historical data will fly out the window. Of course, we won't know anything about that until after Sunday, so for the moment the wisest course of action is probably just ignore it. The COT is taller, boxier and has a rear wing instead of a rear spoiler (it's gonna look weird), but I think it'll also emphasize overall driving skill. Will the playing field be leveled? Will Tony Stewart, widely considered one of the best pure drivers in the world on any circuit, win all the races? Will the earth collapse upon itself? I'm going to go ahead and say no. Still, it'll be interesting. Let's take a look at my favorite fantasy bets for Sunday.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Kurt Busch has won five of the past 10 Bristol events, and there's little reason to believe he won't contend again on Sunday (that is, unless Penske's COT program is anything like my Cub Scout Pinewood Derby entry, which looked great, but wasn't all that fast). In fact, the thing that prevents us from selecting Busch on bigger, downforce tracks is the fact that he's running in a Dodge these days, but downforce doesn't mean squat at Bristol. Bristol is simply about muscling your car around a tiny little track, keeping yourself clean and preferably out front, and being there at the end. Busch is pretty good at that.
I'd also seriously consider Matt Kenseth. Kenseth has won two of the past three events at Bristol, and has a crazy-good finishing average here over the past five seasons:
Ridiculous. Keeping your car clear of trouble is what Bristol is all about, and that's exactly what Kenseth does. He's a top-five waiting to happen.
The dirty little secret about the COT is that Hendrick Motorsports is on the forefront of its development and is light years ahead of other teams in terms of money spent on development and on testing. For that reason, I like Jeff Gordon to contend for the win on Sunday. Gordon has won five times at Bristol in his career, though none of those have come since the fall of 2002 (lately he's a better Martinsville guy). Still, I think he'll qualify well, and we all know when Gordo gets his cars out front, he's tough to beat.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Greg Biffle doesn't have a career win at Bristol, although he would've taken the spring 2005 event if he hadn't stayed out late when everyone else pitted. At its heart, this place is a high-banked, high-torque bullring, kind of like a small Dover, another track where Biffle has tended to excel. Now, don't get me wrong: The Biff has been dreadful this year, and currently sits 26th in points, so this selection isn't for the risk-averse. However, in eight career cup starts at Bristol, Biffle has six finishes of 12th or better and four firmly ensconced within the top 10.
I know, I know: I'm going back to the well, but Kasey Kahne has to get some better luck at some point, doesn't he? Kahne has had good cars, even contending cars, in the last three events, and has finished 38th, 35th and 39th. Once his engine popped, and twice he was wrecked by someone else. Now, Kahne's isn't exactly the first name you think of when it comes to short-track driving, and he's never finished better than 10th at this place. But last year he was 12th and 10th, and frankly, at this point I think he'd welcome such a finish. The good news is that Kahne looked pretty fast in the COT testing sessions held here earlier this month, and he's absolutely desperate. As I mentioned above, Kahne currently sits outside the top-35 in points, so if he doesn't perform well Sunday, he'll have to qualify on time at Martinsville next week, and that could spell disaster for his Chase chances.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
He's probably got a better-than-even chance at a top 10, but this week there are better options out there than Jimmie Johnson. I'm not telling you to sell J.J. if you've got him in ESPN's salary cap game, but this is a situation where it doesn't hurt you to ride someone else for the week (any of the three favorites I mentioned above, or someone like Kevin Harvick or Dale Earnhardt Jr.). J.J. may be the defending Cup champ, and he may have won back-to-back races, but he's had some trouble recently at Bristol, having posted a 30th and a 36th in two of his past three events here. Don't get me wrong: he's a Hendrick guy, and I just got through telling you Hendrick guys may be the ones to watch this weekend. Still, history tells you J.J. will be better at most other tracks.
Jamie McMurray is actually a really good short-track driver, as evidenced by the fact that he finished 11th or better his first four times running at Bristol. But that was back in his Ganassi days, and McMurray has struggled mightily in the two years since those golden races. He finished 24th and 26th at Bristol in his final Ganassi season, and then finished 35th and 29th in his first two Bristol events running for Roush. Like I said: McMurray is actually someone who should contend at an event like this. But with the perpetual dark cloud hanging over the No. 26 team, I wouldn't count on it.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
Kahne's teammate Scott Riggs finds himself in as desperate a situation as the No. 9 team: he needs a good finish this weekend, or will find himself on the outside looking in at Martinsville next week. The thing is: Riggs can do it. Unlike a lot of the cheaper options in most fantasy racing games, Riggs has had success at Bristol. He finished fourth in the fall Bristol event last year and 10th here in the spring of '05. He also has a pole and three top-10s in five Busch Series starts at Bristol. He just needs to keep it off the wall, and out of oncoming traffic.
Want a seriously deep sleeper? How about Regan Smith, the guy who'll be replacing Mark Martin in the No. 01 car this weekend. This is Smith's first Nextel Cup race ever, which doesn't exactly bode spectacularly, considering how rough Bristol can be. Still, you know the U.S. Army car is running really well, the team is clicking fabulously, and it's also worth noting that Smith actually tested very well here in the COT last month. Will any of this pan out? Mm, probably not. But Smith is an ultra-cheap option in cap games (since he hasn't run a race this year), so he can be a seat-filler for you, allowing you to pick a bunch of expensive guys and cross your fingers when it comes to the No. 01.
Christopher Harris covers fantasy baseball, football and NASCAR for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.