NASCAR: Spin the Black Circle
Kyle Busch didn't exactly cover himself in glory after last week's Bristol win.
I mean, c'mon, you just won at one of the most storied venues in your sport. You've got 160,000 fans alternately cheering and booing you. You're getting doused in Gatorade in Victory Lane. You're asked all kinds of puffball questions like Golly gee, wasn't it great to get a win. Then as Fox is preparing to leave your interview, you can't help yourself. A devilish, kid-like grin comes over your bizarrely hirsute face and you say, "I can't stand to drive [the Car of Tomorrow]. They suck."
Kyle Busch has always kind of cracked me up, because he doesn't blow smoke up anyone's skirt. But even I thought that was classless and unnecessary. Yeah, we know a lot of drivers don't like the COT, but at this point, so much complaining is starting to sound dreadfully off-key. I mean, of course drivers don't like something new. It's new. They have to change. They were good at what they used to do. Now it's different.
Oh, and the whining about the rear wings on these cars. Would you all please just put a sock in it? I'm not old enough to have watched the races live, but many longtime fans of NASCAR racing remember when wings on stock cars were the norm and, in fact (when the engines were bigger and badder), were the only way to go fast. When NASCAR made the change to spoilers, people thought that was weird. And for all the complaining about how much less downforce the COT has, at Bristol this weekend I saw a whole lot of passes on the outside. How are you guys passing on the outside if you don't have any downforce? Did Bristol suddenly grow a second groove?
We won't really know the impact of the COT until the cars start going much, much faster. Darlington and Dover are two COT events this year that could test the aero limits. Mostly, though, I just want to stop hearing these guys whine. Because they always have something to whine about. Remember when green-white-checker finishes were going to ruin the sport? Or when the lucky-dog pass was the stupidest thing around? How about when not being allowed to race back to the finish line during a caution was going to topple the Nextel Cup empire? The bottom line: this, too, shall pass.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Jeff Gordon has seven career wins at Martinsville, the site of this week's event. Martinsville is the shortest track on the Nextel Cup circuit and is also one of the flattest tracks around. It's a half-mile, paper-clip-shaped venue that's a lot like running 100 mph down a quarter-mile parking lot, taking a hard U-turn, and running back. Oh, and doing that 500 times. Gordon is better than everyone else here, which is why you should seriously consider using him this weekend. In his last four Martinsville events, his finishing average is 2.25, which is ridiculous. Also, it's clear that for all his complaining, Gordon's COT program was strong at Bristol; he found himself at the rear early but worked his way all the way forward for a top-five finish.
Jimmie Johnson didn't show a whole lot last weekend at Bristol, but that's not entirely surprising: his finishing average at that joint over the last five-plus years is 19.6. But Martinsville is an entirely different story. Here are Johnson's last nine finishes at this tiny little place:
Add to these impressive numbers the fact that Johnson has the best flat-track finishing average over the last five years, and I think J.J. recovers from his mediocre Bristol with aplomb.
Tony Stewart is also quite good at Martinsville, and if his performance last week is any indication, Smoke's COT program is right on schedule. In his past three Martinsville tries, Stewart has posted a fourth-place finish or better, including a win in this event last spring. And his COT was just way better than everyone else's for most of last Sunday's race, before a fluky water-pump problem knocked him out; he led the most laps but finished just 35th. For all of Stewart's mockery of the COT, his Gibbs team seems to have the thing sussed out.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
This may be going out on a limb, but I think you could see Ryan Newman turn in a top 10 on Sunday. He's already 23rd in points and has more DNFs (two) than top-10 finishes (one), but Martinsville has been very good to Flyin' Ryan in the past. He's failed to log a top 10 here just twice in his past seven tries, and it's easy to remember a time when he was one of the most feared flat-track drivers around. He's still got one of the 10 best finishing averages on this track style (for the purposes of this stat, I include Martinsville, New Hampshire and Phoenix) over the past five years and the past two years, and perhaps getting out of the Dodge Charger altogether (Dodge teams run the Avenger in COT events) will cure what ails him.
Want another name you don't see here frequently? How about Jamie McMurray, who showed all kinds of spunk coming in ninth at Bristol last weekend. (In fact, I listed McMurray in the "Not For You" section of Bristol's preview. Oops.) If there's a short track that's regularly been to McMurray's liking, it's Martinsville. This is, after all, the venue where he won his first and (to date) only Nextel Cup race, subbing for the injured Sterling Marlin back in the fall of '02. In his past seven tries here, McMurray has missed the top 10 only twice, and his ninth-place finish in this event last spring was one of just seven top 10s he posted as a Roush rookie.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Bobby Labonte, who was never exactly known for his short-track prowess even back when he was winning championships, but who's been pretty darned good at this place exactly once per year for the last five NASCAR seasons. Check out the funky finishing pattern:
Weird, huh? B-Lab gives you a top-five Martinsville finish once a year, but the other Martinsville start will almost assuredly be nausea-inducing for his fantasy owners. Will Labonte keep that pattern up in the COT in '07? And if so, is he due for his good race or his bad one this weekend?
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
Greg Biffle was one of my midrange drivers of note last week, and he rewarded me with a fifth-place finish. But whereas the high-banked track at Bristol is right up The Biff's alley, Martinsville has never been his cup of tea. In fact, Biffle has never finished better than 17th at this track, and he's got four finishes (out of eight tries) of 29th or worst. His four-year finishing average here is 25.1, and his two-year finishing average here is 28. As good as his COT program looked last weekend, those numbers tell me I can't justify taking him two weeks in a row. But he's often very good at Texas, the site of the event in two weeks.
Brian Vickers probably isn't the guy you were going to rush out and acquire the moment you closed this article, but it's worth noting that he probably won't make a very good "end-of-roster" acquisition this weekend. At Bristol last week, Vickers suffered second-degree burns on his feet as a result of some failed shielding equipment, and he also needed oxygen while still inside his car once the race was over. Vickers gutted out Bristol to the tune of 15th place, which speaks volumes about the lad's toughness. But I have memories of what it was like when Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to race with burns on his feet and legs a couple years back, and it wasn't pretty. Until we're sure he's healed, I think I'll stay away from Team Red Bull.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
I know he hasn't run here since the fall of 2005, but Ricky Rudd was always known as a very consistent, very smooth driver when it came to Martinsville. In fact, his five-year finishing average at this track is 11th, which is fifth in Nextel Cup racing, behind Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt. Now, I don't expect him to go out and win the race, and you have to be a bit concerned about how poorly the Yates cars have performed since Daytona. Still, at a venue that rewards patience and keeping your car clean, Rudd could be a nice deep sleeper.
He's fallen on hard times since his fifth-place finish at Daytona (and even his 16th at Fontana), but David Ragan, the inheritor of the ol' No. 6 car, could be another interesting deep sleeper on Sunday. I say this partly because he fought through a lot of adversity last Sunday to finish on the lead lap, and partly because Martinsville is actually one of only two venues where he actually isn't a rookie; he raced a Cup car here last fall and finished a respectable 25th. Ragan has been involved in too many crashes, and Martinsville is something of a crash magnet, but here's hoping a little experience and an early taste of success gets Ragan into the top half of the field Sunday.
Christopher Harris covers fantasy baseball, football and NASCAR for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.