Spin the Black Circle: Chevy Heavy
The Car of Tomorrow isn't the car of this week, as the Nextel Cup series returns from its week off down in Texas on Sunday. Texas Motor Speedway is a virtual clone of Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the boys raced just a few weeks ago, so when we're setting our fantasy lineups, we can look at those results, as well as those from Charlotte, another close cousin. In fact, that A-C-T triumvirate represents one of the best statistical parallel groups in NASCAR; a guy who runs well at one in a season almost always runs fairly well at the others.
Because we'll be COT-less, the Chevy drivers will be out of the Impalas and back in their good old Monte Carlos, while Dodge drivers will be out of the Avenger, and back in the Charger. Texas is pure downforce all the way -- 1.5 miles long, steep in the turns, cookie-cutter in configuration -- so this is good news for the Chevy boys, and exceedingly bad news for the Dodgesters, whose cars simply don't handle well enough in traffic to be particularly viable. Kasey Kahne was the lone exception to that rule in 2006 -- he won four A-C-T events -- but even he was slow when trapped in the field in Atlanta back in March. Generally speaking, I think that means you go Dodge-light and Chevy-heavy this week in Texas. Let's take a look at this week's good, bad and ugly.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Jimmie Johnson is just a rock on this track style. Take a look at his A-C-T finishes the past three-plus seasons:
Need I say more? Johnson may not have had the best car in Atlanta a few weeks back, but he got the lead when it counted, and was able to hold off the field. Look for a similar result Sunday.
Tony Stewart was the guy breathing down JJ's neck in Atlanta, and he probably had a better car but just ran out of laps. Smoke is another driver who's incredibly good at cookie-cutters; though he's not in Johnson's league of late, Stewart has four A-C-T wins in the past five seasons, including the fall event in Texas last year. It's a little strange that Stewart hasn't won a race yet this year, especially because he's led laps in all but one event and has been dominant multiple times, but I guess that's what happens when the No. 48 keeps winning everything in sight. I expect a duel between these top two guys at race's end, which means either of them should be stellar for your fantasy squad.
This is Carl Edwards's absolute favorite track type. He's won twice in Atlanta and also once in the Lone Star State; he had serious problems here twice in '06, but posted three top-10s in four races at Atlanta and Charlotte. There's definitely some back-story here, because Roush Fenway simply isn't the same team it was in 2005, when it placed five cars in the 10-man Chase for the Championship. These 1.5-mile tracks were Roush's bread and butter then, but they haven't won an A-C-T race since the fall 2005 event in Texas (that was Edwards). Roushketeer Greg Biffle also used to love this place, but like all his teammates (with the exception of Matt Kenseth) The Biff has struggled to find speed in traffic. Edwards gives Roush its best shot this week; he's red-hot, having won consecutive Busch Series races.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Look who's back! It's Mark Martin, fresh off skipping the short tracks at Bristol and Martinsville for an early-season vacation. When Martin left Atlanta, having finished 10th, he owned the points lead, and everyone suspected he'd recant his vow not to run a full schedule in '07. Well, ol' Apple-Head-on-a-Stick showed everyone, didn't he? Refreshed and renewed, and having missed the COT entirely to this point, Martin will be a top-10 threat yet again. He's never won at Texas, but he has four top-10s in his past seven tries here, and he was very solid in Atlanta a few weeks back. Patience, give-and-take and overall driving smoothness are the qualities that cookie-cutters reward, and Martin has them in abundance.
I know I spent my intro bashing the Dodges, but it's possible Juan Pablo Montoya could offer a Kahne-like exception. Montoya looked overmatched at both Bristol and Martinsville, but that's to be expected for a guy who'd never seen those places before. A few weeks back in Atlanta, Montoya was surprisingly patient, and seemed able to pass most of the field late in that race. Remember: Texas is a close parallel to Atlanta, so Montoya will breathe a sigh of relief away from the beating and banging, and probably give you a pretty good finish. I'm not sure he'll match his fifth-place finish in Atlanta, but a top-15 could be in the offing.
Hard to believe Casey Mears finds himself in this pathetic of a circumstance: 33rd in points, having posted finishes of 28th or worse in four of six events. And he's driving a Hendrick car now. That's nuts. Why, it probably makes Rick Hendrick thirst for the days of Brian Vickers. Anyhow, if Mears is ever going to turn things around (and I'm not completely sure he is), you'd think coming out of a week off and heading to his best track would be the time. Mears has finished seventh or better in four of the past five Texas events, and in the other he finished 14th. Heck, if you can summon the gumption to own Mears this week, you'd take a 14th in a heartbeat.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
Normally, I'd be crazy to include Kevin Harvick in a list of drivers to avoid at any track. And Harvick has actually been okay in Texas, having posted a 13th-place career average. But I've got memories of touting Happy a few weeks back in Atlanta, only to have him go a lap down faster than Darrell Waltrip mauls the English language, and to later say it was one of the worst cars he'd ever driven. I'm sure things will be better this week in Texas, but will they really be 100 percent better? I'm not willing to take that chance on my fantasy team, and you shouldn't on yours.
Robby Gordon has been a mess all year long, and I don't expect it to get better this week in Texas. Gordon's unsponsored car gets more air time heading backwards on its roof than it does actually leading races, and when you're a single-car team, you simply can't afford to be as reckless as Robby is. It's a shame, because last year in the first Atlanta race, Gordon was a contender. But his downforce program has on a major decline since then.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
I don't think he'll contend for the win, but in terms of value you could do worse than Reed Sorenson. If there's one track type that Sorenson has proven not to stink on, it's the big, wide-open tracks at places like Texas and Michigan. Last month in Atlanta, the Ganassi driver finished ninth. He could be an acceptable field-filler for your squad.
Finally, Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth in Atlanta, his only top-10 finish of the season to date. Truex was also 12th in Vegas, and that could bode well, too: remember, the Diamond in the Desert was reconfigured to a high-banked, high-torque extravaganza. If it's not an exact equivalent to the A-C-T tracks, at least it's closer. Truex could definitely provide value.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.