How very … alliterative.
The Fresh Fit Five Hundred rolls off Saturday night in the desert, the year's first race under the lights, so you can see those pretty paint schemes go all shiny. Phoenix International Raceway is a mile-long, egg-shaped track with some of the lowest banking in NASCAR: just 11 degrees in one turn, and nine in the other. That makes it even shallower than Martinsville (though not quite so shallow as Narcissus); both that tiny half-miler in Tennessee and the mile-long track in Loudon are good racing equivalents as we seek out our fantasy starters.
Once again, the Car of Tomorrow will be in effect, so get ready for lots of driver kvetching about "front splitters" and "rear wings" and "my hair does not look good in this thing." Remember, both the Hendrick and Gibbs cars were extraordinarily solid in the first two COT events (then again, they're usually solid most places), so they'll probably make safe bets this weekend. This event's most pressing question? Will Kyle Busch actually finish the race, or will he storm off someplace in a huff and allow a by-standing Dick Trickle to finish the event in his No. 5? Time will tell.
For the moment, let's take a look at this week's good and bad fantasy picks.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
PIR is one of just three current Nextel Cup tracks where Jeff Gordon never has won (Texas and Homestead are the others). But don't let that factoid fool you into thinking he runs poorly here; Gordon actually has the best five-year finishing average at this track (sixth place) in the sport. In that span, he's failed to finish in the top 10 exactly once, and that was a 12th place in 2005. Plus, if we're making Martinsville our leading comparative track here (because it's low-banked, and because the Smokeless Set just held a COT event there three weeks ago), Gordon leaps off the page. Remember: He's got seven Martinsville wins, and probably could've had No. 8 last month if his teammate Jimmie Johnson hadn't been leading the race late. Gordon had the best COT in the field that day, but didn't want to wreck the No. 48 to get the win. Gordon leads the points standings, and probably could've won any of four races so far in '07. Count on him to contend again Saturday night.
It's hard not to be sanguine about Jeff Burton's chances for back-to-back wins. Burton is just eight points back of Gordon in the standings, and his COT program was the equal of any driver's in back-to-back weeks at Bristol and Martinsville, where Burton finished second and sixth. Generally speaking, the RCR COT setup has been exceedingly strong (between three teams at two races, RCR posted five finishes of 11th or better), and there's no reason to believe it'll suddenly weaken under the lights. Add to this mix that fact that Burton has won at PIR twice (in 2000 and 2001) and that he posted two top-10s at Phoenix and New Hampshire last year, and you've got a guy who should run up front into the wee hours.
Let's face it: I could wax rhapsodic about Johnson and Tony Stewart almost every single week, so let's talk about a guy who's next-in-line at the Gibbs empire: Denny Hamlin. I can't emphasize enough how impressive this 26-year-old sophomore is. He stands fifth in points, and anyone who thinks he's headed out of the Chase simply hasn't been paying attention. It feels like I make this comparison nearly every week, but I swear Hamlin has some of that Mark Martin mojo sprinkled on him. He might lack half-an-iota of the killer instinct that might help him win more races, but he's so steady, so consistent, and so apt to make the right improvements on his car that will get him into the top 10. Hamlin finished third here last fall, and has finished second and third in his last two Martinsville tries. (Martinsville's his home track, which means the kid grew up loving flat tracks just like the one in the desert.) Between his excellence in two COT events, his affinity for this track type, and the overall atmosphere of steadiness that surrounds this guy, Hamlin makes a great fantasy bet most weeks, and this one's no exception.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Maybe it's boring to keep pumping Mr. Martin, but he did nothing to shake my faith in him last week at Texas; after two weeks off, ho hum, Martin returned and ran third at Texas. Now, things aren't going to be quite as easy in the desert. Yes, it's a track where Martin traditionally runs well (in the last five years, he's posted seven finishes between fourth and 16th). But remember, that was in a Roush Fenway car; the Roushketeers have traditionally done very well at this place, but Martin ain't a Roushketeer no more. Also remember that Martin skipped over the first two COT events, so this will be his first. Now I'm not claiming he'll suddenly forget which way to turn the steering wheel just because his car doesn't have a rear spoiler, but there are differences. That said, as a fantasy bet, Martin's as solid as ever, and because he's a part-timer, you still don't have to pay full price for him.
It just might be time to hop aboard the Jamie McMurray bandwagon. The greatest hair in professional sports (I'm told) suddenly finds itself 10th in points, having posted finishes of 15th or better in every race since Fontana. Also, the artist formerly known as "McMary" lodged two top-10 finishes at Bristol and Martinsville, i.e., the first two COT events. As I just got through mentioning, Roush runs well here even if McMurray hasn't (40th last fall, only two finishes better than 18th in his career here, for a 24th-place average). Use him.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
His 43rd place at Texas last week wasn't his fault (he got run off the track on the lead lap), but J.J. Yeley is the Gibbs car that scares me this week in Phoenix. While Stewart and Hamlin were racing great at Bristol and Martinsville, Yeley was crashing out of the former and finishing a lap down in the latter. Suddenly all that talk of Yeley's newfound maturity has quieted, as Yeley has gone four straight races finishing 22nd or worse, and his 23rd at COT Martinsville three weeks ago was pretty instructive. I'm not saying Yeley's not more mature. I'm just saying there are better midrange options for your fantasy squad.
Is it piling on to suggest you avoid Dale Jarrett? Probably, so I'll take it a step further: Avoid Toyota. There's just no reason to use any fantasy bucks on Brian Vickers until he's in the top 35 in owner points and thus doesn't have to qualify on time, and the same can be said for Dave Blaney, Jeremy Mayfield, Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann and A.J. Allmendinger. Not that you'd consider any of these guys except Vickers, Blaney or Jarrett at this point, but the fact remains: Toyota's learning curve continues to be monumentally steep. That's not to say you should rule them out forever. It just means they're going to be fantasy killers more often than fantasy saviors in 2007.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
One of my usual "Nothing As It Seems" candidates, Martin Truex Jr., has graduated from "sleeper" consideration, because he's just been too good lately. (Insert self congratulations here.) So let's give David Stremme a shot. While Stremme's teammate, Reed Sorenson, was one of my sleepers last week (and was contending for the lead when his engine popped), Sorenson simply can't shake the black cloud hovering over him, while Stremme has a horseshoe residing where the sun don't shine. The kid who couldn't shoot straight last year suddenly finds himself 12th in points, which would be good enough to qualify him for the Chase if the season ended today. Listen, I don't expect to see him make the Nextel Cup playoffs. But let's ride the lukewarm hand while we can, huh? Stremme finished 18th here last fall.
If you're desperate for one more inexpensive guy, I guess you could do worse than Scott Riggs. Like the rest of Evernham, Riggs has been dog meat much of the year, but his best finish of the season (and only finish in '07 better than 23rd) came at Martinsville two weeks ago. In that COT event, Riggs hung around and hung around and finally came in eighth. His career finishing average at Phoenix is 26th, so I'm not expecting miracles, but as the last guy on your roster, you could do worse.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.