Spin the Black Circle: Avoid Jimmie Johnson?!?
Richmond is a weird little place. (Not the city, the track.)
Richmond International Raceway is three-quarters of a mile long, and it's relatively shallow-banked; at 14 degrees in both turns, it compares with places like Martinsville and New Hampshire (which have 12 degrees of banking). But RIR is known as the short track that drives like a superspeedway; the front straightaway is quite long, which means cars get up to much higher speeds than you'd expect at a joint this small. That makes braking finesse a premium commodity for Saturday night's race. Oh, and horsepower, too.
Let's take a look at the drivers to select and the drivers to avoid for your fantasy racing team this weekend.
I've got a feeling that Denny Hamlin wins this race. He led 19 laps at this event last spring and had a real shot toward the end, but couldn't catch the race winner (whose name will be coming up in a minute here). That was too bad because Hamlin grew up 20 miles from this track and it has been his lifelong dream to win at RIR. Given that he has been so good in the Car of Tomorrow through three COT races, a strong result feels almost like a given Saturday night. Hamlin could've won at Bristol, came in third at Martinsville, and obviously had the best car at Phoenix a couple of weeks back, but sped in the pits and was only able to come from a lap down to finish third. At the very worst, Hamlin contends.
Jeff Gordon has won two straight events and has taken poles in four of the past five races. He has won at Richmond on two occasions in his career, and no driver was better in the first three COT races: Gordon finished third, second and first. Gordon outdueled Tony Stewart at the end of the Phoenix event, but don't forget, if the race had been just a few laps longer, Hamlin would've passed both of them.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't get a ton of love from me in this space, but I'll remedy that this week. Junior loves Richmond, and he has won two of the past three night races here to prove it. His finishing average here in the past five years is a bit better than 12th place, and he's due. Little E was seventh and fifth at Bristol and Martinsville, respectively, and was on his way to a very good Phoenix finish before getting trapped in the pits during a late caution. Despite some awful luck in the last month, Earnhardt is still within striking distance of the Chase, in 13th place in the standings, and I think a strong push over the next couple of months begins Saturday.
Really, all you need to do each week to find the best bargain on your fantasy board is check to see whether Mark Martin is entered. Martin took Talladega off last week (no surprise, considering ol' Apple-Head-on-a-Stick has never exactly loved plate racing), but he's back for his second COT event this week in Richmond. In six of the past 10 RIR races, Martin has logged a top-10; even better for our purposes, he never has failed to get inside the top 15 in that five-year span. Granted, that success came with Roush Racing, but everything Martin has touched has turned to gold for Ginn Racing so far.
Clint Bowyer can't get no satisfaction. Right now, he's (barely) in the Chase, sitting 11th in points, 500 behind the championship leader. If Bowyer didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all; if ever a Nextel Cup personality drove around America's fastest tracks with a black storm cloud over his head, it's Bowyer. How many times can one man get sucked into wrecks not of his own making? I expected Bowyer would've won his first Nextel Cup event by this point in '07, but he has been mighty competitive in the COT (along with the other Childress cars), having finished eighth, 11th and 22nd (and the 22nd came, you guessed it, when another driver bashed in his nose). Bowyer finished 12th and 10th at Richmond during his rookie campaign in '06.
I might as well step waaaay out on a limb here and pick Jimmie Johnson. I know, it's professional suicide for a NASCAR writer to say JJ won't win a race, because winning races is what the No. 48 does. And I also know the Hendrick COT program is second to none (Hendrick racers have won all three COT events to date). But the numbers say something about Richmond doesn't seem to suit Johnson. In 10 career starts at RIR, JJ has exactly one top-10 finish, a second place in spring '04. In that span, he has a whopping five finishes outside the top 20, and his five-year average here is 21st place, which makes this his absolute worst track on the entire circuit. Heck, you and I both know Johnson could change those numbers with a snap of his fingers, and the COT factor is scary as heck. But the truth is, there are about a million other tracks (okay, 21) where Johnson makes a terrific fantasy investment. I'd say play the percentages and save him for pretty much anywhere but Richmond.
It was a much better performance for me in the sleeper category last week, as I selected David Gilliland (fourth) and David Stremme (eighth) at Talladega. Let's keep it going. Jeff Green has been a pretty cool story so far for Haas CNC here in '07; he's only 24th in points, but twin sixth-place finishes at Bristol and Phoenix (two COT events) gave Green his best finishes since spring 2002. He'll come cheap in the fantasy world this week, and I think he makes an interesting bargain. If Richmond really does run anything like Phoenix, and if Green keeps his cool and stays steady, another top-15 is a real possibility.
Tony Raines also makes an interesting case this week. He was solid at Phoenix (14th) and passable at Martinsville and Bristol (20th and 24th), and he sits 22nd in points, quite an improvement from the No. 96's 35th in 2006. Raines isn't often one of the quickest cars in a race, but it seems to me he has taken the "stay clean" approach to tracks under a mile-and-a-half long, giving faster cars a lot of leeway and just trying to stay on the lead lap, or at most a lap down. If he can get you another top 20 this week? Heck, that'd be quite a feather in the cap of this second-year team.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.