You have to love Darlington.
Pretty, it ain't. This high-banked, 1.33-mile monstrosity is alternately known as the "Track Too Tough to Tame" and the "Lady in Black." It's not for the faint of heart, or rookies. Darlington's racing surface is old and cragged, so new tires get chewed into grip-free messes in just a few laps. Its corners are misleadingly abrupt, so drivers are constantly fighting tightness in their race cars, which results in them smacking the walls at the end of each turn, thus acquiring what are known as "Darlington stripes" on their cars. It's fast, it requires guile and you've got to be comfortable with an evening of uncomfortable driving.
Darlington also lends itself to streaks. Greg Biffle has won the last two events here, and before that Jimmie Johnson won two straight. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton have also turned in back-to-back wins here in the not-so-distant past. But of course, this will be the first time Darlington is run with the Car of Tomorrow, which already lends itself to a lack of maneuverability. This race will be fun, but it could get ugly.
Let's take a look at the week's best fantasy bets:
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Ten events into the season, it seems clear that the COT has more to do with results than recent history. Unfortunately, a lot of pretty good historical data has been rendered at least partially useless by the fact that Hendrick Motorsports is a lap ahead of everyone else when it comes to the COT. And that's why you should consider starting both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in this race. Gordon is a six-time winner at Darlington; his most recent win here came in 2002, but he was second to Biffle in each of the last two events here and third the race before that. Of course, I just said history doesn't matter as much with the COT, so let's look at the No. 24's COT performance thus far:
Pretty good, right? And while we're at it, let's take a look at Johnson's abbreviated COT history:
Given the fact that Richmond has historically been just about J.J.'s worst track, the fact that he won there last week speaks volumes. When in doubt, take Hendrick in the COT.
If you're looking to spread the wealth, certainly you can consider Greg Biffle as well. In the abstract, Darlington matches his preferred driving style perfectly: The Biff likes his tracks high-banked and wild, where carrying speed out of the corners until you're basically sliding sideways toward the wall is the fastest way to get around. That's Darlington for you, which explains why he's captured the last two races here. Biffle hasn't been very good in the COT, though, so his performance this week will make for a fine referendum on whether his favored driving style is even possible in the Car of Tomorrow.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
The bloom may have come off Mark Martin's rose at Ginn Racing last week in Richmond, but the weeks he runs, he's still the best midrange value available in fantasy racing. Martin has only run in two of the four COT events, and finished 12th and 17th in them. But his recent history at Darlington, and his general smoothness as a driver, predicts success: In his last four Darlington tries, he's finished eighth, fourth, second and seventh. Here's hoping his toes are officially wet in the COT waters, and he can figure out how to get the No. 01 around fast on Saturday night.
Ryan Newman has shown signs of life the last two weeks, with a ninth at Talladega and a sixth at Richmond. He's still just 19th in points, but Darlington has historically been one of his best tracks (I know, I know, I just said history may be flying out the window, but predictions have to come from somewhere, right?). Newman probably should've won events here in both 2004 and 2005, but lost late leads because of bad luck and terrible pit strategy. In his last four Darlington starts, he's got a sixth, a fifth and a third.
"Not For You" (Beware of These Drivers)
Last week, I said:
"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 J.J. won't win a race, because winning races is what the No. 48 does. And I also know that the Hendrick COT program is second to none (they've won all three COT events to date)."
Doh. Well, at least I issued a disclaimer, right? As I mentioned earlier, J.J. went on to win Richmond, pretty much shattering the illusion that the COT is going to behave statistically anything like its forebear.
Anyway, that means Kevin Harvick shouldn't be too nervous that I'm offering him up as my driver to avoid for Saturday night. I believe my logic is sound: Over the past two seasons, Harvick has become the best flat-track driver in the game, bar none, but his steep-banked-track program has suffered a bit. His last three Darlington efforts have resulted in finishes of 37th, 14th and 32nd, and at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas this year he's finished 27th, 25th and 29th. Granted, those three events were in the old car. But still, if I'm playing the odds, I think I can find better fantasy consistency than Harvick this week.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
My two sleepers last week, Jeff Green and Tony Raines, finished 22nd and 24th, which is marginal but not a disaster. This week I'm going even a little bit deeper. Joe Nemechek drives very well at Darlington. In his last eight events here, he hasn't failed to finish 21st or higher. And that includes some pretty bad qualifying efforts which have seen him start in an average of the 30th position. There's great risk in selecting what's essentially Ginn Racing's third (and kind of experimental) car, but Nemechek has the veteran patience and savvy necessary to not acquire too many Darlington stripes. Whether or not he gets wrecked, though, is anyone's guess.
Finally, believe it or not, Robby Gordon has been OK at Darlington lately, too. Granted, you're talking about one major risk when you're starting ol' Hotheaded Robby on your fantasy team, but in his last three starts here, he's finished 13th, 15th and fourth. Of course, he missed the race outright in '05, his first year in his own car, because he couldn't qualify. But last year's impressive effort, combined with the fact that he's having some decent luck with Roush/Yates engines this season, makes him just slightly more intriguing than having to start, say, Kyle Petty. There's huge risk here, because Gordon is a spectacular crash waiting to happen, but he's in the top 35 in owner points (barely), which means at least you know he'll be in the race, if only for the 10 laps it takes him to wreck.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.