Spin the Black Circle: Coca Cola 600
Check out the Nextel Cup schedule over the next seven weeks.
First there's Sunday's marathon race at the 1.5-mile, high-banked unrestricted track at Charlotte. Then comes the Monster Mile in Dover, a concrete bull ring which is like Bristol on steroids. After that we hit the weird tri-cornered monstrosity in Pocono which has three turns that are completely unlike one another. Next comes the big two-miler in Michigan, whose banking isn't quite as high as Charlotte's, then comes the road course at Infineon, and the flat one-miler at Loudon. The stretch of incredibly varied tracks comes to an end July 7 with the Saturday night race at Daytona, home of restrictor plates and big wrecks.
That, friends, is a "septathlon" of racing insanity.
Forget the Chase for the Championship (40 percent of which takes place on cookie-cutter tracks). These seven events are the best test in Nextel Cup. If you can run well at all seven of these places, you deserve that great big trophy that currently has Jimmie Johnson's name on it.
All right, let's take a look at this week's best Charlotte bets from a fantasy perspective.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Duh. Jimmie Johnson. You really don't have a choice but to start J.J. this week, and not just because the name on his car hood ("Lowe's") matches the name on this track ("Lowe's Motor Speedway"). Johnson has won five out of the last eight points races in Charlotte, has finished second in two others, and third in the last one. You simply don't find fantasy consistency like this anywhere else. Any questions?
I liked what I saw out of Matt Kenseth in last weekend's All-Star Challenge event. Kenseth seemed consistently to have the fastest car, and one of the only cars that could pass on a fairly regular basis. The race's format didn't do him any favors, as he kept finishing near the front of segments and then kept getting inverted back toward the middle of the pack, but Kenseth still seemed a good bet to win the race until he sped in the pits during his final stop. Milwaukee Matt hasn't had the greatest recent history at Charlotte, either, finishing 14th, fifth, 26th and 37th his last four tries here. But those results mask the fact that Kenseth is one of the smoothest drivers around, and these 1.5-mile, high-banked cookie cutters reward smoothness above all else. Check out his recent results at Atlanta and Texas, which are kissing cousins to Charlotte:
Kenseth has the third-best finishing average at the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate over the last five-plus years, and the fourth-best average over the last two-plus years. The evidence is mounting: I think Kenseth turns his Charlotte record around this Sunday.
Finally, I think Kenseth's teammate Carl Edwards will threaten for the win as well. Edwards is second-best on this track configuration (to Johnson) over both the last two-plus and five-plus seasons. He's never won at Charlotte, but he has five top-10 finishes here in five starts (that's 100 percent to you and me), has two career wins at Atlanta and a win at Texas. A top-10 finish feels like a lock, and considering how great he's been in the Busch series, you have to believe some of that excellence will start spilling back over to Cup events, too.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Is anyone else tired of me picking Mark Martin in this spot? Well, too bad, because here I go again. Martin continues to be a fluky pick in most fantasy racing games; he hasn't raced enough events to warrant a high price in most games, yet when he does race, he's perpetually one of the most attractive options on the board. Charlotte's a place where Martin has won four times, with 17 top-five finishes and 21 top 10s. If you can find anyone else in his price range who's done half that, I'll be surprised. The No. 01 has struggled with the Car of Tomorrow to be sure, but this isn't a COT event. In 2007 races using the "old" car, Martin has finished second, fifth, fifth, 10th and third, and those last two finishes where Atlanta and Texas, respectively. Use him.
Greg Biffle was disappointing finishing 15th at Darlington a couple weeks back, and he didn't show a whole heck of a lot in Charlotte's All-Star Challenge last Saturday. But like his teammate Edwards, Biffle is very good on this track style over the long haul. He wrecked out of last fall's LMS race, but before that, Biffle had posted three consecutive finishes here of seventh or better. I'll be the first to admit that the Coke 600 Sunday evening represents a continued shift away from the way the A-C-T tracks have run the past couple years, because the Goodyears these guys will run are harder and less grippy then ever. (Goodyear has to use a hard tire here because the track was smoothed out recently, giving it so much grip that the old, softer, grippier tires got way too hot and blew out.) But I still say Biffle is at his best when he's loose and sliding around.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
I sure am picking on Kevin Harvick a lot. But the numbers say that the guy who won the All-Star Challenge on this very same track isn't a good bet to perform well Saturday night, just as the numbers said Harvick would be a weak fantasy option at Darlington (he finished 17th). I promise I've got nothing against the guy; I just don't like the way his cars have performed on the high-banked unrestricted tracks lately. Check it out:
It seems as Harvick has become the unquestioned king of flat tracks, he's given up a little something on these high-banked affairs. Could Happy turn it around make this suggestion look foolish? Absolutely, because we all know he's a great driver. But statistically speaking, I think there's better fantasy value elsewhere.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
My sleepers for Darlington were Joe Nemechek (28th) and Robby Gordon (38th). Oops and oops. This week, though, I think I have to go back to the Nemechek well. Charlotte has been Front Row Joe's best track over the past five years. In his last six tries here, he's finished no worse than 18th, and has three top-10 finishes. If he can keep the heck away from Juan Pablo Montoya and first-lap wrecks, he'll be solid this weekend.
Finally, I'm taking a look at Montoya's teammate David Stremme as a very deep sleeper. (Incidentally, Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. make even better fantasy plays, but they're not rated low enough in most games to be deemed official sleepers.) Stremme has cooled down considerably from a hot start, and is way back down in 22nd place in the points standings. But in the two races on this track type so far in '07, Stremme (like his teammate Montoya) has been really good: He finished 13th in Atlanta and 10th in Texas. There's little question you'd take that from the final driver on your fantasy bench this week in Charlotte.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.