Spin the Black Circle: Pocono 500
If you don't have anything nice to say, blah blah blah. It doesn't hold water for Tony Stewart, and this week, it won't hold for me.
I don't like watching races at Pocono Raceway. I'm all for different, but I want exciting-different, not boring-different. Pocono races are really long, get stretched out, have very few lead changes and offer excruciatingly few chances to pass. It's the tri-cornered hat of NASCAR: A three-turned behemoth that proves what they say, that a camel is a horse put together by committee.
The idea is interesting: Create a place that's part super-speedway and part flat track. It led Pocono's creators to institute one of the longest front stretches in racing: 3,740 feet of engine-revving tar, which ends in a sharp turn that's banked at only 12 degrees. For some context, Daytona's front stretch might be 3,800 feet long, but its Turn 1 is banked at 31 degrees. This means the Smokeless Set has to brake as though their lives depended on it at the end of that Pocono super-speedway front stretch because they do. Next comes another 3,055 feet of straightaway, which ends in a turn banked at just eight degrees, and then a 1,780-foot "short stretch" that ends in a turn of just six degrees. Each turn is meant to be a tribute to some other venue: Turn 1 is meant to be a tribute to the now-defunct Trenton Speedway, Turn 2 is the "Tunnel Turn" and meant to evoke Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Turn 3 is meant to be like the Milwaukee Mile. If you ask me, it's kind of like naming your kids "Fozzie" and "Beaker" instead of "Kermit."
Anyway, Pocono Raceway is a 2.5-mile goliath, and while I can go all day wishing the turns were banked more steeply so the guys could carry their speed through the corners, they ain't, so they can't. Let's take a look at the season's first Pocono race from a fantasy perspective.
I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't list Denny Hamlin first, since he's won both times he's stepped on this track. That's right, in 2006 Hamlin swept Pocono, and did so easily, leading 234 laps (or more than 58 percent of all laps) and dominating both days. Those two wins are the only two victories of Hamlin's career, and it seems a pretty safe bet that he'll have one of the favorite cars in the paddock on Sunday.
You should also take a look at Kurt Busch. Busch runs very well here, and if Mr. and Mrs. Hamlin had never mated, Busch might have three consecutive victories at Pocono Raceway, since he finished first here in the fall of '05, and then came in second to Hamlin in both of last year's races. However, you have to be careful with Busch this week. Last week in Dover, after he and Tony Stewart wrecked one another on the track, Busch pulled alongside Stewart's car in the pits and stood there, blocking the No. 20's crew from working on the car and presumably chewing out everyone with a Home Depot logo; subsequently NASCAR parked the No. 2 for the rest of the Dover event. A fine is no doubt coming, but there have also been rumors of a one-race suspension for Busch, and obviously if that happens, you want no part of him on your fantasy team.
Carl Edwards could make a fine fill-in for Busch. (And yes, the Hendrick cars tend to be great at Pocono, just as they tend to be great just about everywhere, so if you'd like to start Jeff Gordon and/or Jimmie Johnson, feel free.) Edwards had the car to beat in this race last spring, before an errant pit stop put him several laps down. Unfortunately, Edwards's jack man messed up and the left side of the car, sans wheels, slapped the Pit Row pavement and gave the No. 99 crew no way to lift the car again. By the time Edwards got right again, he was out of contention. But remember: Edwards has a win at Pocono (in the spring of '05), and I think he can threaten here again this week.
Bobby Labonte can be sneaky-fast at Pocono, a track that rewards patience and working on a car more than it does flat-out speed. Drivers and crews claim that you can't make your car good in all three turns, because they're so dissimilar, so you have to pick one to be good in, and then make do in the other two. (Most cars will be set up to be best in the shallowest turn (Turn 3), because it's the one that leads to the finish line.) Labonte is an old pro who's got the ability to nurse a car through the other turns, and his recent history here (even in a Petty car) shows it: He's finished eighth, 12th and eighth here in his last three events. He's also got three career wins here (in 1999, 1999 and 2001).
And yes, it's probably time to take another look at Mark Martin, who's still threatening to make the Chase for the Championship despite not quite running a full schedule. As I mentioned last week, I have a tendency to stay away from ol' Apple-Head-On-A-Stick in Car of Tomorrow races (though Martin did finish seventh last week at Dover), but Pocono won't be a COT event. Look up "solid" and "veteran" in the dictionary, and you'll probably find a picture of Captain Caveman, but right below that might be an etching of Martin. He's never won here, but he's finished second at Pocono on six occasions and third on four others. He might not finish that high on Sunday, but he probably won't wreck, either.
After a run of a few good "beware" picks, I had Kasey Kahne as my driver to avoid last week in Dover, and Kahne finished a respectable 11th, so I'll consider that one a loss. Still, I've been more good than bad in this spot so far in '07, so I'll continue to go out on a limb, and tell you to stay away from Kyle Busch this week. Here's the thing: it's not that Busch can't run well here; he finished fourth at Pocono the very first time he raced here. It's just that the 2007 version of Busch the Younger is racing under a bad sign. Either he does something stupid on the track (that seems to happen an awful lot, eh, No. 5 fans?) or has a tire blow at an inopportune moment, or loses a battery, or drops a cylinder, or has a flock of bats attack his windshield, or something, and I don't want any part of it this week. Pocono rewards patience, and that ain't Kyle's strong suit.
I'll give a toot of my own horn for picking Casey Mears at Dover (he finished 13th), but a bit of self-flagellation for also taking Jeff Green (30th) in the same event. I continue to bat around .500 for my sleepers. This week, the guy who leaps off the page if Brian Vickers. His last four Pocono finishes have gone: Second, 14th, fourth and fourth, and while that was in a Hendrick car and not Team Red Bull, you have to be impressed with how TRB has improved over the past month, to the point where Vickers actually is contending for wins, as he did in Charlotte. There's a huge caveat with using Vickers this week, though: He currently sits 38th in points, which means he doesn't automatically qualify for this week's race, and has to make it into the field on time. If he has a bad qualifying lap, or if qualifying gets rained out, Vickers will be on the outside of the field looking in, and will get your fantasy team a big zilch. So keep nimble on Vickers.
Finally, here's a shout-out for J.J. Yeley, whose teammates, Hamlin and Tony Stewart, should be in contention throughout this event. Yeley finished 15th and 11th his first two times out at Pocono last year, an eminently respectable rookie performance that should presage some Interstate Batteries goodness to come. If J.J. can avoid early crashes and/or mechanical troubles, a top-20 finish is definitely possible.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.