Spin the Black Circle: Citizens Bank 400
The racing world is still on its ear. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s move to Hendrick Motorsports has set the sports media spinning (it's not often NASCAR bumps to the front of "SportsCenter"), let alone the crazy stuff I'd imagine is taking place on "I Luv Earnhardt" blogs as we speak. ("OMG! I bet Dale Sr. is spinning in his grave!")
Whether or not any of this impacts Sunday's Father's Day race at Michigan is anyone's guess. One has to assume Kyle Busch's concentration, already let's say a bit suspect, could flag a little, and Dale Jr. will find it a challenge to be Captain Focus as well. Casey Mears has to feel like he dodged a bullet, so maybe his good work will continue, and Martin Truex Jr. now knows he's a man on an island. Heck, now that the No. 8-shaped domino has fallen, Greg Biffle may be next (he recently broke off talks with Roush on a contract extension), with both DEI and Ginn Racing legitimate possible landing spots. The season, friends, just got silly.
The backdrop for all this will be the Irish Hills, which is right next door to Roush's headquarters, and the Roushketeers excel here. They've won five of the last 10 Michigan events, and top-10s are common. Accordingly, you'll notice a Roush flavor to this week's Circle.
"Given To Fly" (featured elite drivers)
My favorite fantasy driver for the weekend is Matt Kenseth, Roush's lead dog. A look at his recent performances at Michigan International Speedway and its sister track, Fontana, shows why:
Kenseth has two career wins at MIS, including last fall's event, and eight top-10s here in the last 10 Michigan races. He's also won at Fontana twice the last three times the Nextel Cup circuit has raced there. Barring unforeseen mechanical difficulties, which dog the No. 17 less frequently than many other teams, a top-10 is a near-lock.
I also like Kenseth's teammate, Carl Edwards, to make a fine showing at MIS on Sunday. Edwards has four career top-10 finishes in five Michigan events (including a second, fourth, fifth and 10th), and also has five top-10 finishes in six Fontana tries. I'm not crazy about the fact that King Carl was 29th at California earlier this year (neither, I'm sure, is he), but Roush is still driven to win at this track, and Edwards will put his No. 99 in contention.
Finally, as boring as it seems, you have to think about using Jeff Gordon. He'll be one of the priciest drivers around because he's got a huge points lead, but he's worth it. Gordon has won "only" twice at Michigan, but he finished eighth and second here last year, and finished second to Kenseth at Fontana in February. Considering he's incredibly, incandescently ablaze at the moment, you could do worse.
"Rearview mirror" (midrange drivers of note)
Biffle may have a few things on his mind as he heads north, but that shouldn't stop you from using him on your fantasy squad, now that his price in most games has dipped into the middle ranges. Biffle and MIS get along like George W. Bush and Albanians; Biffle won back-to-back races here in the fall of '04 and the spring of '05, and since then he's finished sixth, fourth and seventh. He's been a bit clueless so far in '07, and has fallen to 19th in points, so his (possibly) last season driving for Roush doesn't look like it'll result in a Chase race. But he can win this week.
I'm pretty proud of the fact that I was back on the Ryan Newman bandwagon a couple of weeks ago, when he finally decided to drive like the Rocket Man again, and I'd say this week represents another opportunity to try him at a fair price, for one of the final times this season. Newman (and Penske in general) looks like his old self, qualifying in a blaze of glory and then actually backing up Friday's performances with some pretty good Sundays. He might've won Pocono last week had the rain stayed away, and he was really good at Dover, too, finishing second to Martin Truex Jr. Newman has two wins at MIS, and is usually good for a top-15 finish at worst.
"Not For You" (beware of these drivers)
I'm tempted to put Kyle Busch here, because he's a pretty volatile driver anyway, and circumstances merit some extra shaken-not-stirred behavior this week. But I'm going to try and warn you off of Kasey Kahne, who, based strictly on history, would otherwise be a great value pick for Michigan. After all, Kahne won here last Father's Day (albeit in a rain-shortened event in which Edwards appeared to have a better car), and was an animal on the cookie-cutter tracks in '06, winning six of them. But dysfunction appears to be the word at Evernham, if not among the drivers and crew chiefs anymore, then at least between the cars and the tracks. Kahne finished 38th after mechanical problems at Fontana, then finished 39th at Atlanta, 20th at Texas and 23rd at Charlotte. Those last three tracks aren't direct equivalents to MIS the way Fontana is, but they do give you the sense that Kahne has lost his cookie-cutter mojo (since he won at each of those venues in '06). Kahne has definitely shown signs of life lately (11th at Dover, 22nd at Pocono), but I'm going to continue to let him get well on someone else's nickel. I'd rather jump back on him too late than too early.
"Nothing As It Seems" (weekly sleepers)
I continue to bat .500 in the sleeper category; last week I had Brian Vickers (who ran really well but got caught in the rain and finished 35th) and J.J. Yeley (17th). At Michigan, I'm nominating Reed Sorenson. I know it seems like an odd pick, considering Sorenson has just five top-20 finishes in 14 events, but he was extremely solid at MIS last year, coming in fifth and eighth in his first two Cup tries here. He never really had a chance to get going at Fontana, crashing on the first lap and finishing 43rd. It's obviously a big risk, but for a last guy on your fantasy team, it could be one worth taking.
Finally, off a 15th-place finish at Pocono, I'll take another look at Joe Nemechek. Ginn Racing has certainly been revitalized (or should I make that "vitalized"?) by Mark Martin's presence, and this is Martin's last race before a couple of weeks off. Nemechek wasn't good at Michigan last year, posting twin 26th-place finishes, but in '05 he came in sixth and eighth. The question with Front Row Joe is never driving talent or patience, because he's got those in abundance. The question is equipment. And as the Ginn recruiting effort hits high gear, here's hoping he manages to get all three of his cars through Sunday's race in fine style. Dad would want it that way.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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