Spin the Black Circle: Toyota/Save Mart 350
They might not make for exquisite TV, but NASCAR's road course races are a fantasy player's dream.
You can pretty well eliminate at least half of Sunday's field at Infineon Raceway out in Sonoma, Calif., from your fantasy consideration. Driving dump trucks disguised as race cars around a course twistier than Chubby Checker at a Twizzlers convention is, by all appearances, not something most of the Smokeless Set enjoys. Sterling Marlin is the poster child for the California cryin' that'll go on Sunday evening; he has a career Infineon finishing average of 21.6 and has averaged a 33rd-place finish here his last five visits. (Plus, he's always good for a grumbly interview in which he wonders aloud why in the world Nextel Cuppers are made to pretend they're driving go-karts twice a year.)
That said, there are also a few new faces, whom I'll detail below, who can make some noise on Sunday and are worthy of fantasy consideration. They're the "road course ringers": specialists who spend most of their year riding on tracks just like Infineon, winding and winding, and who are hired on a one-off basis to give a team much-needed owner points and/or cash winnings. Put together the regular NASCAR drivers who like road courses and the road course ringers, and you probably have about 10 guys who can be considered legitimate threats to win Sunday's race. Let's look at the best of them.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Jeff Gordon has won at Sonoma five times, including this race last summer. He's from a dirt- and short-tracking background, and he just gets what it takes to move fast around a road course (he also has won four times at Watkins Glen, which the circuit will visit later this summer). Given that Sunday's event is also a Car of Tomorrow race, and that Hendrick Motorsports has been the unquestioned king of the COT to date (this just in: HMS has won every COT race but one), Gordon looks all the sweeter. He belongs at the front of your fantasy squad.
And if it's not Gordon, it has to be Tony Stewart. Stewart has an Indy car background, of course, but before that, he was a part-time dirt- and short-tracker, and it's well-known that Smoke can drive the wheels off just about any kind of car on just about any kind of track. Watkins Glen probably suits his style a bit better than Infineon (he has three wins at the Glen and two at Infineon), but that's splitting hairs. He's going to be near the front. Don't be fooled by the 28th-place finish Stewart logged in last year's Sonoma race. He was the second-best car all day that afternoon (to Gordon's No. 24) before he hurt his car late and limped home.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
I'm not sure whether Juan Pablo Montoya qualifies as a "midrange" or a "sleeper" driver in your game, but either way, he's worth a serious look this week. In fact, this is what his fans have been waiting for: a Nextel Cup event on his turf. Montoya, of course, is a Formula One veteran known for road course excellence, and he proved it by winning a Busch Series road event down in Mexico earlier this year (you might recall he bumped teammate Scott Pruett out of the way in the process). Ganassi cars are known for performing fairly well at road courses: Casey Mears had a couple of road top-10s in his Ganassi days; Reed Sorenson was a surprising 12th in his first run at the Glen last year; Jamie McMurray finished second in a Ganassi car at Infineon a few years ago; and Pruett, of course, has been a regular contender as a road course ringer (a scheduling conflict will prevent Pruett from running this year). Montoya has proved he can get too aggressive for his own good as a Cup rookie, but I think he'll be moving forward in the field most of the day Sunday.
Robby Gordon, too, might be more "sleeper" than "midrange," but like the drivers I've already listed, Gordon is a natural on the roadies. He has two Cup wins on road courses -- the '03 Sonoma race and the '04 Watkins Glen affair -- and has contended in several more road events. Last year, Gordon had a car that might've challenged Jeff Gordon and Stewart, but he got sideswiped by Boris Said and wound up finishing an ugly 40th. Believe me: This Gordon lives for the roadies (maybe the Glen more than Sonoma, but both, really), sells his sponsorships at least in part on the notion that he'll be on TV an awful lot in these races, and preps his road course cars with as much care as anyone in the business. He suffered mechanical problems in 2005 at Sonoma because he used some transmission parts from Hendrick Motorsports (the Hendrick cars crapped out that day, too), but otherwise he's been really solid here. Expect it to continue.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
I had Kasey Kahne in this position for Michigan last week, and he finished 32nd, so bully for me. Any number of drivers should be avoided at road courses, not because they can't contend but simply because they don't have good records at the right-hand-turns-included tracks, and there are so many other, surer options. Here's a list of good drivers who have finishing averages of 20th or worst at the road courses the past five years: Mears, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Kahne, Greg Biffle, J.J. Yeley and Marlin. Biffle actually surprises me a little because he's from a driving background not unlike Jeff Gordon's, so I'm not officially including him in this group. And guys like Burton, Busch, Mears you know they're receiving equipment as good as anyone else's and could contend. (Heck, Burton has two top-10s his last three times at Infineon.) Still, given the plethora of more reliable road course options, I'll choose elsewhere.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
My sleepers weren't great at Michigan: Sorenson finished 23rd, and Joe Nemechek finished 30th. In my defense, Nemechek was strong for much of the day before suffering mechanical problems late, but I'm hoping for better this week. Said is the best-known road course ringer, and not just because he's an analyst for "NASCAR Now" on ESPN. Said has the wavy 'fro and the contagious good humor of a guy who eventually could be a regular Cup driver, but for now he's relegated primarily to road courses and superspeedways. Said has finished sixth, sixth, 17th and ninth in the past four Cup events in Sonoma, which bodes well for his chances Sunday. Remember, though, that if qualifying gets rained out, Said won't be in the field.
Finally, Ron Fellows makes an intriguing selection for the back end of your fantasy team this week, if only because he, too, spends much of his racing schedule on roadies. Like Said, Fellows has been coming to race at Infineon and the Glen for years, although this year he'll be taking over for Tony Raines in the No. 96 car, which will be a first for him. He has had a bit more luck at Watkins Glen (he finished second in a Glen race in '04), but Fellows has finished seventh and eighth in two of his past three tries at Sonoma. He also carries the added benefit of driving in a car that's in the top 35 in owner points, so you know he'll be in this race by hook or by crook.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.