Spin the Black Circle: Pepsi 400
No more gridlock.
Hasn't that been what it's felt like the past month or so on the Nextel Cup circuit? First there was Pocono, the giant track that drives like a parking lot. Granted, next came Michigan, and that was fun, but we followed that up with Infineon, a road course, which is about as much fun to watch on television as reruns of "Son Of The Mask" while not tipsy at 3 a.m. And last week was Loudon, where it's harder to pass than it is to stand three feet from Ray Lewis.
Use your favorite metaphor: stallions kept in the stable, .44 magnum left in its holster, Heather Graham told to stay home on Saturday night ... we haven't exactly seen the fastest or scariest things NASCAR's drivers can do over the past month.
That changes Saturday night, as the Smokeless Set heads back to Daytona for its first repeat track of the season. Daytona may be a lot of things, but boring it ain't. Random? Yeah, a little, because you never know when your driver will get caught up in the Big One, and there's always a crazy last-lap scramble in which someone bump-drafts someone else and the leader dives to 20th place in the blink of an eye. But it's heart-pounding fun.
In terms of fantasy racing, it's doubly heart-pounding. I could quote you statistics that identify which drivers tend not to wreck at restrictor-plate tracks and who has the lowest standard deviation in his finishing average. But all that would be nonsense, because in any given superspeedway race, anything can happen. All we can do is go by what we've seen lately (both in February's Daytona 500 and the April Talladega race), what we know about the drivers' plate- track pasts, and what our guts tell us. The rest is up to the Big One fates.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Tony Stewart has won two consecutive summer Daytona events, so if you get a piece of him for your fantasy team, you know you're riding a race favorite. Of course, Smoke's also been known to (quite literally) go up in flames at this place. In the 500 this February he was contesting for the lead, made a mistake, and took both himself and Kurt Busch out of the race, beginning this season's fiercest rivalry. Stewart had the best car that day, and while he'll be driving a new one Saturday night, I have every confidence that Gibbs can give him another great car. Plus, I like the revenge angle the second time a driver comes back to a track; if he had the best car but didn't win, it seems to me he often turns in a great effort. If Stewart doesn't wreck, he'll be near the lead late.
And if it's not Stewart, ho hum, it could be Jeff Gordon. He won at Talladega in April and has 11 superspeedway wins in his illustrious career. He has three teammates with whom to draft, which is always helpful late in a plate-track race. Plus, he's simply red-hot; he's the points leader, he's won four races and he's taken six poles. Never underestimate the importance of staying out front. I had Gordon last week at Loudon, and he finished second. That's nice work, Jeffy Jeff.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Elliott Sadler has had a crummy year, as has the rest of the Evernham organization. It's now clear that the team wasn't ready to go with the Car of Tomorrow, nor did they apparently do enough effective testing with the new Dodge nose we heard so much about this winter. Sadler, Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs are all afterthoughts at almost every track. Daytona, however, could be an exception. Sadler is used to having Yates horsepower under him at plate tracks, but he did pretty well in the Daytona 500 this year, turning in a sixth-place finish. In fact, he's finished fourth, sixth and sixth in his last three trips to Daytona, and he was a respectable (and intact) 15th at Talladega in the No. 19 a couple months back.
He might actually be more "sleeper" than "midrange," but Robby Gordon has been pretty stout at plate tracks lately. He has finished 13th, 14th and 15th in his last three trips here, and though he wrecked early out of this spring's Talladega race, he did finish 10th and 16th there last year. Part of the magic for this year's 500 may have been the fact that Robby switched over to Roush/Yates engines, which have plenty of horsepower, but part of his success may also simply be taking it a little easier on the track. Sure, he DNF'd at Talladega, but that's the only race of the year in which Gordon wasn't running at the end, which is a shocker considering the guy's on-track reputation as a mad dog on wheels. Listen, obviously he could wreck on the first lap. But methinks Robby Gordon is finally starting to "get it," in a way that, say, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch haven't "gotten it" yet, which is to say: You can't win a race in the first 10 laps, you can only lose it.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
I took Greg Biffle as my driver to avoid at New Hampshire last week, and he finished 31st. Bully for me. This week, I'm going back to the same well. I know Biffle won his first career Nextel Cup event in this exact event back in 2003, but remember, that was a fuel-mileage affair in which all the best cars got out of pit sequence. Biffle hasn't topped 25th at this track since the 2004 Daytona 500 (a span of six events), and he's only bested 22nd place at Talladega twice in nine tries (and his top finish there is just 13th). Again, I emphasize that I like Biffle, I often root for Biffle, so I'm not meaning to pick on him. There are just a lot safer fantasy plays out there, and again, I also worry that free agency, along with his crew-chief change, might be weighing on him a bit.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
Last week my sleepers were David Ragan (15th) and J.J. Yeley (22nd), so I'll give myself a 1-for-2. Heck, if you can get a 15th-place finish out of the last guy on your fantasy team each week, you're doing well. Anyway, this week, my primary sleeper will be David Gilliland. Remember, Gilliland won the pole for the Daytona 500 in February, hung around all race long, and wound up finishing eighth. He then backed that up with a fourth-place finish at Talladega. Gilliland drives Sadler's old car, the Yates No. 38, which has had a lot of plate-track success in recent years. He'll have another great piece Saturday night, and he's shown he knows how to keep it relatively clean.
Finally, going out on quite a thin branch, I'll take Boris Said as a sleeper, if he makes the race. He'll have to qualify on time, so check in on Friday afternoon and be sure he's in the field. But if he is, Said has proven he's a pretty good plate-track driver. He ran near the front for a long time in this year's 500 before finishing 14th, and he qualified 11th for the Talladega race before getting caught up in someone else's early mess. Said also won the pole for this exact race last summer, led nine laps and finished an incredibly good fourth. He's a race-car driver, folks, and not just a road-course ringer. (But if he goes ahead and doesn't make the event, and you don't want to use Gilliland, you can consider Front Row Joe Nemechek, too.)
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.