Spin the Black Circle: Pennsylvania 500
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is big, incredibly aero-sensitive, and almost unbelievably fast and flat in the corners, all of which makes it very difficult to pass.
Pocono Raceway is big, incredibly aero-sensitive, and almost unbelievably fast and flat in the corners, all of which makes it very difficult to pass.
I'm not saying we'll see an exact replica of last week's race when the Smokeless Set girds its loins and heads to Pennsylvania this weekend. But Nextel Cup teams almost certainly will repurpose last week's cars and, if they were working well by the end of the Brickyard, mimic some of the same setups. All of which makes me wonder: Why do we run these two events back-to-back?
Regardless, I guess it makes the fantasy NASCAR player's job a little easier, right? I mean, it's not as though we have to look too far back in our rearview to remember who runs well on this track style.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
I had the top two Gibbs cars last week at Indy, and they're as good a place as any to begin this week. Tony Stewart has two straight wins, and considering how much better his car was than the rest of the field by the end of the Brickyard, there's a decent chance he'll go three in a row. Regardless, he'll contend. Stewart won at Pocono back in '03, then went through a rough patch in which he failed to top 27th place there for four straight races. In the four events since then, however, he has finished seventh, third, seventh and fifth. And remember, it's possible the reason he "only" finished fifth in June was the weather. He had a car that might've won that day.
And yes, I'm taking Denny Hamlin, too. He wasn't going to win the Brickyard last week, but Hamlin was headed for a top-5 finish when he made his final, fateful pit stop; his crew filled it full of fuel and put four fresh tires on, and the car stalled worse than Mickey Rourke's career. The No. 11 wound up going a lap down, and this after he somehow had sped in the pits while everyone else was on pit road, too. However, if Hamlin can get out of his own way this week, he'll be fast; he led 49 laps in the June race at this track and swept Pocono Raceway in 2006.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
What's considered "midrange" is probably in the eye of the beholder. I'm eliminating a guy like Martin Truex Jr. from consideration here because he has driven so well the past couple of months that it doesn't seem fair not to consider him elite. But if you have room for him on your team, and you can afford him, Truex would be my pick here. Barring that, though, I'll go back to the Casey Mears well. He burned me badly last week when I picked him in this space; he got caught in a crash not of his own making and finished an ugly 35th. (I know, I'm sorry. If it's any consolation, my fantasy teams got crunched, too.) Mears had never shown a ton at Pocono before this summer's first race there, but his fourth-place finish in that event helped signal that Mears has much better equipment at Hendrick now and that he has to be considered a threat at the circuit's bigger venues. I'm not sure he has another top-5 in him (like the June race's winner, Jeff Gordon, Mears benefited from the weather), but a top-10? Definitely possible.
I'm a little wary of taking a guy such as Juan Pablo Montoya for my fantasy team on a week-to-week basis, because -- like most rookies -- he's pretty up and down. Still, when the No. 42 runs as well as it did at Indy, contending all day and finishing second to Stewart, you have to take notice. Montoya ran just 20th the first time he came to Pocono, but last week's result makes me think he'll improve on that, provided he keeps his head cool and his wheels down. He makes for a risky pick, but I do believe in the statistical equivalents between Indy and Pocono finishes.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
I avoided Greg Biffle last week, and he finished 15th. (I also offered all sorts of caveats about how I'm not going to pick drivers who are too far out of the Chase because that's too easy, and mentioned I'd avoid Kasey Kahne again; Kahne finished 40th.) This section of STBC isn't necessarily devoted to predicting an elite driver's crummy finish; rather, I'm trying to sniff out drivers who on average haven't been very good lately or who haven't run particularly well at this week's track or who basically don't offer you much value given what you might have to pay to get them on your fantasy team. And this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fits that description. Don't get me wrong: Junior could very well post a top-10. But compared with the other drivers in his class (i.e., the best drivers in the world), Earnhardt doesn't have a great Pocono history. He hasn't won here, and he hasn't even been inside the top 10 since spring of '04, a span of six races. Now, Little E looked terrific for a pretty big chunk of Sunday's race, until he scraped his valance on the bottom of the track, banged it out of shape and ruined the aerodynamics of his car. Would I be shocked to see Dale Jr. contend? Absolutely not. But I don't think he provides the necessary risk/reward fantasy value this week.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
I'll claim a 2-for-2 week in sleepers at Indy: David Ragan finished 16th and Brian Vickers 21st; if you can get performance like that out of the last driver on your fantasy team each week, you're doing pretty well for yourself. At Pocono, I'm going right back to the Vickers well. You have to be careful about using him because, again this week, he needs to qualify for the race on time. But the No. 83 team seems to do well on this track type (he had failed to qualify for three of the previous four races on the schedule, but made the Indy field with relative ease), and he did make the field here in June (before turning in an indifferent 35th). Vickers is still nearly 400 points out of 35th place, so he's not gaining automatic qualification any time this year, but if he makes this field, I still say he can give you a top-half-of-the-ranks finish. He posted twin fourth-place results here in 2006 (albeit for Hendrick).
Finally, let's give a shout-out to Reed Sorenson, who won the pole for the Brickyard, led 19 laps and wound up finishing fifth. Sorenson's three Pocono tries haven't gone well: he has finished 36th, 26th and 24th. But as I mentioned at the top, there are striking similarities between Indy and the crazy tricornered track in the Pennsylvania hills, and the fact that Sorenson no doubt will be running the same car this week that finished fifth at IMS bodes well for his chances of a top-half finish.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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