Is the race to the Chase already over?
NASCAR certainly didn't envision a tremendous lack of drama when it changed the Chase to include 12 drivers, instead of 10, before this season started. The idea was to not only include more superstars in the 10-event championship battle; it also was to give more (quasi-mediocre) teams a chance to flail away for the 12th spot.
Had NASCAR left the Chase at 10 drivers, we'd have a monumental battle on our hands. Clint Bowyer is in ninth place. Kevin Harvick is in 10th, 56 points behind Bowyer. Martin Truex Jr. is in 11th, one point behind Harvick. And Kurt Busch is in 12th, eight points behind Truex. Which means that if this were '06, we'd have four guys within 65 points of each other battling for two spots, and three guys within nine points of each other battling for the final Chase berth.
As it is, Bowyer, Harvick, Truex and Busch all are relatively secure for the '07 Chase. If they avoid disaster in the next two events, they'll be in. That's because 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a full 158 points behind Busch, with 14th-place Ryan Newman another 17 points behind Earnhardt. Is it possible either Junior or Newman will put together a great run the next two weeks and take advantage of a stumble ahead of him? It's possible. But it's more likely we spend most of the Richmond race counting down the laps until the No. 8 and No. 12 are eliminated. NASCAR out-clevered itself.
Let's take a look at Sunday night's race at Fontana.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Tony Stewart, 4th; Kurt Busch, 6th)
I'll take Jimmie Johnson as my favorite to win another Fontana event, and even if he doesn't win, I think he will be easily ensconced within the top 10. Johnson has the best finishing average at this track over the past five seasons, despite the fact that he has got a mental block against doing well at Fontana's sister track in Michigan. In five of the past nine Fontana races, Johnson has been either first, second or third. This just in: That's pretty good.
I'll also take Matt Kenseth. Kenseth won the Fontana race in February (albeit after Tony Stewart, who was stronger much of the day, sped in the pits late and couldn't overcome the penalty), giving him two wins in the past three times the Smokeless Set has run at this track. The No. 17 is exceedingly smooth on the cookie-cutters, and in general, Roush is excellent on the two-milers. It also would be easy to talk about Carl Edwards, last week's Bristol winner, in this spot, since he's got the best combined finishing average at the twin two-milers of Fontana and Michigan, but Kenseth's recent Fontana excellence sends me his way.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Ryan Newman, 7th; Elliott Sadler, 29th)
We keep coming back to Casey Mears when the circuit heads to a cookie-cutter oval, and Mears keeps rewarding us with decent finishes. In fact, a couple weeks back in Michigan, Mears was better than decent when I picked him, running well all day before finishing 11th. Mears posted only a 31st-place finish the first time the cars came here this season, but that was a lifetime ago. Since then, he's won a race (in Charlotte), posted several convincingly good finishes and generally proven that Hendrick wasn't crazy for handing him the keys to the No. 25 kingdom. He can get close to the top 10 again on Sunday night.
Once again, by the letter of my power rankings, I'm supposed to pick Jamie McMurray here, and for the second consecutive week, I'm going to beg out, because McMurray can't get things straightened out. Since his win at Daytona, McMurray has bested 30th place only once in six events (last week at Bristol, he came in 26th). So instead of McMurray, I'll play Brian Vickers, who has seen his value in fantasy games rise quite a bit over the past month or so. Now, you have to be sure that Vickers actually makes the field, because he still is 39th in points and thus has to qualify on time (for instance, he didn't qualify last week for the Bristol race). Still, if his performance a couple weeks back at Michigan is any indication, qualifying shouldn't be a problem for the flagship Team Red Bull No. 83 unit. In that event, Vickers zoomed around the high line all day, took the lead for 11 laps and finished eighth. The Toyota cars seem to have found some of the horsepower missing from their engines over the past few events, so if Vickers does qualify, I think you can use him.
"Not For You" (Beware of These Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 21st)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'll stay away from Greg Biffle. Biffle usually is stout, as most Roushketeers are, on the two-milers, and he posted a first and a second here as recently as 2005. But it's been a rough year for Biffle, and at Michigan just a couple weeks ago, he qualified second, started next to the pole-sitter and proceeded to zoom directly backward once the event started. Of Biffle's four meager top-10 finishes this year, only one has come on a big, aero-sensitive oval (Texas). Can he repeat past glory at this track? Yes. But I think there are plenty of safer bets.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Dave Blaney, 31st; Jeff Green, 27th)
My sleepers were predictably ugly at Bristol last week (in fact, I told you in advance they'd be ugly), but we usually have better luck on the cookie-cutters. I'm taking a look at David Ragan this week. He's yet another Roushketeer, and while he's not winning a race any time soon, when Ragan gets off the tricky tracks like Pocono and Bristol, and gets to a nice wide-open place like Fontana, he tends to settle down and just ride. I give him a decent chance of duplicating his Michigan race from a couple of weeks ago, when he finished 18th.
Finally, I'm going to give David Stremme a try. I've invested in Stremme's teammate Reed Sorenson a couple of times on this track type this season, and it hasn't always worked out particularly well. But these two Ganassi sophomores have their best chances at good finishes on the more straightforward, faster tracks. Fontana's one of those. Stremme is an ugly 22nd in points (ugly, at least, for what's supposed to be a semi-major team), has zero top-5s and only two top-10s, but he did finish 21st at Michigan a couple of weeks ago. If he keeps out of trouble (never a sure thing with either Stremme or Sorenson), he might give you a top 20 on Sunday.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.