Spin the Black Circle: Chevy Rock & Roll 400
Why does the Chase format work in NASCAR and not in golf? Let me count the ways.
• There are 43 drivers in each Nextel Cup event, and perhaps only 20 likely to even be vaguely competitive from week to week. This season, perhaps three of 25 events truly could be considered "upsets": Casey Mears at Charlotte, Martin Truex Jr. at Dover and Jamie McMurray at Daytona, and it wasn't even McMurray's first career win. In 22 other events, a star driver won. In other words: The best and most recognized drivers are going to be in the Chase, because they're the toughest guys to beat week in and week out.
• There are 874 people entered into a PGA event (okay, maybe it only seems like that), and people named Charley Hoffman, Mark Wilson, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Brian Bateman, Jonathan Byrd and Brandt Snedeker have won events in 2007. Really. The top 20 in the FedEx Cup standings has some old familiar names, but it also has Snedeker, Mahan, Woody Austin, John Rollins, Boo Weekley and Mark "I Retired 10 Years Ago" Calcavecchia.
• In Nextel Cup, drivers have to compete in all events. The moment Mark Martin decides to run a part-time schedule, his Chase chances are doomed. That ensures competitive races each week, and also that getting into the Chase actually means something.
• The FedEx Cup playoffs consist of 144 golfers, and have a points schedule that guarantees the best players don't have to play anything close to a full schedule. Tiger Woods is first in points, and he's played 13 of a possible 35 events. Ernie Els, too. Sergio Garcia's played 15. Same with Adam Scott. Because fields in your run-of-the-mill PGA event are weaker than Frankie Muniz on a hunger strike, players wind up earning points they wouldn't earn if the stars were playing. You're not allowed to get breathless over playoffs when your leader doesn't even play in half the events that lead to the playoffs. "Hey, we're the New England mother-bleepin' Patriots, man. You think we're playing a full schedule? We'll play our divisional games, but otherwise, save us a cushy spot in December and shut up."
• The PGA's stars don't seem to want to be in the playoffs. Woods took the lead into the playoffs and promptly decided not to play in the first event. Phil Mickelson is ticked off about the way the FedEx Cup money will be paid out, so he's sitting out this week's Tour event, after winning last week's.
• Pro golfers are eminently more hateable than pro race car drivers. Both have more money than God, but the golfers act like it. One look at Davis Love III's constipated little sneer, or one listen to Woods cussing out photographers for clicking on his backswing seals the deal. Can you imagine Carl Edwards saying, "Dammit! You people stop taking my picture as I smash headlong into the fence! It's really distracting!"
Anyway, the 26th and final pre-Chase race is Saturday night, and here are my best fantasy bets:
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 1st; Matt Kenseth, 7th)
Kyle Busch has never run in a Cup event at Richmond and not finished in the top five. What more evidence do you need that this is his best track? I'm not saying he'll definitely win the race, because he's never won here before. But he's finished fourth, fourth, fifth, second and second (the last coming this spring), and we don't need a win for Busch the Younger to be valuable to our fantasy teams. He's in the Chase, so he can ride as hard as possible, and he's been good in most of the Car of Tomorrow events.
I'll go a little more controversial with my other selection: Kevin Harvick. Harvick currently sits 12th in points, with a great big 128-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr.; all he really needs to do is finish the race without his engine exploding, and he'll be in the playoffs. But I think he'll do quite a bit better than that. Richmond has been Harvick's haven over the past couple seasons, as he's become the latest master of the flat tracks. He won this event last fall, and had the best car this spring before smacking into David Ragan in the pits. Last year he won twice at Phoenix and once at New Hampshire, too, and he hasn't failed to collar a top 10 in any flat-track event so far this year. I think Harvick takes any mystery out of the proceedings by contending for another Richmond win Saturday night.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Casey Mears, 15th; Brian Vickers, 8th)
What the heck's up with Kasey Kahne? A second place at Bristol, well, I can understand that, since Thunder Valley is the furthest thing away from aero-sensitive. But a 10th place in Fontana? That's surprising, and might indicate that the No. 9 finally has figured something out. He's been the most disappointing driver in the series, and currently stands a dreadful 21st in points, but Richmond's a good track for Kahne (he won his first-ever Cup race here in the spring of 2005, and has posted a third and an eighth since then), it's not at all aero-sensitive, and it rewards horsepower, which the Dodges do have. Kahne could be a nice pick.
Ryan Newman is 11th in finishing average at non-road course Car of Tomorrow events; if he finishes 11th on Saturday night, you'll have yourself a lovely midrange selection. Like Kahne, Flyin' Ryan has won here before (in the spring of '03), and has seven top-10s here in his last 11 starts. He finished sixth here in the spring, and subsequently came in fourth at Darlington, second at Dover, 10th at New Hampshire and seventh at Bristol, the only non-roadie COT events since that first Richmond race. That makes me think the No. 12 team has got this whole COT thing sussed out pretty well.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Greg Biffle, 17th)
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 Jeff Burton. Now, I hate disparaging Burton, both because he seems like a really nice guy, and because whenever I do it, he whips out one of those top-5s he's pretty good at gathering. But Burton really hasn't been good at Richmond lately. You can't hold his 43rd here in the spring against him, because he wrecked super-early, but he's only got one top 10 here in his last seven tries. There are just too many other better bets on the board to invest in Burton, even though I totally can envision him using some pointers from his teammate Harvick's setup to be good in this race.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: David Ragan, 12th; David Stremme, 34th)
I'm casting my lot with the No. 22 of Dave Blaney this week. That's a little masochistic, because Blaney is mostly seen on NASCAR telecasts spinning out and in flames late in races, but his bad luck this year has really covered over what's been a decent turnaround. He's still 33rd in driver points but 36th in owner points, so he'll have to earn his way in. But he finished 11th here in May and fourth in this same event last fall. The Toyotas have made obvious strides in the past month-plus; they've placed someone inside the top 10 in three of the last six events, including Blaney's ninth at Indianapolis. He needs to keep it wheels-down, but it could happen for him this week.
Finally, I can envision a newly confident J.J. Yeley, who secured his ride next season with the No. 96 (at the expense of Tony Raines), turning in a decent result Saturday night. He's finished 13th and 14th his last two times out in the Cup car at this track, and while he hasn't been able to duplicate the success of his soon-to-be-ex-teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin much this season, this certainly is a venue where the No. 20 and No. 11 cars should be able to help, because they'll both be very strong here Saturday night. I'm not brimming with confidence about it, but maybe Yeley gives Gibbs a quick taste of what it'll be missing next year.