- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Is it 2008 yet?
I mean, come on. 2008 is going to rock! Just look at the storylines.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have left his daddy's company, and taken up with the enemy: a corporate, anti-fun, anti-blue jeans organization that carried a good ol' boy sport kicking and screaming into a 21st century populated by luxury boxes, movie stars waving checkered flags and, most galling of all, fans from the north.
• Joe Gibbs Racing will be running Toyotas, assuring America wall-to-wall commercials whose plotlines will involve Tony Stewart, a Camry and some form of either food or stubble-remover. Can the talent of Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch overcome a car that right now pretty much inhales backwards?
• Mark Martin will take over as the primary driver of Junior's No. 8 car at DEI, with Aric Almirola taking one-third of the races. Will the No. 8 still be Budweiser-sponsored? (No.) Will it still be red? (Probably not.) Will Greg Biffle wind up taking the car over in 2009? (Good chance.)
• Casey Mears takes over Kyle Busch's No. 5 team, so whatever excuses there might've been for Mears in his first season at Hendrick ("The sun was in my eyes! The taint of Brian Vickers was in my eyes!") will go bye-bye. Even Busch's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, stays to helm Mears's new ride.
• More famous drivers from other racing series will continue to flirt with NASCAR. Sam Hornish Jr. already is slated to ride at least a few races for Penske, Jacques Villeneuve will run some truck races for Bill Davis Racing and maybe step up to Cup as well, and Dario Franchitti is rumored as the possible replacement for David Stremme (thus ensuring a whole lot of Ashley Judd cutaways).
What's that you say? There are still 10 events left in 2007? And the Chase for the Cup is just beginning? Oh. Darn.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Kyle Busch, 20th; Kevin Harvick, 7th)
It's hard not to be lured by the siren's song of Jimmie Johnson. He's won two straight races, and a third is definitely a possibility, especially because he looked so good at Richmond last Saturday night. I suppose we all should hate Johnson a little more than we do: handsome dude, gorgeous wife, rich beyond imagining, pretty cool job. But there's just something likable and maybe a little doofus-like about J.J., under the Hendrick-sponsored polish. Heck, the fact that he broke his wrist drunk in a golf cart this winter frankly weighs in his favor. (Kids, don't try that at home.) Anyway, Johnson has two career wins at Loudon, and at flat tracks in Car of Tomorrow events this year, J.J. has three wins, a fourth and a fifth.
I also like Carl Edwards quite a bit this week, and I easily can imagine him winning his first Loudon event. The toothsome Edwards might have had the best car at Richmond last week; after all, his engine blew up while he was winning the race. And if you remember back to the July 1 Loudon event, Edwards did have the day's dominant car, but could never recover after his pit crew messed up with the jack while changing his left-side tires. There's no question King Carl is coming on, and I'm not going to be surprised if he wins his first points title this year.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Kasey Kahne, 8th; Ryan Newman 11th)
I'm pretty much going to bore you by repeating last week's picks, but hey, better for your fantasy team to be boring and successful than exciting and 43rd. Kahne's three most recent finishes? Second at Bristol, 10th at Fontana and eighth at Richmond. The Fontana result actually is the most surprising one, considering how aero-sensitive that track is (and considering what unbelievable dogmeat the Evernham Dodges have been at aero tracks, possibly because an engineer built the cars using faulty data ... no joke). Richmond has been one of Kahne's better short tracks for a while, and Loudon isn't all that different from Richmond. Kahne was only 25th here in June, but he's got four career top 10s in seven New Hampshire starts.
And once again, Ryan Newman did nothing to dissuade me from using him at a venue where he's won twice. Since flaming out at Bristol and Phoenix early this year, Newman's been really good at COT events; remove those two results, and in the remaining seven non-road course COT races his finishing average is 7.7. And that's pretty good. Plus, I like rooting for Newman. He's a pretty strong guy, for sure, but he was apparently a pretty serious engineering student in college, and something about the way he interviews gives me the idea he's about three pocket protectors away from a Star Trek convention.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Jeff Burton, 18th)
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. I've also decided that for the rest of the season, I'm only going to pick from among the guys who made this year's Chase. That way, I can continue to look as foolish as humanly possible which is, let's face it, the primary fun you get out of this column. So this week, I'll stay away from Clint Bowyer. I'm not holding Bowyer's wreck-induced 37th at Loudon this June against him. Those things happen. And I acknowledge that Bowyer's as steady as can be, a supposition bolstered by the fact that he's the only guy who made the Chase while failing to win a race. But Bowyer's never finished better than 24th at this track, and among his Chase-mates, he's in the bottom three in terms of flat-track COT finishes this year (Martin Truex Jr., who finished third here in July, and Carl Edwards, who I basically just picked to win this thing, are the others.) Bowyer absolutely can contend, but I probably wouldn't use him on my fantasy team this week.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Dave Blaney, 34th; J.J. Yeley, 10th)
For the second time in three weeks, I'm going to pick David Ragan. In three of his past four Nextel Cup events, Ragan has finished in the top 20, and last week's third place at Richmond was the best Cup result of his brief career. New Hampshire is a mile-long track (the Magic Mile, in fact), while Richmond is 3/4 of a mile, and Richmond is banked at 14 degrees in the turns while Loudon is 12 degrees, but the setups that work at one are very often close to ones that work well at the other. Ragan finished 15th here in the first Loudon race; if he could duplicate that Sunday afternoon, his fantasy owners would be pleased as punch.
Finally, I'll also give J.J. Yeley another shot. I had him last week as he finished 10th, and the deposed driver of the No. 18 car turned in a 12th and an eighth at Loudon last year. Because Phoenix is Yeley's home track, he's used to driving on the flatter tracks, and frankly if more Nextel Cup events took place at this venue style, Yeley probably still would have a job with Gibbs. If Yeley can keep his nose clean -- which has been a big-time issue for him -- I'd expect him to be solid once again on Sunday.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Christopher Harris breaks down the field for the first race in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.