Stock Car Challenge preview: Loudon
It all begins anew now. The Nextel Cup "playoffs" are here. It's the second season and the most exciting part of the schedule. Also, the third and final segment of the Stock Car Challenge begins. You've certainly learned a lot of valuable lessons about drivers, trends and tracks during the first two segments, so rebuilding a roster from scratch again isn't as challenging as it may initially sound.
It's all about leaning on that one driver you think will win the Nextel Cup championship, and surrounding him with at least two more drivers you think will be consistent. The other two lineup spots will be for the "bargain" guys who are out of the Chase and will be successful at certain tracks as they build towards the 2008 season.
New Hampshire International Speedway is the site of the Sylvania 300 as the Chase for the Cup begins. Kevin Harvick is the defending champion of the race, and Denny Hamlin won the first race at the site in June, his only victory so far in 2007. This will be the second Car of Tomorrow race at the site. It will be crucial for all the Chase drivers to get off to a good start this week.
In this 300-lap race, planning ahead is critical. Adjustments should be reserved for the final pit stop. Track position is too important to lose it in the closing laps. Braking will be another key. Maneuvering through the corners means more speed and less worries for drivers. Going in too loose and wide could lead to scraping the walls. In June at New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin edged Jeff Gordon by only .068 seconds, so you should expect another race filled with high drama.
Denny Hamlin (Value: 21.7): He's not mentioned as one of the prime favorites to win the Nextel Cup championship, but Hamlin can certainly make his case by getting off to a good start at New Hampshire, where he has run very well so far in his Nextel Cup career. Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all three of his career races at the site and has two top-5 finishes there. He has an average finish of 3.7 at New Hampshire. His average running position of 8.8 is second-best among all active drivers who have competed in the past five New Hampshire races. He has spent 88.5 percent of his laps in the top 15, also second-best during that span. He also has 115 quality passes during that span, for an average of 38 per race, the best of any driver. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions.
Jeff Gordon (23.4): He has 25 career starts at New Hampshire, with 14 top-10 finishes and 11 top-5 showings. Gordon has taken the pole three times at the site and won three times at New Hampshire. He's the highest-priced driver in the game as the third segment begins, but Gordon is well worth the tag. In the past five races at the site, he has a series-best average running position of 7.4. He also leads with 1,321 laps in the top 15 during that span. He finished third in last year's Sylvania 300.
Tony Stewart (23.2): He's slightly cheaper than Gordon and just as likely to be one of the dominant cars during the Chase. Look for him to get off to a good start in the Chase at New Hampshire. He has 10 top-10 finishes and nine top-5 showings in 17 career races at the site. Stewart has won twice at New Hampshire and finished second in the 2006 Sylvania 300. In the past five races at the site, he leads all drivers with 173 of the fastest laps run, and 160 quality passes. His 1,200 laps in the top 15 is also third-best among current drivers over the past five New Hampshire races.
Kevin Harvick (20.5): He hasn't always been dependable during the first two segments of the SCC, but New Hampshire is a track where he can run well and get off to a good start in the Chase. In addition to his one win at the site, he has eight top-10 finishes. His average running position of 10.2 is third-best among all drivers over the past five New Hampshire races, as is his total of 91 of the fastest laps run. Harvick finished eighth at New Hampshire in June.
Ryan Newman (19.0): He didn't make the Chase, but will start running very well again now that the pressure is off. Newman has won twice at New Hampshire, with five top-5 finishes and eight top-10 showings. He has an average finish of 11.3 at the site, with 1,151 laps in the top 15 over the past five New Hampshire races, fourth-best among active drivers. He also has 85 of the fastest laps run during that span, fifth-best in the current field. Newman finished 10th at New Hampshire in June.
Bobby Labonte (17.4): He's been running very well recently, and is a good choice in most weeks during the final races of the season. Labonte finished 16th at Richmond and had placed in the top 11 in the three races prior to last week. Labonte finished 18th in the June race at New Hampshire. He has an average finish of 15.3 at the site.
J.J. Yeley (15.9): Look for more respectable finishes from Yeley as he continues to build towards the 2008 season. Yeley has an average finish of 19th in four Nextel Cup races at New Hampshire. He finished eighth in the 2006 Sylvania 300, and managed a 12th-place showing in the first race at the site that season. Yeley has also earned two top-10 finishes in three Busch Series races at New Hampshire.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.