Spin the Black Circle: LifeLock 400
This week: Kansas. Next week: Talladega in the Car of Tomorrow. Should be fun.
After that, however, come three events in four weeks on nearly identical tracks at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas. Each is 1.5 miles long. Each is a tri-oval banked at 24 degrees. Each produces near-record speeds. Ho hum.
It's bad enough that a full 50 percent of the Chase for the Championship takes place on generic mile-and-a-half tracks (aka cookie-cutters), but to have 30 percent take place in the same month on basically the exact same track is dopey. Part of the fun of Nextel Cup is seeing how drivers maneuver these behemoth cars around a variation of funky venues, from flat tracks to short tracks to superspeedways to cookie-cutters to road courses. To suddenly narrow the venue type when the stakes are highest is dumb. What's worse, races at those high-banked, 1.5-mile unrestricted speedways tend to go green, get really stretched out and produce relatively boring (if very fast) finishes.
Why not have a road course in the final 10 races? Why not put another superspeedway event in there (and rid us of a second horrible event at Loudon)? Why not make the Chase a true test of how successful a driver can be on all venue types, rather than a referendum on who has spent the most money on their aero package?
Yes, the generic cookie-cutters are coming, one right after the other, and on weekends now occupied by the NFL, boring racing is not what NASCAR needs. Next year, let's shake things up!
"Given To Fly" (featured elite drivers)
(Last week: Jeff Gordon, 11th; Carl Edwards, 1st)
Look at Jimmie Johnson's 14th-place finish at Kansas last season, and you'd think he had a mediocre day. In fact, he led a race-high 105 laps and clearly had the day's best car but had to stop late to refuel and fell victim to several drivers being able to make the race's end without pitting. While he crashed out early at Chicagoland, he had a very fast car all weekend, and he finished third just a few races ago in the season's second Michigan event. Those are the circuit's closest equivalents to Kansas Speedway, and JJ's never been shy about excelling at cookie-cutters anyway. Ride him.
I took Carl Edwards last week at Dover, and he rewarded me with a win. It wouldn't shock me to see him go back-to-back on this track style. He won the year's first Michigan race, finished seventh in the second Michigan race, second just after that at Fontana, and third at Chicagoland earlier in the summer. Edwards in particular and Roush in general have taken a break from dominating at this kind of venue, but remember: It was only two years ago when the Roushketeers were by far the most reliable high-banked cookie-cutter bets.
"Rearviewmirror" (midrange drivers of note)
(Last week: Greg Biffle, 2nd; Mark Martin 4th)
I would take Mark Martin again in this space, but I don't feel it would be intellectually rigorous (do we often hear the phrase "intellectually rigorous" applied to NASCAR?). After Martin's fourth-place finish at Dover last week, his fantasy price tag might have exceeded "midrange." Instead, I'll use this spot on Casey Mears. Even before his transfer to Hendrick, Mears was best on big, wide-open tracks like Kansas, where aero packages and horsepower are king. I think you have to take his second place at Kansas last year with a grain of salt because, like winner Tony Stewart, Mears' result was based primarily on fuel strategy. But still, Mears was fifth at Chicagoland, and fourth and 11th at Michigan. I think he'll contend.
I'm also taking a shot with Bobby Labonte, who really has improved his "old car" performances lately (just in time for the "old car" to be put in mothballs). Labonte was ninth in the second Michigan race, and then followed that up with an 11th-place finish in the second Fontana event. He won't threaten to win the race, but as I say whenever I pick B-Lab: Steady, conservative driving is never a bad thing to have on your fantasy team.
"Not For You" (beware of these drivers)
(Last week: Kevin Harvick, 20th)
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 going to pick from only 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 Denny Hamlin, who has done most of his best work this season in the Car of Tomorrow and has struggled some in the "old car." He finished 17th at Chicagoland, fifth and 14th at Michigan, and 19th and 11th at Fontana. Also, at the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate of high-banked tracks (with which we're going to become very familiar here in a few weeks), he posted a ninth, ninth and 19th. Not terrible, but not elite. I won't be shocked to see him perform well, but as I say, I think there are better bets out there.
"Nothing As It Seems" (weekly sleepers)
(Last week: David Ragan, 25th; Brian Vickers, 16th)
Brian Vickers still doesn't have enough owner points to automatically qualify for this event, so as I said last week, you must make sure he's fast enough Friday that he'll be in the event Sunday. But assuming that happens (and I think it will), Vickers makes a sneaky play. Remember that Tuesday Michigan race last month? Vickers was super-strong in the first half of that event, regularly threatening the lead, before finishing eighth. He also posted an eighth-place finish at Fontana just a couple of weeks later. Again, make sure he qualifies, but if he does, Vickers might get you a very inexpensive top 10.
Finally, Reed Sorenson might be one inconsistent driver, but when he's "on" at this track style, he can be tough. He's finished seventh and 12th in his two career runs at Chicagoland, and he has two career top-10s at Michigan as well. The danger with Sorenson, of course, is it seems he's just about as likely to end up wrecking on the race's third lap as he is coming near a top-10 finish, and that makes him a scary fantasy bet. But if you're in need of a high-risk, high-reward guy at the back end of your fantasy lineup, Sorenson will have the equipment and the talent to deliver.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.