Stock Car Challenge preview: Charlotte
We are now approaching the halfway point of the Chase for the Cup schedule, and the final segment of the Stock Car Challenge for 2007. It's becoming apparent that you'll need to have either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson on your roster, as the two likely will battle out for the Nextel Cup Championship, barring a possibly overwhelming surge from a driver like Tony Stewart or Clint Bowyer.
The championship hopes of some drivers are fading and they will be looking to gain the best finishes they can instead of challenging for the title. Consider the ase of Jeff Burton, who is in 12th place and 336 points behind Gordon. Such drivers aren't bad choices, because their focus will be on gaining points in the standings on a weekly basis rather than focusing on the bigger picture. "We have to focus on what we are doing and do a good job. If we do that, then we'll be able to battle back and move up in the standings." Burton said.
Drivers outside the Chase field continue to be important picks in the SCC, because they balance out the back end of your lineup and will continue to hang tough even if they aren't in the Chase. Since the start of the Chase in 2004, non-Chase drivers have notched 11 victories. Last season, Stewart clearly was miffed by not making the Chase and won three races during the Chase schedule, so another late surge from him is not out of the question.
Teams that can keep their cars fine-tuned throughout the race will have the best opportunity to finish at the top of the field. Practice sessions also will play a key role, as crew chiefs develop their strategies based on tire wear and other adjustments they will have to make throughout the race. Making timely adjustments can make pit stops easier and smoother.
Jimmie Johnson (23.1): If you use history at Lowe's Motor Speedway as a barometer, Johnson has a great shot to overtake Gordon again for the points lead. Johnson has won at LMS five times, including season sweeps in 2004 and 2005. Over the past five races at the site, he leads all drivers in average running position (7.5), fastest laps run (174), laps in the top 15 (1,676, or 89.6 percent) and quality passes (291). NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions. He has finished in the top 10 a total of 11 times in 12 LMS races, and has eight top-5 showings. He finished second in both races at the site last year and 10th in the first race of 2006.
Tony Stewart (23.1): He will be primed for a strong run after a near-miss at Talladega last week. He finished sixth in the first race at Lowe's this season, and while he has won only once at the site, you can expect him to contend for the win as he realizes his title hopes could be slowly slipping away. Stewart has 10 top-10 finishes and six top-5 showings at LMS. He placed 13th in the second race at LMS in 2006. Stewart has four top-10 finishes in the past five races this season.
Denny Hamlin (21.1): In only four races at LMS in the Nextel Cup series, Hamlin has taken well to the track. He has two ninth-place finishes and has finished in eighth once. He has also led for 27 laps in three of the four races. Hamlin is in ninth place and will have a great sense of urgency this week. "A goal of my career is to be top five in points every single year; I don't want to be outside of it. You know, right now, we're heading back on track to get that. We know this weekend at Charlotte is going to be a huge stepping stone for us to get back in. We are only 60 behind fifth right now," Hamlin said.
Kyle Busch (21.1): He's had some bad luck at this site, with three DNFs, but he finished sixth in the second Lowe's race last year and some other numbers over the past five races at LMS indicate his is ready for another strong run. He has an average running position of 15.9 during that span, and 80 of the fastest laps run, fourth-best among active drivers during that period. He has the second-fastest green flag speed over the past five races and his 1,185 laps in the top 15 is third-best among active drivers during that span. His 238 quality passes are second-best and another indicator that his bad finishes at the site in the past could just be simple bad luck.
Casey Mears (19.4): He won his first career race at LMS earlier this season in the Coca-Cola 600. Mears also has been inside the top 10 in all four of the Chase races so far, the only driver to accomplish that feat. He will be looking to become the third consecutive driver to sweep both races at Lowe's. Mears has three top-10 finishes at LMS, and over the past five races at the site, he has an average running position of 15.4, and 1,185 laps in the top 15, which is tied for third-best among current drivers. He also has 190 quality passes during that span.
Kasey Kahne (17.5): He's endured through a very disappointing season, but look for him to temporarily shake off the doldrums at Lowe's. Kahne swept both races at the site last season and has led for 550 laps in seven career starts at the site. Over the past five races at LMS, he has an average running position of 12.9, third-best among active drivers. His 161 fastest laps run are also second-best during that span, and his 214 quality passes is third-best. He has also spent 1,082 laps in the top 15 during the past five LMS races.
Brian Vickers (15.6): He has looked good during his past two races at LMS. He was able to qualify on time for the first race at the site this season and led for 76 laps before ultimately finishing fifth, his best showing ever at LMS and his only top-5 finish of the 2007 season. Vickers also placed 10th in the second Lowe's race of 2006.
Jeff Gordon (23.9) has won four times at Lowe's, but he only has an average running position of 22.0 in the past five races at the site. J.J. Yeley (16.4) finished second in the first LMS race this season. Burton (19.9) has 12 top-10 finishes at Lowe's Carl Edwards (21.4) is another solid pick, with four top-10 finishes in five races at Lowe's. Greg Biffle (19.5) has three top-10 finishes at LMS. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20.2) has eight top-10 finishes at Lowe's.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.