Ashley Judd was already the best marketing tool that ever happened to University of Kentucky basketball (and ESPN TV coverage thereof). Now she's about to be the best marketing tool that ever happened to NASCAR (and ESPN TV coverage thereof).
The lovely Judd's husband, reigning Indianapolis 500 champ Dario Franchitti, has signed up for a full-time Cup ride with Ganassi in 2008. He'll drive the No. 40 car currently piloted (rather ineffectively) by David Stremme, and will be teammates with former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya. As such, Montoya has become the godfather of an influx of open-wheel racing talent that hopes to benefit from NASCAR's popularity.
Another former F1 star, Jacques Villeneuve, will replace Jeremy Mayfield in the No. 36 (which will eventually change to the No. 27). Villeneuve also won an Indy 500 (back in '95), as well as an elusive F1 series championship (in '97). He immediately enters the sport with the chops to be a threat on the series' two road courses, though Jeff Gordon and others were so concerned about his inexperience in stock cars at faster tracks, they complained about his inclusion in the Talladega race this fall.
Sam Hornish Jr. is supposedly "debating" whether or not to leave Indy cars to join NASCAR, though if Roger Penske determined Hornish was ready and offered him a full-time gig, you can be sure Hornish would take it. He is a three-time series champ and an Indy 500 winner, and one of his sport's biggest names. But he's failed to qualify for the four Cup races he's entered this fall, and hasn't finished better than 15th in eight Busch events.
Patrick Carpentier doesn't have the extensive resume the other men on this list do, but he's a veteran of Champ Car and the IRL, and has won multiple races. He took the pole in a Busch Series road course this summer, finished second, and is known as a fairly good oval driver.
I'm sure all these gentlemen have lovely significant others, but none is a movie star. Ms. Judd, get ready for your close-up.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 14th; Carl Edwards, fifth)
You can't go wrong with the Hendrick boys at Martinsville, which is where the Nextel Cup circuit heads this weekend. Jeff Gordon has finished first or second in six of the past nine Cup races at this track, which is the oldest and shortest in NASCAR. Take a look:
Pretty nuts, right? Given that Gordon also has the best finishing average this year in non-road course Car of Tomorrow events (he's got an average finish of 5.3 in said races), he makes one consistent and relatively risk-free fantasy selection.
And yes, let's also cast a vote for Gordon's teammate, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson had the best car last week at Charlotte before he wrecked himself, but he recovered well enough at his favorite track to finish 14th, and keep himself squarely in the Chase. J.J. has won each of the past two Martinsville Cup events, and hasn't finished worse than eighth at this tiny track in 10 races. Plus, if Gordon is the gold medalist when it comes to the COT, Johnson takes silver: He has a 7.9 finishing average in new-car events, and thus is the only guy other than Gordon who averages a top-10 finish.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Casey Mears, 21st; Mark Martin 16th)
It wasn't so long ago that Ryan Newman posted four consecutive top-5 finishes at Martinsville Speedway (from the fall of '03 to the spring of '05), and he's only failed to finish inside the top 15 here once in his past eight tries. Also significant is the fact that Newman looked a bit like his old self at New Hampshire this year, finishing ninth and 10th at those two Loudon races. That flat track is longer and rounder than Martinsville, but the low-banked corners require somewhat similar setups. I feel fairly confident he'll give us another top 15.
I counted Bobby Labonte as a sleeper last week, but his solid late run in '07 probably pushes his value up to "midrange" here at the tail end of the fantasy season. After all, B-Lab has produced five finishes of 16th or better in the past eight races, and has run even better than that; he deserved a far better fate at Talladega, where another top-15 looked like a real possibility for a while. Anyway, Labonte was never known as what you'd call a short-track specialist, but he did finish third in this race last year driving for Petty, and in his career has a win and 13 top-10s at this joint. Petty's COT program hasn't been good, but I think another top-15 for Labonte is a possibility.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Kevin Harvick, 33rd)
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 Carl Edwards. Now, Edwards won in the COT at Dover, and he was very strong in the first Loudon race before a pits mishap ruined his day. But Edwards' career finishing average at Martinsville is 22.2, and he doesn't have a top-10 on a flat track yet this season.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Juan Pablo Montoya, 37th; Bobby Labonte, 12th)
Am I crazy to think J.J. Yeley might have one more good Gibbs run in him? (Or maybe two, since the Smokeless Set will head to Phoenix in a few weeks, Yeley's home track.) Now, his past results don't really give a lot of hope; in three career Martinsville runs, Yeley has finished 23rd, 31st and 20th. But he actually has the 12th-best finishing average on flat tracks so far this season, trailing only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman among non-Chase participants. He posted a 10th at Richmond and Loudon this season, and has several very good Busch Series runs at flat Phoenix under his belt.
Finally, let's go back to David Ragan. This is a really tough track for a rookie, but Ragan handled it with aplomb back on April Fools' Day, finishing a solid 15th. He had two top-20s at Loudon, a career-best third-place finish at Richmond, and really his only very poor flatty run this season came because of an early wreck at Phoenix. Driver X has proven he belongs, and will probably be the most promising sophomore driver of 2008 (even if he isn't an ex-open-wheel stud). If he keeps it clean Sunday, Ragan could help the back end of your fantasy team.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.