Spin the Black Circle: Pep Boys Auto 500 preview
Who knew Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth disliked one another so much? Or that Greg Biffle, who asked Kenseth to be best man at his wedding last month, also doesn't get along with Edwards? They've each barely spoken to King Carl in six months? They didn't talk to him to offer congratulations when he won races this year?
There are two possible scenarios here. One, Edwards' media-friendly persona is absolutely phony, he offers (very convincing) prepackaged answers, and deep down he's a jerk. Two, all three of these guys are a bit immature, and have let some long-ago perceived slight alter the way they view one another so dramatically that they're barely teammates at Roush Fenway Racing anymore. (And the truth is, it could be a combination of the two.)
Either way, that near fight between Edwards and Kenseth at Martinsville, which was caught on camera, reveals a major rift in the Roush stable, one I can't believe would've been allowed to fester if Mark Martin were still around. Edwards' and Kenseth's contracts with Roush go through 2009 (while Biffle's expires after '08), so it's not as if a quick, easy divorce is in the offing. And it's also not as though teammates haven't squabbled before; Tony Stewart erroneously called out Denny Hamlin earlier this year, and certainly if Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace (who hated one another) can be considered "teammates," almost anyone can.
Still, without trying to make too much of this, Edwards' happy-go-lucky image takes a big-time hit among folks who know the sport, and you can't believe Roush benefits from this kind of tension. Does it suffer? Time will tell.
Let's take a look at our fantasy options for this week's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jeff Gordon, 3rd; Jimmie Johnson, 1st)
Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive Martinsville race last week, and there's a pretty good chance he'll take his second consecutive Atlanta event on Sunday. JJ has the best three- and six-year finishing averages at this track style (Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas are very similar in configuration, though Texas is newer and Charlotte's been repaved). Johnson also has seven finishes inside the top six at AMS over the past eight Cup events here. Considering he had the best car at Charlotte two weeks ago but wrecked himself from the lead, I'd say the No. 48 has a bite on fielding an ultracompetitive car, and steadiness like this is heaven-sent for fantasy players.
Rather than going back to Johnson's Chase-contending teammate Jeff Gordon, I'm taking Tony Stewart here. Sure, Gordon won at Charlotte a couple weeks back while Smoke finished "only" seventh, but Stewart won this race at AMS last fall, and finished second here back in March, behind only Johnson. Just as enticing is the fact that Stewart has posted a top-10 at this track 11 of the last 12 times the big boys have raced here. So even if he's got a slightly lower upside than the red-hot Gordon, Stewart's downside is far less scary. In the past six races at AMS, Gordon has finished outside the top 10 three times, including two crash-addled results of 34th and 39th.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Ryan Newman, 2nd; Bobby Labonte 22nd)
Ryan Newman was extremely good to me at Martinsville last week, and I'm recalling his near win at Lowe's Motor Speedway just about 13 days ago. Flyin' Ryan would've taken that event if he hadn't popped a tire very late while leading the race, and one assumes he'll do his best to duplicate that setup racing in Atlanta this week (minus the late blown wheel). Newman hasn't finished better than 14th at this track in seven consecutive events, but I'm betting his luck changes Sunday.
I'm nervous recommending Kasey Kahne at a downforce track because, well, he hasn't really generated all that much downforce this year. Or, to be more precise, his car doesn't handle particularly well in the turns at aero-sensitive tracks like AMS, so he has to get off the gas sooner and on the gas later while managing turns. Evernham Motorsports has basically admitted a lot of its cars were fabricated this year using engineering assumptions that have proved faulty and/or erroneous, which can't be music to Kahne's delicately androgynous ears. Nevertheless, the No. 9 posted a 10th in the second Fontana event and a very quiet eighth in the second Charlotte event just two weeks ago. We know Kahne's got talent enough to drive very well at the high-banked intermediate unrestricted speedways. Sunday we'll see if he's got the car.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Carl Edwards, 11th)
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 Kevin Harvick again. Let's face it: He just hasn't figured out the downforce tracks this year. He finished 25th the first time around at Atlanta, 29th the first time around at Texas and posted a 21st and a 33rd in the two Charlotte events. Get Happy on a flat track these days, and he's golden, but at the Atlanta-Charlotte-Texas triumvirate, he just hasn't been very good.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: J.J. Yeley, 42nd; David Ragan, 26th)
I picked Juan Pablo Montoya as one of my sleepers a couple weeks back at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and he turned out to have a terrible car that was apparently magnetically attracted to the track's retaining wall. A 37th-place finish later, and I was promising not to take JPM again this season. Whoops. There aren't a lot of "lesser lights" on the Nextel Cup circuit with good histories at AMS, so I think I have to try Montoya again. He finished fifth here in March and backed that up with an eighth at Texas, so he can run well on this track style. Avoid the wrecks, Juan Pablo, and you can reward your fantasy owners.
Finally, I'll also take a look at Bobby Labonte again. Last week I said I believed he'd graduated from "sleeper" to "midrange," but a 22nd-place finish sent his ESPN Stock Car Challenge salary-cap value dwindling to where I'd consider him a sleeper once more. During his heyday, Labonte owned Atlanta. He's won here six times in his career, most recently in the spring of 2003. Now, it hasn't been a very pretty story since then -- he's been no better than 12th the last seven times he's raced here, including three runs of 31st or worse -- but he qualified third at Charlotte this month and ran quite well before finishing 12th. He's not winning this race in a Petty Dodge, but another top-20 is a definite possibility.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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