Spin the Black Circle: Ford 400
Here it ends. Not only does the Nextel Cup season conclude after Sunday's race in Miami, but the "old car" and its extreme downforce are finished, to say nothing of this weekly column. While I admire Jimmie Johnson and his drive for five (five consecutive race wins, not to be confused with Jeff Gordon's drive for a fifth points championship), I have to admit I wish last weekend's race in Phoenix had turned out otherwise, and not just because I'd like to see the mothership's TV ratings be good for one more week.
I like drama. Unfortunately, Homestead hasn't been home to much Chase drama at all since the format began. Last year, Johnson had a huge lead and just needed to not-wreck. Same with Tony Stewart in 2005. The only Chase that's had any final-race teeth was the first incarnation, in 2004, when Kurt Busch, Johnson and Gordon all had legitimate chances to win the title. Busch had a lead, but if he'd stumbled worse than eighth or so, he'd have lost to J.J. (Busch finished fifth in the Homestead race that day, while Johnson finished second and Gordon finished third.) That was cool, and since it was the first time around for NASCAR's playoff format, we all believed it'd be like that every year.
Not so much. Johnson just has to finish 18th or better Sunday, and it doesn't matter what his teammate and car owner Gordon does. And even if Johnson slips to the mid-20s, Gordon would basically have to win the race and lead the most laps to overtake him. It's probably not gonna happen. I'll be watching Sunday, but I'll feel a little like a vulture circling the No. 48, half-hoping for a blue-and-yellow auto carcass over which to pick. Grisly business, that.
Anyway, thanks for a terrific year. We'll be back again with an additional NASCAR fantasy game, and a ton of fun, in '08.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jeff Gordon, 10th; Jimmie Johnson, 1st)
Creativity, thy name is Hendrick. Listen, I could give you all kinds of clever suggestions here, but the bottom line is: the Hendrick guys have been ripping it up, and there's no reason not to ride them in the season's final event. Neither Jeff Gordon nor Jimmie Johnson have won a race at Homestead, and they may not win Sunday, either, but I'm betting they give you a fine fantasy finish. The refurbished, high-banked track in Miami is an awful like the refurbished, newly-high-banked track in Las Vegas; both are banked 20 degrees in the turns, though Vegas has steeper (nine-degree) banking on the straightaways and is a little more D-shaped, while Homestead is four degrees on the straights and is a more traditional oval. Nevertheless, there are decent equivalents here, and Johnson won Vegas this March while Gordon finished second. They're the only two with anything really on the line, and I think they'll both be pretty close to the front once again.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Ryan Newman, 5th; Bobby Labonte, 18th)
You really should pick Greg Biffle, because he's won the past three Homestead Cup events. Now, Roush doesn't seem to have the advantage at downforce tracks that it used to boast, so it's not like The Biff can just chalk up a win by turning on his ignition Sunday. Plus if your fantasy league is very tight here in the season's last week, and you're trailing and needing a little extra boost, maybe it's smart not to pick Biffle, simply because presumably everyone else with half-a-brain in your league will have him on their team. Still, with a history like this, and coming off a strong second place at Phoenix last week, Biffle does make a pretty safe bet.
I'll also grab Ryan Newman for the second straight week. Newman proved to be one of the most surprisingly good Car of Tomorrow drivers this season, which bodes well for his (and Penske's) 2008 season. Now in the last race ever in the "old" car, Newman gets another chance to excel. He was just 23rd here last season, but seventh the year before that, and even when he was mired in the early-season slump that cost him a legitimate shot at a Chase berth, Newman finished eighth at reconfigured Vegas this spring. He's driven very well lately, and I give him another shot at a top 10 Sunday.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Kurt Busch, 12th)
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 Kurt Busch again. Busch didn't have his customary flameout last week in Phoenix, and so turned in a better finish that I gave him credit for. But he was 43rd here in Homestead last season, and didn't race here the year before that (he was suspended for his final two events while he was under contract with Roush). He was also just 26th at his reconfigured home track up in Vegas this March. Heck, we all know any Chase guy can post a top 10 in any race. But there are tastier options out there (namely the Hendrick boys) for the price you'll have to pay to use Busch.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: J.J. Yeley, 14th; David Ragan, 32nd)
As I've said several times the past couple months, finding true "sleepers" at season's end is really tough, because the "haves" have officially separated themselves from the "have-nots" a good long while ago, and if a race team has been mediocre most of the year, predicting sudden glory for them on a week-to-week basis is kind of like playing darts blindfolded. I was one-for-two last week behind Yeley's fine homecoming effort, and this week, I'm going to try the former driver of the Gibbs No. 18, Bobby Labonte. Labonte won the first event on this newer Homestead surface, and is in fact the only guy other than Greg Biffle to have won here since the corners got steeper. (Those who remember back four years recall that Bill Elliott actually had that race won, but blew an engine on the final lap, allowing Labonte, who was way back, to take the checkers.) Labonte hasn't had a great year (he's 18th in points), but he did finish 13th at Vegas. Do that for us again, B-Lab, and our fantasy teams will be grateful.
And finally, for the very final pick in the very last race of 2007, I'll give Tony Raines a shot, and not just because I'm sad he's out of the No. 96 on Sunday night. (I'll miss those Geico commercials with your "nephew," Tony. Oh, wait, that was Mike Wallace? Whoops.) Anyway, I think it's a shame Raines might not have a full-time Cup job next season, because he's actually done a fine job. He didn't get to race in either of the road-course events this year, and he's still 28th in points; give him average finishes in those two events (say, 25th place?), and he'd be up to 25th. For a single-car team, that's actually really good (it would've made him the highest single-car team). Alas, Yeley takes over the No. 96 next year. But so anyway, Raines was 20th at Homestead last year and 19th at Vegas this spring. Give us a top 20, Tony, and we'll remember you fondly.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.