The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: A Tradition of Champions Sets Your Roster At The Brickyard by Brett Poirier -- Thursday July 28, 2011

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The Brickyard 400 sits behind only the Daytona 500 on most driver wish lists. While Sprint Cup racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway may not always be action-packed for the fans, it is thrilling for the drivers because of the tradition the track holds.

Since NASCAR has started coming to Indianapolis in 1994, that tradition has only strengthened. It didn’t hurt that Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt were the first two NASCAR drivers to visit victory at Indy. Great drivers like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott followed them.

The cream often rises to the top at one of the world’s most famed tracks. In the 17 years the Sprint Cup series has raced at Indianapolis, the eventual champion has won eight times. It has happened in four of the last six years with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

Here are the drivers to watch this weekend at Indianapolis.

Picks

It’s been either feast or famine for Johnson at Indy. He has three wins in his last five starts, but also has three finishes of 36th or worse. Johnson had a poor showing in 2010, finishing 22nd, but he is coming off of a solid showing at New Hampshire. Keep the eight-of-17 champions stat in mind this weekend. If Johnson is going to show that he is the man to beat for the championship, this would be a great week to do it.

The fact that four of the last six champions have won at Indianapolis the same year they won the Sprint Cup is due in large part to Jimmie Johnson.

For a second top-tier driver, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are both solid choices. Stewart at 8.25 has the highest average finish of any active driver at the track and Harvick (9.90) is third. I would lean toward Harvick this weekend because of the consistency he has shown this season. Stewart is coming off a second-place effort at New Hampshire, but has put together back-to-back top-10 finishes just twice in 2011.

Harvick has also been hot at Indy as of late. He was second last year to Jamie McMurray and has finishes in the top-seven in four of his last five starts.

Juan Pablo Montoya has led 202 of the 320 laps run at Indy in the last two seasons. He has an 11th and a 32nd-place finish to show for it. Montoya has this place figured out, but needs to not beat himself. Even if you think Montoya is likely to beat himself again this weekend, put him in your fantasy lineup for the qualifying bonus points (if applicable to your league). He has three front row starts in the last four races at Indy.

Much like Johnson, when Kasey Kahne stays out of trouble at Indy he brings back solid finishes. He had top 5s in 2004 and 2005 and was seventh in 2008 and 2009. Last year, he finished 13th. It should help that Kahne’s teammate Brian Vickers finished fifth last year.

Joey Logano is on the hottest streak of his short Sprint Cup career right now. He has finished sixth or better in three of his last four races, including a fourth-place finish last week at New Hampshire. Logano is heading to a track he has had past success at this weekend. It’s a small sample size, but Logano was 12th in 2009 and ninth in 2010. He should be considered as a capable mid-tier selection.

Bobby Labonte’s Brickyard 400 victory in 2000 probably seems like a long time ago to most NASCAR fans. From 1997 to 2000, Labonte was better than anyone at the Brickyard with finishes of second, third, second and first. Don’t expect that this weekend, but Labonte is back in decent equipment for the first time in a long time and knows how to get around Indy. He could be a good value in a low-level fantasy category.

Bench

After a promising start, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been in a mid-season slump. His best finish in the last five races was good enough for 15th-place at New Hampshire. The driver who has been as high as second in points is now ninth and only seven points ahead of 10th. Expect things to get worse before they get better.

Earnhardt Jr. has two top-10s in eleven starts at Indy with an average finish of 22.2. He has finished 25th or worse in five of his last seven attempts, including a 27th-place run last year.

Ryan Newman picked up a big victory last week at New Hampshire to put him on more solid ground before the 26th-race cutoff. Newman’s momentum will probably be short lived. He has one top-10 finish in 10 starts (2002), and has four finishes outside the top-30. Earnhardt Jr. and Newman have been top mid-level selections all year, but should be left out of your fantasy lineup on Sunday.

Until next week, good luck my friends!

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