After contending with Mother Nature last weekend, the Nextel Cup boys have a date with another tough lady this Saturday night…the Lady in Black. Saturday's race at Darlington Raceway will be a case of the past meeting the future, as the new Car of Tomorrow hits the gritty surface of NASCAR's most historic speedway. Clearly, Darlington is known as a place where the drivers race the track more than they race the competition. But with recent results in mind, you can bet 40 teams will be gunning for the Big Three from Hendrick Motorsports this weekend, cars which have dominated the CoT races to date.
So, which drivers will be able to charm their way into a good finish this weekend, earning a spot on your fantasy roster, and which ones should you avoid for fear the Lady in Black will chew them up and spit them out?
Let's find out in this week's Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans:
Cami's Race Rewind:
Greg Biffle turned his dismal season around last year with a victory in the Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington. It marked Biffle's second straight win at the Lady in Black as the No. 16 Ford dominated the event, leading seven times for a total of 170 laps. A final pit stop on lap 315 proved to be the key to Biffle’s victory, as he came in well before the other leaders, taking over the top spot once again with a big lead once pit stops cycled around. Second place finisher Jeff Gordon tried his best to use slower lapped cars as picks to gain ground on Biffle, and it almost worked. But Biffle was able to hang on in the final lap when Gordon lost his momentum in the final turn when, ironically, he was blocked by a lapped car. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. rounded out the Top 5 finishers in the race. Polesitter Kasey Kahne had his hopes for three wins a row dashed when his car faded in the final half of the event; he finished 21st.
Mike's Keys to the Race:
Darlington Raceway is the first superspeedway that was ever used on the NASCAR circuit. The history and tradition of the "Lady in Black" run as deep and true as the loyalty of the fans who adore the old speedway. The track surface at Darlington has often been compared to a cheese grater, and the drivers who are able to take care of their equipment and keep their tires under them for the length of a green flag run are the ones who will have success. Add to that the Car of Tomorrow, which has proven to be a difficult beast to get under control, and this could be an interesting weekend to say the least. Look for the Hendrick boys, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, to be up front simply based on their success in the previous CoT races. The Joe Gibbs bunch has been strong as well, and Tony Stewart is most likely another great choice for success at Darlington this weekend.
Crank â€˜Em Up:
Jeff Gordon is the hottest driver on the circuit, and Hendrick Motorsports is the most dominant team in Car of Tomorrow races. Add to that mix the treacherous racing surface at Darlington Raceway, and you have the makings of another huge weekend for the No. 24 team. Gordon's last three finishes at the track are third, second and second, so expect the outstanding performance of the top Hendrick team to continue for another week.
Jeff Burton is in the Top 5 in Nextel Cup points, having scored a second, sixth and 13th place finish in three of the four CoT races. Discounting the blown engine at Richmond, Burton would be near the top in CoT finishing average. Add to that an average finish of 10.5 at Darlington since 1998, and he is looking like a strong contender for a good weekend.
Sit â€˜Em Down:
Recent weeks have proven how David Ragan is still clearly a rookie in the Cup series. He is in the process of both learning how to race in the big leagues and the various nuances of the Car of Tomorrow, all while trying to fit into his position at Roush Racing. That pressure has resulted in one finish higher than 15th all season, and that was in the Daytona 500, where it was more about survival than racing skill. Clearly, don't look for Ragan to excel when he gets to the track Too Tough To Tame.
David Stremme has been having a rather successful season in comparison to his previous efforts on the Cup circuit, but the Car of Tomorrow has been a very difficult transition for him. In the last three CoT races, Stremme has finished 35th, 43rd, and 38th. Whether it is Ganassi equipment or the No. 40 team, it’s clear the cylinders are just not clicking for the CoT races. Don't count on Stremme being anywhere near the front this weekend.
Roll The Dice:
Jeff Green has been hit or miss in the Car of Tomorrow this season, as finishes of sixth place at Bristol and Phoenix were paired with 36th and 24th at Martinsville and Richmond. Still, Green is a seasoned veteran who has raced at Darlington several times, collecting five Top 20 finishes; expect that seasoning to help out this weekend on the "Track Too Tough to Tame" and help propel Green to a strong performance this weekend.
Crank â€˜Em Up:
Last week's winner Jimmie Johnson could easily make it another two in a row this weekend at Darlington. I don't have to rehash his entire season to date and how well he's doing; but in a nutshell, he has four wins and Top 5s in each of the CoT races. Throw that in with the fact he's a two-time Darlington winner along with an average finish of just below seventh, and it's pretty easy to see why Johnson tops my list.
While he doesn't have the trophies to show for it, Denny Hamlin has been one of the strongest drivers in the four CoT races that have been run this year. He's led at least one lap in each and is second in total laps led in those four events, leading over 100 laps more than Jeff Gordon or Johnson. He does have limited experience at Darlington, just one Cup race where he finished 10th; but don't let that discourage you, as Hamlin looks strong for Saturday night.
Sit â€˜Em Down:
Juan Pablo Montoya got off to an impressive start in his first season in Nextel Cup racing, but in the last three races, he has had a pretty rough go of it. With three straight finishes of 26th or worse and one finish in the Top 15 in the last six, Montoya isn't exactly on a roll heading into Darlington. The Track Too Tough to Tame didn't get that name for being easy on rookies, of course; a tough old track and the CoT look to be a combination that will equal another below average finish for Montoya.
Elliott Sadler may be leading the way for Evernham Motorsports this season, but that isn't much to brag about. Other than his Top 10 finish at Daytona, there hasn't been much at all for Sadler and the No. 19 team to get excited about this year. I don't expect that to get any better this weekend. First off, the team is in a slump; secondly, Sadler’s in a CoT race, where he hasn't finished any higher than 24th. I doubt you were, but in case you were thinking of using Sadler this weekendâ€¦don't.
Roll The Dice:
Greg Biffle enters this weekend as the two-time defending race champion at Darlington. Last year, he used this race to kickstart a poor season, and it has the possibility to do the same again this time around. Biffle hasn't been wonderful in the four CoT races, but he is averaging a midpack or better finish. Add that to his impressive record at Darlington and the need for him to impress possible new owners (especially if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. turns out to be a free agent) and Biffle should have a good showing this weekend.
Mike: Thanks for leaving me a Hendrick driver this weekend. We both looked like Fantasy gurus last week with our Johnson and Gordon picks.
Cami: Yeah, I thought the same thing. But at least you got stuck picking the winner in the Sit ‘Em category, not me. I really thought Richmond would be the speed bump for Hendrick Motorsports. Hopefully, it’s not Darlington by looking at our picks this week.
Mike: No doubt. Although I think Hendrick is far and away the best CoT team, and Gordon has six wins at the track. With a third and two seconds in the last three races, I’m feeling good.
Cami: As you should. On my side, Johnson has two wins and an average of 7th, so I didn’t feel too bad taking him. We’ll have to see who ended up with the strongest Hendrick team.
Cami: Speaking of Hendrick, I wonder if Dale, Jr. will win this weekend for D.E.I. after announcing Thursday he’s going to leave the team.
Mike: That would be very interesting, but I don’t really see that happening. Although D.E.I. has done OK with the CoT, Darlington is not a good track for Jr. That would be a very ironic twist, though. I’m still wondering if this is a power play or legit.
Cami: I don’t know, a national TV news conference sounds pretty legit to me. But you’re right, it would be a longshot for him to win this weekend.
Mike: The other thing that I think makes the Jr. deal legit is that if the merger between Yates and D.E.I. goes through, they’ll be running Fords from the sound of things.
Cami: So if D.E.I. runs Fords, will that make Dale, Sr. turn over in his grave?
Mike: I am sure it will give him pause, although he did run Fords early in his career so it isn’t totally unprecedented. However, I have to think there is no way in hell that it could happen if he was still alive.
Cami: Speaking of longshots, I see you went back to Green this week after he got you a 24th place finish last Sunday.
Mike: Yeah, he was running very well and had some bad luck in the pits. I think he’ll be back up in the Top 15 to Top 10 this weekend.
Cami: He has run well in the CoT… I’ll give ya that.
Mike: Yes he has. But what about your picks…you think the Biff can really turn it around this weekend? I know he’s got a good track record at Darlington, but I really don’t think he’s going to be able to overcome the problems that are plaguing that team right now.
Cami: Well, Biffle has won that last two at Darlington, and his CoT finishes haven’t been THAT dreadful. I think that makes him a prime Roll the Dice candidate.
Mike: I think you’re probably closer to dead on with the Sadler pick. I think the entire Evernham organization is in a tailspin.
Cami: He is the best in points over there, but that’s not saying much with the way they are running. Maybe when (if) they hire Matt Borland they can put their engineering heads together and get out of it. But I’m not betting on that anytime soon.
Mike: I agree, they definitely need to figure something out. The boys at Dodge headquarters cannot be feeling good about what is going on over there. Finally, thanks for not bashing me too bad with my Ragan pick. He’s still in the Top 25, so I had to go for it.
Cami: It’s a cheap move, but sometimes you have to take those, especially after you parked the winner last week. Sorry…had to get that in one more time!
Mike: That’s a fair call; I deserve it. I think that was the first time this year one of us sat the winner…I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out this week.
Cami: And we’ll have to see how the fans vote for the best Crank ‘Em Up pick of the week.
Crank â€˜Em Up- 14.9
Sit â€˜Em Down- 21.8
Roll The Dice- 19.6
Crank ‘Em Up- 11.5
Sit â€˜Em Down- 23.5
Roll The Dice- 20.3
Whose drivers’ moms will lead the way to the green flag this weekend at Darlington? If you don’t know the answer, that’s because you’re not getting the Frontstretch newsletter. Don’t waste another minute; click here to sign up today for more exclusive FS content. And remember, the newsletter is FREE!
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