With only four races remaining this season, the Nextel Cup drivers and teams can see the light at the end of the tunnel – the 2006 championship trophy shines brighter by the day. Problem is, no one in the Nextel Cup community seems compelled to jump up and grab it; the Chase itself has featured more bad luck and mediocre performances than the last two years combined. That’s wreaked havoc not just for desperate Chasers, but for fantasy owners galore… with fantasy leagues entering a similar type of homestretch, a blown engine from Jeff Burton or a late-race spin by Dale Earnhardt Jr. are exactly the types of performances that turn fantasy year-end trophies into worthless dreams of what might have been.
So, as the series heads back into the Southern hospitality of Atlanta, who are the drivers that can right your fantasy ship, leading you straight from the emergency room to the trophy room? With Mike taking the week off, let Cami and substitute fantasyman Tom Bowles show you the way in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Mike’s (Tom’s) Keys to the Race
A fast track with multiple grooves, Atlanta has become the most competitive of all the races held amongst the 1.5-mile tracks commonly referred to as “cookie-cutters.” With wide passing lanes and plenty of room to race, the key to success at this track is the opposite of Martinsville last week. Passing isn’t necessarily the problem here – it’s finding a passing lane that works for you, so you’ll be able to gain grip off these fast sweeping corners and power down the straightaways. One of the fastest tracks on the circuit, AMS puts a premium on speed as well as handling; so, cars with the best motors will be the ones in the best position to run up front here, more than anywhere else. Just make sure you pick teams whose engines have a history of lasting all 325 laps; this track has a history of high mechanical attrition over those last 100 miles.
Cami’s Instant Replay
Edwards became the third driver in a row to score a sweep when he took both races at Atlanta in 2005. Edwards dominated the second half of the race, leading a total of 115 of 325 laps when all was said and done. At one point, he had over a six-second cushion up front; but that was lost when the ninth and final caution of the day came out on lap 283, allowing the field to catch up and putting his win in jeopardy. In the end, though, he was able to pull away again with ease and beat Jeff Gordon to the checkers by almost three seconds. Mark Martin, Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five while Tony Stewart maintained his points lead.
Mike’s (Tom’s) Picks
Crank ‘Em Up
Martin has had a series of bad breaks throughout this year’s Chase… what else is new? Still, with no one running away with the title, the veteran has as much a chance to win as anyone else, and Atlanta offers him the perfect opportunity to get on track. In his last four starts at this facility, Martin’s finished no worse than fourth, leading 272 laps in the process. Clearly, this is his last best chance to make a move… if not this week, when?
Many will think I’m a little off base for making this next pick… especially with the momentum exhibited from both Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson‘s teams over the past few weeks. But, truth be told, it’s Bobby Labonte who’s really been on a tear. With four top 10s in the last five races, the No. 43 team enters this track with momentum… and confidence, based on a strong run they had this spring. In just his fourth start with the team, Labonte qualified fourth in March and led 13 laps before engine failure did in his day on lap 56. This time, not only will the parts hold up, but I think Labonte, with six wins already under his belt at this track, could end his Sunday in victory lane.
Sit ‘Em Down
It’s not that Kyle Busch runs poorly at Atlanta – he just doesn’t run well. In his short career, he debuted here with a 43rd-place finish and has gone on to finish 12th three straight times – leading a grand total of four laps in the process. With his Chase chances slipping away and the youngster entering desperation mode, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Busch’s aggressive style bite him at a track he’s still learning, finishing off his title chances for good with three races left.
Meanwhile, older brother Kurt Busch appears never to have gotten over the bad luck at Atlanta that nearly snakebit his title bid back in 2004. Entering the facility with a healthy points lead, Busch seemed to have things all but wrapped up – that is, until his engine blew on lap 51, plummeting him to a 42nd-place finish. Since then, he’s raced here three times and finished no better than 32nd in each event. With his Penske team struggling to the finish line, there’s no sign Kurt’ll do any better this Sunday.
Roll the Dice
OK, things have not gone well for the No. 45 team this year, but Kyle Petty is coming off just his second top 10 of the season, and seems increasingly desperate to get his organization in the Top 35 in owner points before the year is out. Where was Petty’s other top-10 finish this year, you ask? Why, none other than Atlanta… and with the momentum gained by both Petty teams after Martinsville next week, it would not surprise me in the least to see Petty with a solid top-10 run all… over… again.
Crank ‘Em Up
Kahne comes into this weekend’s race carrying a lot of momentum and looking for more. Kahne has outscored all of his Chase competitors in points the last three races and has a great shot at adding to that total this weekend, where he looks to complete a season sweep at Atlanta. Other than last year’s race, where an accident took him out of contention early, Kahne has finished in the top five in his other four starts at this track.
Stewart is another driver who knows a little bit about how to get things done at Atlanta. Smoke has nine top 10s in the last 10 Atlanta races, including a win in 2002. With 11th place almost a sure bet, Stewart has nothing to lose by letting it all hang out and going for the win.
Sit ‘Em Down
Kevin Harvick took over second place in the Chase standings last weekend at Martinsville, but he may be hard pressed to hold onto it this weekend at Atlanta. He started off at this track well: in his rookie season of 2001, he got his emotional first win here in the spring, following it up with a third-place result that fall. Since then, things have gone steadily downhill; those two races represent his only two top-10 finishes at Atlanta in 11 starts. You might be better served to save Harvick this week and race him in one of the final three events of the season.
While his teammate Earnhardt has had his share of success at Atlanta, Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t been as lucky. In three races, his best finish is 19th, and twice, he finished 37th or worse. That’s not really a good sign for a driver whose sponsor is also the sponsor of the race.
Roll the Dice
Edwards would probably like to race at Atlanta every weekend if he had his pick. Other than the race earlier this year where contact on pit road damaged his car and dropped him back to a 40th-place finish, he has finished in the top three each time he’s raced here, including a season sweep of both events in 2005. With the roll that Edwards is on right now, it would be hard not to use him this weekend.
Tom: So, Mike nipped you by one last week, huh? That’s gotta hurt.
Cami: Yeah, I’ve gotta get a handle on who I sit down. That’s what killed me. But my Crank ‘Em Up picks were pretty darn good!
Tom: Yeah, I will say you did right with the Hendrick picks. I’m going to have to actually work a little bit to make sure Mike stays ahead of you.
Cami: Well, if you do beat me this week, it just proves you gave me that bum tip on Gordon a few weeks back on purpose.
Tom: Ha! It’s not my fault Gordon chooses to have bad luck at the absolute wrong times. Why didn’t you “Hendrick” it this week with your picks? Johnson’s got a ton of momentum… of course, I didn’t pick them either, so I’m one to talk.
Cami: Kahne was too good to overlook. Tony is a hunch… but he has run well there too.
Tom: I’ll agree with Kahne, but Tony’s going for wins. That aggressiveness can hurt a fantasy player… he’ll run it into the wall trying to win, and cost you the finish you need.
Cami: But he could also run it into victory lane, too.
Tom: Just like Labonte will do for me!
Cami: Yeah, speaking of aggressive, you’re banking on the Petty boys riding that top-10 momentum this week. Bobby… I can understand, given his past there. But it’s been a while since he’s done that well.
Tom: Well, I’m sure there’s plenty of people reading this thinking I’m on crack for picking Labonte. How quickly the memory fades for NASCAR fans… like you said, not too long ago Labonte was absolutely dominant at Atlanta. Let’s not forget, he was leading early in the spring with the No. 43 before a bad engine ruined his day. I think they’ll make sure all the parts are working this time around… momentum is on their side, too.
Cami: Well, the fans aren’t laughing at you anymore than they do at Mike. To be honest, I’d like to see you be right on that one… but it is risky.
Tom: No more risky than sitting Harvick. You’re going to sit a man that has Kenseth right where he wants him? That man is going to be all over the No. 17’s bumper all day, playing mind games.
Cami: Call it women’s intuition. Or more of my bad luck on who to sit.
Tom: Just make sure you don’t get that intution in Harvick’s way. You might get run over!
Cami: Yeah, but it’s hard to want to use a guy that hasn’t scored a top 10 there in five years, no matter how high he is in the points. Speaking of getting run over, you’re not making any friends with the Busch family this week.
Tom: Well, you know, Kyle probably doesn’t like me that much from picking him to finish near the back in the championship Chase over at Sports Illustrated. And, not surprisingly, he’s bringing up the rear of the Chase field… so he should only be mad at himself.
Cami: True, but if he can get in one real good finish he could get back into it. And, of course, hope his brother wrecks the other nine guys.
Tom: Well, one thing we can say from Kurt’s Atlanta stats… he’ll be wrecking! Now, what do I say to end this thing? Pun… Pon…
Cami: We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Tom: How about “We’ll just have to see how badly I beat you.” Or will that mean I’ll never get invited back as a guest…
Cami: Works for me… I only say that since you’re the boss!
Standings after Week 6
|Crank Em Up||Stewart- 4th||10||Gordon- 5th||10|
|Earnhardt- 22nd||0||Johnson- 1st||15|
|Sit Em Down||Sadler- 19th||5||Edwards- 12th||-3|
|Biffle- 32nd||5||Riggs- 30th||1|
|Roll the Dice||Newman- 13th||5||McMurray- 19th||1|