Not quite sure what player to use for your fantasy league? Well, then, you’ve come to the right place. Today kicks off our second season of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans; each week we will give you the lowdown on what happened in last year’s event as well as some keys to look for on race day. Our Crank ‘Em Up section tells you what drivers are a strong bet to run that weekend; in the Sit ‘Em Down section, we’ll tell you what drivers to stay away from. Anyone can tell you to stay away from guys that are perennial underachievers, so we’ll tell you what drivers in the top 25 to avoid. Finally, our Roll the Dice section contains our wild card picks for the weekend: Any driver not in the top 12 in Nextel Cup points is fair game here, as we try to figure out who the real underdogs are each week. Plus, you’ll see Cami and Mike duke it out in our bonus Trash Talk segment to find out some inside info about the upcoming race weekend. It’s the fantasy column that has a little bit of everything… and then some.
Let’s go ahead and get started. What drivers should be on your radar for this weekend’s Daytona 500, you ask? Let’s find out:
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Daytona has become more of a handling track than that other restrictor-plate track on the schedule, Talladega. The surface has aged, and the grip has gone away more and more each year. People were actually talking during practice on Wednesday about getting their car to roll through the center of the corner; that is the kind of talk you get at Martinsville, not Daytona. Whatever the case may be, the teams that get the handling right will be the teams that run well all day, and it is a safe bet it will be a Chevrolet; they’ve won every Daytona 500 here since 2003.
Cami’s Race Rewind
After being in the hot seat all week following a failed inspection, Jimmie Johnson ended up in the catbird’s seat holding the Daytona 500 trophy. With his crew chief Chad Knaus at home watching the race on television, Johnson took the lead on lap 187 and managed to maintain the top spot through a series of late-race cautions. A lap 196 wreck between Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte and polesitter Jeff Burton forced a two-lap shootout to end the race, leaving the No. 48 team nervously awaiting the outcome on pit road. But Johnson got a strong start and pulled way by two car lengths as the field battled behind him. Greg Biffle wrecked on the final lap, leaving NASCAR scrambling to put together the final finishing order. When it was all said and done, Casey Mears, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart rounded out the top five. Clint Bowyer was the top rookie in seventh place, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps of the day before fading to eighth late in the going.
Crank ‘Em Up
Three words: Dale Earnhardt Jr. That’s because restrictor-plate tracks and DEI go together like peanut butter and jelly. Even though the organization isn’t as dominant as it used to be, they still run up front at these tracks, and Junior is simply the best plate racer in the business.
Johnson is the defending 500 champion and was the king of plate tracks last year; this year looks to be more of the same. Hendrick Motorsports is the best plate-racing organization in the last two years, so stick with Johnson to run well for your fantasy team.
Sit ‘Em Down
Labonte has not been running very well at Daytona for the last few years, and since the Pettys run a Dodge, don’t look for them to be up front again this year in the 500, either, even with the new nose. Labonte may win a race this year… but it won’t be here.
Newman has spent almost as much time upside down in a plate car as he has right side up. And although he has had some good finishes, he’s coming to Daytona with a new crew chief. Don’t look for Penske to get their first plate win with Newman at the wheel.
Roll the Dice
Ken Schrader is a wily veteran; he’s been at this game a long time, and he has been a strong plate racer for years. Look for him to run closer to the front than the rear and, if he can avoid the Big One, he’ll be up front at the end with the No. 21 Ford.
Crank ‘Em Up
Peyton Manning won his Super Bowl; now, Stewart wants to win the NASCAR version of the big game. In recent years, Stewart has really seen his restrictor-plate program take off with six straight top-10 finishes. He has back-to-back wins at Daytona in July, but has yet to make it to Victory Lane in February. Look for Smoke to be up there in the closing laps trying to score the win.
Another driver looking for his first Daytona 500 victory is Mears. Mears finished in the runner-up position in last year’s 500 and was seventh in the July race. Both of those top-10 finishes came in Ganassi equipment, too, which isn’t exactly touted to be the best out there. This year, Mears comes into the 500 driving for Rick Hendrick, a six-time winning car owner in NASCAR’s biggest race. With a new hot rod and a recent string of good finishes at Daytona, Mears is a driver to keep your eye on for Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down
I had Kasey Kahne on my list of drivers to stay away from even before the drama of the post-qualifying inspection week unfolded. And while having your crew chief suspended last year worked for Johnson, I’m sticking with Kahne as one of my drivers to sit this week. In a total of six Daytona starts, Kahne has only mustered a best finish of 11th place, with four of his other finishes being 20th or worse. There are plenty of tracks where Kahne excels at; keep him on the bench until one of them rolls around.
Despite winning the July race here in 2003, Biffle is another driver that would be better off used at another track. Other than that one win, Biffle has no top-10 finishes in seven other Daytona starts, and in the last five races at the track, he hasn’t finished higher than 25th. Biffle did manage to end the season on a high note with another Homestead victory, but that momentum hasn’t ever carried over for the start of the new year. Just don’t put Biffle too far back on the shelf; he’ll be someone to look at for the tracks coming up on the schedule.
Roll the Dice
Often times, rookies are intimidated by Daytona, but Bowyer didn’t get the memo. In his two Daytona starts last year, he finished sixth and 10th, not bad for any driver, let alone a rookie. Bowyer benefited from a resurgent RCR restrictor-plate program which put teammate Burton on the pole last year. Bowyer didn’t fare as well in qualifying, though starting 37th and 30th in his two Daytona races respectively. While that’s a bit of a disadvantage to start from, it shows that the Kansan has the patience and talent to work through traffic and stay out of trouble. Sophomore slump or not, Bowyer is worth a look to start off the season on a high note.
Cami: So are you ready to try and take my crown away this year?
Mike: Um… yeah, I guess. I had it last year had it not been for some bogus picks by my stand in at the end of the year.
Cami: I have no idea what to say to that.
Mike: Try, “Oh, you’re right.” I guess that means I really need to come take your crown.
Cami: Well, I guess you should have picked your sub better… or given him some tips on who to pick for you.
Mike: I told him who to pick for me. Apparently, he’s not a good listener.
Cami: Well on the bright side, this year we’ll not only have our weekly column picks, but we can duke it out in the Game of Tomorrow too!
Mike: Yes we can… and I will dominate you there, as well. Speaking of dominating, you’re buying into the Mears Kool-aid I see?
Cami: He pulled off two good runs last year in inferior Ganassi equipment. I think he’ll do well in Hendrick stuff.
Mike: I think he’ll be good in the long run, but I don’t know about his first run in Hendrick equipment. I’m also starting to think that Stewart is this generation’s Dale Earnhardt. It’s going to take him 18 years to win the 500.
Cami: I don’t think so. He’ll win it sooner than later, and I’m betting on it this week. Maybe your pick Dale Jr. will be lucky enough to be the one pushing him across the line.
Mike: It certainly could happen… although they didn’t get together much in the Shootout.
Cami: No, people are looking to keep them apart.
Mike: Good call on Kahne, by the way. He’s been cursed on plate tracks.
Cami: Yeah, there are definitely much better places to wait and use Kahne for. Plus, I don’t see the suspended crew chief thing working out again this year.
Mike: Nope, not when all three crew chiefs are gone from Evernham for the weekend. Meanwhile, I would really like to see Schrader come through with a top five one more time at Daytona.
Cami: He usually runs well at tracks like this, and he’s actually been turning them into decent finishes lately. He is carrying Yates power, which put its both drivers on the front row for the race. That could bode well for him.
Mike: I’m thinking so… I guess we’ll see how it pans out.