The Nextel Cup Series heads to Joliet, Ill. this weekend to kick off the second half of the season at one of NASCAR’s newest – and most predictable – facilities. Despite its reputation for being just another 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” track, Chicagoland Speedway is showing her age, developing a wider racing groove capable of supporting side-by-side racing.
The summer sun bakes the track’s surface, making it slippery. Handling is always a priority but, when you take into consideration the heat wave that that has been gripping most of the country, it will be of the utmost importance this weekend. While track position has been critical in the past, the wider racing groove is taking that out of the equation more and more. When choosing your fantasy lineup, pick teams that typically make their car handle the best; they will be the ones to prevail.
Which teams will spend their weekend heading in a perfect racing line mentioned above, and which ones will find themselves led astray? Read on to find out who to sit and who to keep in this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Jeff Gordon crossed Chicagoland Speedway off his list of tracks where he had yet to score a win in controversial fashion last year. Gordon caught leader Matt Kenseth with three laps to go and as the pair went into turn 2, they made contact which sent Kenseth’s Ford spinning through the infield grass. Kenseth, who led the most laps and appeared to have a dominant car, said the contact was no accident and stated “[Gordon] just ran over me.” The caution set up a green-white-checkered finish and Gordon easily beat Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line. Things managed to get even worse for Kenseth, who crashed with David Stremme as they came to the checkered flag; he ended the day 22nd.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Summer is here, making for slick asphalt. This places driver ability as the biggest factor in selecting the your fantasy team. When the tracks heat up, the cars slide around more, and drivers that maintain the best car control usually come to the forefront.
This is one of two intermediate tracks left on the schedule before the Chase. A good indication of teams that will be strong in this race are teams that have been strong on 1.5-mile tracks in the past. The Hendrick brigade is obviously a good choice; Gordon is a Chicagoland winner and Jimmie Johnson has never finished below sixth in his five previous races there. The Richard Childress Racing cars will also be a factor. Harvick is the track’s only repeat winner, recording victories in the first two trips to Chicago, and Burton finished second there last year. Also, don’t count out Tony Stewart. He has a win and four top fives in six races in the Windy City.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Gordon has been on fire this year in the Cup Series, recording only one finish outside of the top 12 this season. He started the year with a second at both California and Vegas, to go along with a fourth at Texas – all successful performances on intermediate tracks. He is also the defending winner of this race and has an average finish of 10.2 over the next six events. Even though he does not have his crew chief on the wagon again this week, expect him to have another strong run.
Stewart generally heats up when the weather gets hot. So far this Summer, he has been having a little trouble getting on track, but Chicago should offer the perfect remedy to that situation. Stewart has finished in the top five in four of the six races that have been held at the track, and has an average finish of 12.7. He won this race in 2004 and should be chomping at the bit to put on a good run this weekend after his sub-par showing at Daytona.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Stremme has fallen back into some old habits that are not too promising for fantasy owners. Since Charlotte, he has not finished higher than 22nd, and that was this past weekend at Daytona. Try as he might, Stremme just does not seem to be able to gain any momentum toward finishing races in the upper third of the field. In his two previous races at Chicago, he has come home 16th and 21st, which would actually be improvements compared to most of his finishes this year. Don’t expect anything spectacular this weekend from Stremme; he just doesn’t seem to be hitting on enough cylinders to make it happen.
David Ragan has been very impressive this season… for a rookie. He has been bringing the car home in one piece, although sometimes scathed from spinning out. With this being his first trip to Chicago, it is a safe bet to leave him on the bench for this week and let him take his knocks without costing you points.
Roll the Dice:
Kurt Busch has been hit or miss at Chicago. He has four top-10 finishes and two finishes below 34th. As poorly as the Penske organization was running at the start of the season, they are beginning to show signs of life. It is a roll of the dice, but there is at least a 50-50 shot this weekend that Busch will come home with a decent run. I think it is worth the gamble.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Last year, Gordon won his first race at Chicagoland; this year, teammate Johnson would love to follow suit. In five starts at the track, Johnson has scored four top fives and five top 10s, with his “worst” finish coming here last year when he was sixth… but he has yet to find Victory Lane. After a mini-slump, Johnson and the No. 48 team are back on track, entering this weekend’s race with back-to-back top 10s. Look for Johnson to make a big push at getting season win number five and Chicago win number one this weekend.
The last two years at Chicagoland have been full of frustration for Kenseth. In 2005, he led 176 laps before finishing second, and last year led 116 laps before late-race contact with Gordon spoiled his day. Like Johnson, Kenseth is rebounding nicely after a couple of rough weeks at Michigan and Sonoma. He should be contending again this weekend; hopefully, the third time will be the charm and he can finally score a win to make up for past disappointments.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler‘s woes this year have been well documented. After sparking a turnaround for the No. 19 team last year when he took over for Jeremy Mayfield, expectations were high for Sadler et al heading into 2007. So far, they have failed to deliver, and Chicagoland will most likely present more headaches for Sadler and his team. He has managed just one top 10 at Chicago in five races and has an average finish of 29th in the last three races run there. Don’t let Kasey Kahne‘s top-10 run at Daytona trick you into getting back on the Evernham bandwagon.
Another Dodge driver you will want to avoid this weekend is Bobby Labonte. Labonte enters this weekend’s race with finishes of 30th or worse in three of the last four events. While his record at Chicago isn’t terrible, he has failed to crack the top 10 and has an average finish of 22.7. Labonte has shown some signs of improvement this year, but not enough to take a gamble on using him this Sunday.
Roll the Dice:
Greg Biffle, fresh off his surprising sixth-place finish at Daytona last week, looks to make it into the top 10 for the first time at Chicago this weekend. With finishes of 11th place in the last two races here, he has shown he can run up front but always manages to come up just a little short. With two top 10s in the last three races, perhaps that momentum will give him just the little extra added push he needs to break into the top 10. Plus, now that Jamie McMurray has won, that leaves Biffle as the only veteran Roush Fenway driver yet to win this year. I can’t imagine he’ll stand for that too long.
Mike: So, how much hate mail did you get this week considering the four drivers we chose to sit down combined for an average finish of 4.25?
Cami: It was an awful week! I’m sure a lot of fantasy teams were in trouble after that race.
Mike: Oh, I am sure. That is the danger of plate races. Somebody like Stewart sticks his head in the wrong place for a few seconds and ruins his evening, or somebody like Reed Sorenson runs over the top of two people because he forgets where the brake pedal is.
Cami: Well, I had mixed emotions on Stewart, his misfortune hurt you more than me (I was more ticked at Juan Pablo Montoya) but it was still a crappy move. So, did Sorenson have to take out a restraining order against you or did you calm down by now?
Mike: Trust me, I was googling trying to find his home address for most of Saturday night. I’m a little calmer now, but that was ridiculous.
Cami: The whole incident was stupid. I was just hoping that some of our sit ’em guys would find a similar fate. But wouldn’t you know it, they were neck and neck for the win! I guess it shows we are human after all.
Mike: I know, that was crazy. Anyway, on to this week. Don’t you think Johnson’s luck will eventually run out? He is due for a bad race at Chicago after five straight top-six finishes.
Cami: No, I think he used up some of his bad luck in the last month when he was shut out of the top 10 for four straight weeks. They’re back on top of things now. I think he’ll have a great shot of getting that first Chicago win like Jeff did last year.
Mike: Well I hope you’re wrong, but I can’t fault you for the pick. I’m hoping, for you sake, Kenseth has calmed down from Saturday. He was about as mad as I have ever heard him about the way Kyle Busch was racing him.
Cami: Lots of people have made that complaint and moved on just fine. But speaking of being mad… you think Tony is going to stay out of trouble this week and put in a good run?
Mike: He is due. Summertime is Tony time. When the tracks heat up and get slick, he usually shines. I’m surprised he hasn’t been running any better in the last few weeks. I think he’s due to break out, and he’s won there before, so I look for a strong run out of him.
Mike: I see you still are dissing the Evernham boys by sitting Sadler again.
Cami: They haven’t done anything to change my mind. The good news is that Kasey is just four points away from us being able to sit him, too. At least for a week or so, anyways, until he falls out of the top 25. I don’t know how, or if, they’ll get it straightened out this year. In the meantime, I noticed you took the easy rookie way out with Ragan this week.
Mike: Yeah, it was cheap, but it is his first time at the track. I may regret it. I have to hand it to him, he’s doing an admirable job in that car for the most part. He’s been bringing it home in one piece with middle of the pack finishes for the most part.
Mike: I think you might regret sitting Labonte. His last two finishes at Chicago were top 15s.
Cami: Yeah, I debated on that one for a while. But they have been outside the top 30 in three of the last four races. If they had any positive momentum at all, I would have found somebody else to sit. I thought about Carl Edwards, his Chicago record is awful. But they are running too well right now to risk it.
Mike: Yeah, I don’t blame you for that, Cousin Carl has been stepping it up. Speaking of which, you think his teammate, the Biff, is actually going to have a good run on a non-plate track this weekend?
Cami: It’s a gamble. But after McMurray’s win, he’s the only Roush Fenway guy other than Ragan to have a win. That can’t sit too well with him. He’s been decent enough at Chicago to warrant the risk. You’re gambling on Kurt again, I see. Are you sure he can get you another top 10?
Mike: Not at all. He’s had four top 10s in six races there, but the other two races were in the 30s. That’s why it is a roll of the dice. I guess we’ll just see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up: 13.8
Sit ‘Em Down: 23.5
Roll the Dice: 19.6
Crank ‘Em Up: 13.1
Sit ‘Em Down: 22.1
Roll the Dice: 18.7