For 12 drivers, it all comes down to this. OK, that’s overstating the drama heading into this Saturday’s race at Richmond; but by the end of the night, the remaining positions in the Chase will be filled before the points are reset for the top 12. Unfortunately, for most fantasy owners, there isn’t a redo button that you can hit after week 26; you have to gut it out for the entire 36-race schedule. Obviously, different drivers will have various goals heading into Richmond: some are looking to win bonus points for the Chase, some are looking to run well enough to maintain their positions, and some are just looking to survive. Hopefully, you can emphasize with position number one rather than number three… otherwise, your team may be in serious trouble!
So, what drivers will help your fantasy team flourish into a title contender and which ones will leave you looking like a pretender? Read this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans below to find out the answers you seek.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Last year’s race at Richmond had all kinds of drama and excitement surrounding it. The first order of business for the night was settling the race winner: Kyle Busch dominated the event, leading 248 of 400 laps, but with two laps to go Kevin Harvick managed to make his move on Busch and went on to capture his third win of the season. It was Harvick’s second win of the weekend, marking the third straight event a driver swept both the Cup and Busch Series races. Behind the top two, Kasey Kahne used his third-place finish to score the final position in the Chase, while Dave Blaney‘s fourth-place finish was his best of the year; Mark Martin rounded out the top five. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart narrowly missed a spot in the Chase after finishing the night in 18th. Jeff Gordon had a tough night, finishing 31st, but still managed to lock-in a spot in the playoffs.
Tony’s Keys to the Race
Richmond is one of the drivers’ favorite tracks on the circuit, but that doesn’t mean it will be without its challenges. First, Saturday night’s event marks yet another Car of Tomorrow race, which is better news for some teams than others. With its D-shaped configuration, Richmond is almost all curves, making for a long physical night driving a car that is known for being difficult to turn. Speaking of turns, drivers will need to be perfect coming off turn 2 if they are looking to have a successful evening. Anybody who has “driven” on a decent NASCAR simulator knows how that turn has the tendency to push you right into the wall. It also makes for prime passing territory for those cars that are handling well. Finally, you can’t go to a short track without talking about track position. It’s not uncommon for competitors back in the pack to get taken out in an incident not of their own doing. The brains on top of the pit box will need to be on top of their games and ready to implement some unique strategy if they want to get their team to victory lane; be looking for teams with strong short-track records and even stronger crew chiefs when making your final selection.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Momentum is one of the most interesting phenomenons in sports. Sometimes the most dangerous teams are not the ones with the best records, but rather those that have the most momentum. For NASCAR, the team who has mastered this concept of late is the Pat Tryson-led Miller Genuine Draft crew with driver Kurt Busch. Since the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, this team has finished no worse than 11th in a stretch that has included two wins. Don’t look for the momentum to stop here, either. Kurt has one win at the 3/4-mile track back in 2005, and everyone knows the strong history the No. 2 team has at this track as well. Furthermore, Penske South has been just a step behind Hendrick and Gibbs with their CoT program and are due to catch up, similar to what Roush did two weeks ago at Bristol. Don’t look for the elder Busch to back down on his aggressive style just because he does not have a locked position in the Chase.
Team FedEx has not been their usual consistent selves the past two weeks, with a last-place finish at Bristol and a mediocre 19th-place finish the next week at Fontana. But the good news is that nothing cures a slump like some good old-fashioned home cooking, and that is exactly what the Virginia native Denny Hamlin is heading for. He has previous finishes of second and third in three starts at Richmond, the latter result a testament to how Joe Gibbs Racing has had one of the better CoT programs on the circuit. Finally, the track’s low banking fits Hamlin’s strong suit perfectly, as was evident by his recent Pocono dominance and Loudon win. Look for the No. 11 car to be up front and threatening for the lead all night this Saturday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
If there is anybody who is trying to lose his way out of Chase contention, it is Harvick and his Shell/Pennzoil team. Plagued by bad luck, poor handling cars, and angry Colombians, the last top 10 for this team was at Indianapolis back in July. Since then, Harvick has dropped from seventh in points to the 12th and final Chase position heading into this weekend. Richmond has been kind to the California native, as he boasts a solid career average finishing position of 12.5, including a win. It could be a good place for the No. 29 team to get back on track, but I don’t think it will happen and it all goes back to momentum, something Harvick and Company clearly do not have.
David Stremme showed some signs of having a breakout season early in 2007, as he brought home six top-15 finishes in the first nine races. However, the bottom soon fell out as Stremme once again returned to his struggling ways, leading to the announcement this past week that Coors Brewing Co., the primary sponsor on this No. 40 Dodge, would be leaving at the end of the season. Usually, adversity such as this will motivate a driver to step up his game to the next level; not so here. We still may see this from Stremme over time, but don’t expect any heroics this Saturday. His best finish in four Richmond starts is only a disappointing 26th.
Roll the Dice:
Doug Randolph has lit a fire under the Cheerios team, as driver Bobby Labonte has brought home three straight top-15 finishes since his new crew chief took the reins at Michigan. I don’t see that hot streak coming to an end at Richmond. Maybe it’s my memories of the late Bobby Hamilton running well there in the historic No. 43, or perhaps the fact that Labonte’s cool demeanor is perfect for surviving the pressure cooker of short-track racing. Whatever the reason, I feel that this team will pull another rabbit out of the hat once again at Richmond.
Crank ‘Em Up:
When you think of Richmond success, drivers like Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come to mind. But one driver you shouldn’t overlook is Kyle Busch. Busch has posted nothing but top-five finishes in his five career starts at the Virginia short track; but even with that sterling track record, he has yet to find his way to Victory Lane. That could all change this weekend; Busch has just one victory this year, in another CoT short-track race at Bristol, and a second win would help boost him up in the standings once the Chase field is set. You have to go back to Dover to find a race where Busch hasn’t finished 13th or higher, making him one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. He may be locked into the Chase, but Kyle doesn’t know the meaning of playing it safe – look for him to be gunning for a trip to victory lane.
Last week at Bristol, Stewart had an “off week” and still managed to score a 13th-place finish. I guess it’s true, when you’re hot, you’re hot. Well, Richmond is definitely a track that could make Stewart smolder. With three past victories at the Virginia short track, Smoke has 11 top-10 finishes in 19 starts, making him a threat to win there every time out. The JGR CoT program has been one of the best, so a new car won’t be any excuse for Stewart to turn in a bad run. Plus, he’ll be gunning for those last 10 bonus points of the season, just another reason to put Stewart on your team this week.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray put a little daylight in his dark post-Daytona win slump last weekend at Bristol with a 16th-place finish; but don’t look for those good times to continue this week. While he has managed to score two top 10s in his nine career starts at Richmond, his last four finishes have been anything but impressive. Since his last top 10 here in 2005, McMurray has two finishes of 40th or worse at the track, and hasn’t finished on the lead lap in four tries. Bristol could signal a turnaround or could be a flash in the pan; Richmond isn’t the track to test which one of those it turns out to be.
A Saturday night short-track race, combined with Harvick needing a strong finish has all the signs pointing to a potentially bad night for Juan Pablo Montoya. You know if Harvick runs across his familiar foe during the race, he’ll have no trouble moving him out of the way with a bid for the Chase on the line. But Harvick isn’t the only concern for using Montoya this weekend. In four short-track appearances this year, his best finish has been 16th, including a 26th-place finish at Richmond earlier this year. The rookie hasn’t exactly been on fire the last month or so; it’s best to let him sit this one out.
Roll the Dice:
One driver that has seen a turnaround in the last month is Greg Biffle. With two top 10s in the last four races, Biffle is starting to show signs of the Biffle we all thought would be back in the Chase this year. While the transformation isn’t complete, he should be in for a good run this weekend at Richmond. A 19th-place finish there earlier this year ended Biffle’s streak of five straight races in the top 10 at the Virginia short track. With those kind of stats, he’s definitely worth the gamble this weekend.
Cami: Welcome special victim, I mean guest. Since you’re a rookie at this I’ll try to be nice and take it easy on you your first time out.
Tony: You’ll be sorry, but I’m not complaining
Cami: Well I won’t be anymore sorry than I was in taking Clint Bowyer last week. At least I had Jimmie Johnson as my other pick.
Tony: Ouch. Although I did pick Clint to lead the most laps in one of the media contests… I was surprised as well that he didn’t do better. Thought it was his type of track.
Cami: That’s what I was thinking, too. Needless to say, he fell short of expectations. But I’m feeling good about this week.
Tony: With the two most hot-headed drivers on the circuit at a short track? I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable if I were you!
Cami: Well, do you think anyone is going to dare get in their way? Kyle has been money at Richmond. Five starts, five top fives; you can’t argue with that.
Tony: Wow. I just panicked and ran for one of my stat books; to think, I actually thought you were smart enough to know that!
Cami: Nah, I looked it up so you don’t have to. So I guess you’re banking on the new, kinder, gentler Kurt Busch to show up this weekend.
Tony: Yep, he’s got one win here already and that team is on fire. That blue deuce has a great record at this track as well. Pat Tryson said on Sirius that he’s still pretty comfortable with his lead over 12th and won’t be afraid to take chances once the opportunity arises.
Cami: I don’t doubt that; but look how those “chances” have worked for Gordon lately.
Tony: Not quite as planned, but I still think Kurt will be running well enough to come home with a top 10, with or without rolling the dice. I think his chances will work out better than your boy Tony’s did last week.
Cami: 13th isn’t bad for a bad week. You don’t need to hit the ball out of the park with each pick. But I think Stewart and Busch will be solid choices. Looking at Hamlin’s record, I can’t really argue with you there, but he’s not exactly setting the world on fire lately either.
Tony: No, he has lost some luster over the past month, but if he’s going to turn it around anywhere, it will be here. He has two top fives in three starts, he’s been strong in the CoT races, and has extra motivation racing in his home state. Now, if he can just overcome your CoT dynasty and your guy Kyle Busch…
Cami: He’s not “my guy,” just my pick. But I think we do have something in common with our picks this week. Perhaps a short track run in between Harvick and Montoya?
Tony: I stand corrected! Yeah, good connection. Bristol may have just been a preview for Saturday night. I was actually thinking about how the No. 29 has lost so much momentum over the past few months. Why so down on our favorite Colombian?
Cami: Short tracks really haven’t been his thing this year. He wasn’t all that impressive at Richmond the first go around, and he’s been slumping lately. But mainly, I think someone will get fed up with him. I can’t believe that wasn’t your thinking. Slump or not, Harvick has five straight top 10s at Richmond.
Tony: JPM held his own at Bristol for the first half, exceeding my expectations. I think he could take his short-track game to the next level here. History doesn’t seem to mean much to Harvick this year, though; at least in the past few months. He’s been mediocre whether he’s had past success or not. Meanwhile, sounds like you’re pretty confident that the Biff is quietly building momentum.
Cami: Well, they don’t call it Roll the Dice for nothing… but I do think he’s on a decent upswing. Plus I couldn’t risk keeping Kahne out for another week. I will give you credit, though, for having the guts to step out there and take Labonte. Four good runs in a row might be asking a bit much though.
Tony: It would if it weren’t Richmond. But that No. 43 has done well there in the past, and I think Bobby has the driving style to stay cool under short track pressure and come home with a solid top 15.
Cami: Well, I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out. Best of luck to you this week, rookie!
Tony: Thanks, and same to you, Miss Veteran. And by the way, I prefer “Young Gun!”
Crank ‘Em Up- 13.9
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.5
Roll the Dice- 18.2
Crank ‘Em Up- 12.6
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.9
Roll the Dice- 16.5