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Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans: 2007 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Edition

The Chase heads to the halfway point this weekend by tackling the only night race left on the horizon for 2007. To do that, the circuit heads back to Charlotte, the track that has been both levigated and repaved over the last couple of years. It’s all part of a work-in-progress renovation project by track president Humpy Wheeler and owner Bruton Smith, one that certainly had its share of bumps along the way. The biggest of those bumps may not have smoothed itself out yet; Goodyear is still apparently bringing tires more suited for the Flintstone mobile than the Cup series, a move that could cause complaints among the NASCAR faithful. Clearly, it’s a race in which there’s constant fear of the unknown – and that will wreck havoc on the nerves of any racing fantasy owner.

Of course, there’s far more than the renovations themselves to be concerned about, as those things reach beyond your ownership control. Looking at a race that runs from twilight into dark, there is always concern over the changing track conditions and how teams will adjust to them over time. With the Chase pretty much down to a three-horse race, the rest of the driver pool is going to be in the same boat – just win, and get maximum exposure for your sponsor. With that type of mentality to go along with a tire that allows for aggressive pit strategies, some strange results are certainly possible as the race winds down. Even fuel mileage can play a factor; an unexpected finish in May brought guys like Casey Mears, JJ Yeley and Kyle Petty to the front. With so many variables, don’t be surprised to see an unexpected driver to wind up in the top five once again.

So, who will figure out the right fuel strategy and changing track conditions on this tricky track? Keep reading on to see who is worth the gamble and who you need to sit this one out in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.

Tom’s Race Rewind

What a difference a year makes. Kasey Kahne has muddled through a season full of mistakes; but on a fateful Saturday night at Lowe’s last fall, he was the symbol of perfection in scoring his series-leading sixth victory of the season. Leading 134 of 334 laps, Kahne held off perennial Lowe’s contender Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps, as the two wound up 1-2 in the final results for the second straight race at this facility. Meanwhile, Jeff Burton – who is having a miserable Chase experience in ’07 – continued the streak of luck that had him leading the points halfway through his ’06 run for the title. On lap 240, his car stalled on pit road – but Burton battled his way back through the pack en route to a third-place finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a surprising Bobby Labonte rounded out the top-five finishers. For a while, it looked like Mark Martin would be a major contender, projected to take over the points lead from Burton after running up front all night long. But a sudden, jarring crash courtesy of a Yeley miscue left Martin’s car in tatters, and – for what would be the final time – his title hopes were flushed down the drain.

Mike’s Keys to the Race

The tires have been the story for several races at Charlotte. Between the levigation fiasco two years ago and the rock-hard tires that the series has had to deal with recently, it hasn’t been the greatest of times for Goodyear here; this weekend will prove to be no exception to that sinking feeling. The tire manufacturer is again bringing a rather conservative compound to the track, so teams will have the option to take two or no tires late in the race as overall wear will prove to be at a minimum. Fuel mileage is always a concern, too, and can be an even bigger factor with the hard tire compound keeping pit stops few and far between.

With Goodyear unpredictable, where do you go as a fantasy player? While some tire strategy will certainly have an impact by the checkered flag, there is also the fact of past history sometimes being a foreteller of future success. Johnson has obviously been the man at Charlotte for some time: five wins, two seconds and a third in 12 races make him an automatic pick to watch out for. Kahne has also run very strong at the track, although his finishing average has been hurt by some bad luck in races where he had the dominant car. And expect to see the rest of Hendrick Motorsports – along with Roush Fenway Racing – near the front of the pack again this weekend, as they are always strong on those kinds of racetracks.

Mike’s Picks

Crank ‘Em Up:

The car says Lowe’s, the track name is Lowe’s… so it should come as no surprise that Johnson has owned the place for most of his career. Johnson has finished in the top three for 2/3 of the races he has competed in at the track in Charlotte, compiling an astounding average finish of sixth place in 12 career starts. Considering the fact that he is at the top of the points standings and has run well on intermediate tracks again this year, it is a no-brainer to pick the No. 48 team to run well once again here. Being held winless in his last three races at the track has to be smarting a little bit, and I expect Johnson to be on a mission to regain the points lead at a track that should have his name on the sign out front.

Denny Hamlin has had some terrible luck during the Chase. His car has been strong, and he has been near the front for a good portion of the event; but he ends up caught in someone else’s mess and hasn’t finished where he should have. Hamlin has shown an affinity for Charlotte, though, with three top-10 finishes in four races so far this year. While he’s basically out of contention for the championship, it is still time to run for maximum points and take some risks; as a result, look for Hamlin to be near the front and possibly even make a fuel-mileage gamble near the end to try and steal a win.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Greg Biffle is still not having a good season. While he has looked better in recent races, and even won the race two weekends ago at Kansas, Charlotte has just not been a very good track to him. Biffle has only three top-10 finishes in nine career races here, and his last two finishes have been 37th and 43rd. That brings the driver’s average finish here down to a mediocre 20.4. No doubt about it, don’t expect Biffle’s recent turn around to continue this weekend.

Elliott Sadler is still our favorite driver to sit. Sadler’s success this year has been very limited, and Charlotte is not a good track for him even when he is running well. Sadler has just two – yes, two – top-10 finishes in 18 career starts at this facility. With an average finish of 25.7, it is obvious that the GEM squad will not be a strong pick again this weekend; while we hope that Elliott is able to turn his luck around yet this year, most likely this weekend will not be the start of it.

Roll the Dice:

Earnhardt Jr. continues to battle with engine woes, as another such failure – the sixth for the No. 8 team this season – sidelined a car that led a large number of laps last weekend. At least the team is heading to Charlotte, looking to continue a trend that has been in place for several years. Earnhardt runs much better on average in the fall race than in the spring race at Charlotte; in fact, in the last six fall races, Earnhardt has finished fourth, 42nd, third, ninth, ninth and fourth. For whatever reason, running near home during football season sits well with him. Expect another good run this weekend as a result, possibly his first points-paying victory at the track where he won the Winston in his rookie season.

Tom’s Picks

Crank ‘Em Up:

Tony Stewart is in danger of losing touch with his main rivals for this year’s title, falling 154 points behind after an eighth-place finish at Talladega. That makes Stewart both hungry and desperate to reach Victory Lane; luckily for him, Lowe’s will be the perfect place to get back in the groove of running up front. Look at all Smoke’s accomplished at 1.5-milers over the last year or so; he won twice down the stretch last fall, then scored a win at Chicagoland this year while coming oh-so-close Atlanta in the spring. Having led 55 laps in the Charlotte race this May, he’s a solid pick for any No. 1 slot on your fantasy team… as long as you don’t have Johnson available.

Believe it or not, the best Hendrick driver since the Chase began isn’t Jeff Gordon or Johnson – it’s none other than Mears. This year’s winner of the Coke 600 comes back to Charlotte on the heels of four straight top-10 finishes in the Chase; that’s something neither one of his Hendrick teammates can claim. It’s true the No. 25 team used fuel mileage to their advantage in getting out front this May; but don’t forget, they were a top-10 team all night before that point. Especially if you’re gunshy about using Chasers with the way things have gone the last four weeks, Mears is a great No. 2 pick.

Sit ‘Em Down:

For all intents and purposes, Kyle Busch‘s championship bid is over. It’s not just the deficit he’s facing – Busch is 260 points out of the lead with six races to go – but it’s also his lame duck status that will inevitably bring this team to its knees. Tony Eury Jr. is changing over to the Hendrick building, and as he begins to build up his operation, that’s yet another possible distraction for a team that knows it’s getting a new driver in Mears next season. With Busch’s record at Lowe’s less than stellar through the years – he’s yet to score a top-five finish here – it all adds up to a spot on the bench for your team this weekend.

Some fantasy players this weekend will think back to Kevin Harvick‘s win at the All-Star Challenge this May, putting him right smack in the middle of their starting lineup. Trust me… don’t follow their example. Harvick’s season has gone south since a fateful late-race tussle with Stewart at Indy didn’t go his way, and he sits fifth in the Chase standings only due to the fact that he’s yet to post a DNF. Without a top-five finish since Chicagoland in July, the No. 29 team is reeling; and if you take that All-Star win away, Harvick hasn’t finished in the top five at a points-paying race here since 2001. Clearly, this is a man to throw on your bench Saturday night.

Roll the Dice:

Kahne‘s career has entered a downward spiral ever since he won the Cup race at Lowe’s last fall. Slumping from championship contender to Chase pretender over a horrific ’07 season, the No. 9 team is simply trying to finish out the year by climbing up to about 20th in points. Over the past month or so, though, Kahne has shown some signs he might be ready to turn things around. In the past seven races, he has four top-10 finishes, including a ninth at Kansas. If you’re looking for a sleeper, chances are high the upward trend will continue for Kahne Saturday night.

MCLAUGHLIN: DRIVER HANDICAPS ENTERING CHARLOTTE

Trash Talk

Tom: Well Mike, Cami tells me every week how your picks are so bad, it makes her sick. Who knew they had the power to actually make her sick; while she recuperates, I’m here to fill in again one more time.
Mike: Thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule at Charlotte to help with this crucial column. Hopefully, you can pick as poorly for her as you did for me last year. Although I don’t see Labonte among your picks, or Petty, I see you haven’t learned from our past Mears issues. Whenever either of us pick him to do well, he struggles.
Tom: But Mike, you can’t deny that over the past month, Mears’s No. 25 team is on fire. He’s having a career year… and he comes into Lowe’s looking for the season sweep. Plus, you have to admit you made it awfully hard on me by jumping on his teammate Johnson’s bandwagon.
Mike: Of course, I jumped on Johnson. Every time I do, he doesn’t win at Lowe’s, and I receive charitable contributions from 25 or so race teams. Meanwhile, I also see you think Stewart’s sixth this spring has turned around his recent string of bad luck at Charlotte.
Tom: And you better believe Stewart’s going to be running up front on Saturday night. The pressure’s on for him to keep pace with the Hendrick duo ahead of him, and he can’t afford another bad-luck performance like he’s had at Charlotte in the past. I am keeping my fingers crossed though, because I know old habits die hard… like Mike sitting Sadler yet again.
Mike: I can’t help it. ESad has been struggling all year, both with performance and just racing luck. Add to that the fact that he basically stinks at Charlotte, and I’d most likely sit him even if he was running well. The No. 19 is just snakebitten this year, good for a 25th or later finish every week. In the meantime, I’m curious to see if you are going to be right about Kyle Busch’s team folding up their tents. It seems to me like they are still trying hard, and I think he’s going to be a threat this weekend.
Tom: I just think that after two bad wrecks in a row, Mike, it’s going to be hard for that whole team not to start looking ahead towards next year. The way Kyle sounded after the wreck at Talladega, it didn’t seem like he was too confident. Let’s just say he’s not about to snag a career best this weekend – and his career bests at Lowe’s just aren’t that good. Along those same lines, you really feel like Hamlin is on the verge of turning things around? He’s had an awful Chase. Did you get some free deliveries from FedEx or something?
Mike: Hah, I wish! I’ve never had a free delivery from FedEx. I just think Hamlin has to miss spinning cars at some point in time during the Chase. He’s been in a very strong car every race, and had something goofy happen every time. Going from goofy to happy, I see you think that Harvick’s success in the All-Star Race isn’t going to translate into success this fall, not to mention that his luck has been horrid since Indy.
Tom: Man, I just don’t believe what you’re saying with Hamlin – after getting dinged in the head by Petty, he’s been looking the sophomore slump right in the face. It’s a word Harvick knows well, too… because he’s been knee-deep in it all year. Let me put it this way – when your boss spends the start of the Chase hunting in Mongolia, he’s not exactly helping your focus. but speaking of focused… your roll the dice pick has been putting it all together as of late.
Mike: Hamlin has run well since the first time he hit the track at Charlotte. I think he’ll have a better chance to run well rather than run poorly. I may be full of it, but I just feel like Hamlin is due for a good run. Yes, Junior once again looked like a contender for a win until his engine bought the farm. If it wasn’t for blown engines, he’d be in a league with Gordon this year. It is hard to fathom that many blown engines in the modern era when engines are so bullet proof. But that’s why we roll the dice… just like you did with Bud’s newest employee.
Tom: Exactly. I think Charlotte’s going to be a good track for Kahne, though… and since George Gillett starting pouring boatloads of cash into the program, all three GEM cars have started running a lot better. Even your friend Sadler over there! Better hope you don’t bump into him in the garage this weekend; he might have a thing or too to say about getting sat down!
Mike: I hope I get to see him. I’d love to hang out with him and talk to him about how he manages to care for 150 dogs. That is crazy. But in the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to see how the racing pans out.

Scorecard

Cami:

Crank ‘Em Up – 14.7
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.5
Roll The Dice – 19.2

Mike:

Crank ‘Em Up – 13.9
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.5
Roll The Dice- 17.0

Remember that Frontstretch is LIVE at the track all weekend from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. From a special podcast from Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles – right from the pit area – to event coverage and special interviews from Mike Neff, we’ll have you up to date with all the news and notes from the track in Concord, N.C., right here first. Would you expect anything else from the site that bills itself as the “Best Seat the Track, Best View On The Net!” We hope not!

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