With the Chase halfway complete, it’s time for the playoff teams to enter the home stretch, as 12 special teams join your fantasy juggernaut in battling for a year-ending trophy. Too bad the hardware they’re chasing is probably a little nicer than the one you might win in your local league; but hey, a guy (or girl) can dream, right?
First up in the final five-race dogfight to the finish is actually the most challenging circuit remaining. This week, the series visits Martinsville, Va., both the oldest and shortest track on the schedule. The paperclip oval looks tame, but don’t be fooled by the slower speeds; this race poses just as many pitfalls as Talladega when it comes to a driver being caught up in someone else’s mess. The corners are extremely tight, and there is no way to avoid contact when cars are that close together, leading to plenty of mayhem and lots of caution flags. As the season winds down, expect the pressure to be at an all-time high, as well; while the race for the championship is basically down to a four-man affair, the rest of the field is still under pressure to try and put a win on the board before the end of the season. As a result, expect to see some bumping and banging that can ultimately cost a driver his shot at victory – and perhaps your fantasy title dreams – come Sunday.
So, who will stay out of trouble and who’s most likely to qualify up front and give your team a much-needed boost? Keep reading to see who is worth taking and who needs to sit this one out in this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Tom’s Race Rewind
If you thought Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon dominated the race at Martinsville this spring, that was chump change compared to the racing here last fall. The two combined to lead all but 90 laps of that race, with Johnson coming out on top to score what would be his lone Chase victory. Tearing through the field with fresh rubber, Johnson passed Bobby Labonte with 55 laps remaining and scooted away, surviving a rash of late cautions to hold the lead over Denny Hamlin. Anxious for a win in his home state, the native Virginian drove his heart out, ultimately coming up a little over half-a-second short of the checkered flag. Labonte held on for third, with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon rounding out the top-five finishers. Meanwhile, the Chase standings underwent a bit of a shakeup, as Jeff Burton retired from the race at lap 217 with engine failure; falling 48 points off the pace of Matt Kenseth, Burton fell to fourth in the standings and his Chase bid never recovered.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Martinsville is the last true short track on the schedule this season. One of the most uniquely shaped tracks in the country, the paperclip oval has been described as simply two drag strips connected by two turns. The tricky layout gives the teams two main challenges: getting the car to roll through the center of the turn, as well as getting forward bite off it. Most tracks depend on rolling the center, but it is even more critical at Martinsville due to the tight radius of the turns. Simply put, if the car isn’t working through the center of the corner, then it won’t be able to get off it with the velocity it will need to accelerate down the straightaway. Getting off of the corner is just as important, too; it’s the place where forward bite comes in. That terminology refers to the car’s ability to launch off of the turn and get going down the straightaway as quickly as possible; it’s the key to making passes at Martinsville, and the team that does it the best will be in Victory Lane on Sunday.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Johnson is coming off his worst finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in years, but there’s no reason to worry; he’s still right in the mix for this year’s championship. Add to that the fact that he won the spring race at Martinsville, and Johnson is positioned for a very strong run on Sunday. In 11 races, Johnson has one, that’s one finish outside of the top 10 at this track. While there is no such thing as a sure thing in racing, this is pretty close to it; expect Johnson to finish near the front, if not on the point, this weekend.
Stewart is not in a very good mood lately. He got hung out at the end of the Talladega race and ended up in eighth place with what was arguably the best car. Last week at Lowe’s, he became involved in a little dustup on pit road that resulted in both bent sheetmetal and some bruised egos. While Stewart did salvage a seventh-place finish, his car was probably better than that, and could have moved him closer to the points lead. Instead, he likely needs to finish first here in order to stay alive; however, Stewart does own two wins at Martinsville already, and could very well be poised for a third this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Altogether now: The GEM driver of the week to sit is Elliott Sadler. ESad has been a favorite whipping boy all year in the Picks ‘N’ Pans, and there is no reason to jump off the bandwagon now. With an average finish at Martinsville of 23.4, Sadler only has three top-10 finishes in 17 career starts at – what you will undoubtedly hear several hundred times this weekend – is his home track. Sadler seems to feel a lot of pressure when he heads back home, or he loads up on too many hot dogs. But whatever the case may be, this is yet another week to sit Sadler on the pine.
Kevin Harvick is on one of those rolls that every driver dreads, and it just so happens to be when he’s in the Chase. Martinsville doesn’t seem to be the place to fix the problems of this team; while the track isn’t horrible for Harvick, it isn’t one of his better ones, either. His average finish is 20.1, and his most recent trip resulted in a 41st-place finish. More importantly, the karma around the team is just too bad to risk in your fantasy lineup; wait until the series heads back to a mile-and-a-half track before you consider Harvick again.
Roll the Dice:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still one of the best short-track racers on the circuit, and DEI has shown they have a handle on the CoT. Couple that with the fact that Junior’s average finish at Martinsville is ninth among active drivers, and you have a real formula for a good Roll the Dice pick. Yes, we tend to roll the dice with Earnhardt a lot – but when you look at his results compared to other non-Chase drivers, he almost always comes out on top.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Looking for a third straight Cup win, there’s likely no better place for Gordon to travel than the mountains of rural Virginia. His statistics at Martinsville are about as good as they can get; six wins and an eye-popping 23 top 10s in 29 career starts. Most importantly, the Rainbow Warrior has momentum from a Chase performance that’s seen him jump on top of the standings by 68 over teammate Johnson. Bottom line, if Gordon doesn’t at least contend for the victory Sunday, I’d be highly surprised.
Now, I’m sure Labonte isn’t the first person you think of when you set your fantasy lineup. But if you’re looking for a darkhorse at Martinsville, you’d be surprised at how well the 2000 Cup champ has done through the years. In his last four starts, he’s come up with two top-five finishes – including this very race last season. With the addition of new crew chief Doug Randolph, this team has become more of a consistent factor up front, a trend that should continue to build this Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
You’d think Martinsville would be the hometown track capable of solving all of Hamlin‘s problems. I know the stats are good – Hamlin’s got three top 10s in four career starts at this track. The problem is, no amount of numbers on paper can account for the emotional state of this team. After several races of bad luck, tough finishes and a PR nightmare of a conflict with Kyle Petty, it seems sophomore slump has hit Hamlin just before his second year winds up. At this point, I’d just hold off until they show signs of getting themselves together on a more consistent basis.
No doubt about it, Casey Mears has been the most consistent of all the drivers not involved in the Chase. But if there’s one glaring weakness in his driving repertoire, it’s how well he performs on short tracks – making him a poor pick for Martinsville this weekend. In nine career starts in Virginia, Mears has just one top-10 finish, placing a dismal 42nd at this race in the spring. Others from Hendrick Motorsports will be running up front on Sunday – Mears just won’t be one of them.
Roll the Dice:
Sunday marks the 55th and final start for Virginia’s own Ricky Rudd at Martinsville. The site of one of the grittiest wins of his career – Rudd needed an oxygen mask after taking the checkers in 1998 – the 51-year-old will be toughing it out once again, a separated shoulder making life difficult inside the cockpit. But Rudd finished 13th in the spring and has a streak of four consecutive top-15 finishes here, making him a solid pick if you want to take a gamble.
Tom: So, it looks like Cami’s so happy with my picks last week she gave me one more chance. Or did she think her season was a lost cause? I can’t quite remember what she said – either way, I get to go against you again this week, Mike.
Mike: Oh, I don’t think she thinks it is a lost cause yet. Just like Stewart, she is still alive… but I don’t know if she was too happy with you sitting down the third place finisher at Lowe’s.
Tom: Yeah, that’s true; but at least I boosted up her Roll the Dice average. Ironically, it was Kasey Kahne who snagged an eighth-place finish… while your Roll the Dice hopes are constantly pinned on the No. 8. Seriously, when do you not pick the No. 8 car for something? Junior must have you added to his payroll.
Mike: I know, I was surprised he was able to finish what he started last week. But I can’t help the Junior picks. When you look at average finishes, he is almost always the highest non-Chase driver. And you should talk, man; how often do you get a check from Labonte?
Tom: Well, let’s just say I got hooked on his special pink paint scheme. But seriously… Labonte had a top five in this race last year. And since Randolph came on board this summer, that program looks like it’s on the verge of turning around. Also, I still feel I mix up my picks a little bit more – unlike with you and the No. 19 of Sadler. How could you pick against a man in his home state?
Mike: I picked against him for that very reason. ESad is always a story line at Martinsville, and he simply doesn’t get the job done more times than not. I don’t know if it is sleeping in his own bed or having to feed his 150 hunting dogs, but he doesn’t get it done. Speaking of getting it done… is Gordon going to let you have the grandfather clock if he wins? I can’t imagine he’s using all seven of them.
Tom: Well, I think he’s in great shape to get number eight, Mike. Especially considering the way he ran here in the spring… he was one bump and run from knocking Johnson out of the way and taking the checkered flag. Speaking of which… you’re thinking Johnson will repeat?
Mike: I think he’ll have a very good chance. It is hard to knock a guy who has finished in the top 10 every race but one at a track. I’m surprised you are sitting Hamlin, though; he has looked pretty impressive in his few races in Martinsville.
Tom: But Mike, it’s all about consistency in the Chase – and since the green flag dropped at Loudon, it’s Hamlin who’s been off his game.
Mike: But he hasn’t been off his game that much. He has run strong in most of the races, and just met up with some bad luck. I think – especially in a CoT race – he’s got a real shot to come home high up this weekend.
Tom: Just like his Joe Gibbs teammate Stewart?
Mike: Exactly. Stewart had a messed up car last weekend and still came home seventh. He is not out of this thing yet, and a win at Martinsville would push him closer to the top.
Tom: I hope so – he’s my pick to win this year’s title! As far as I’m concerned, he needs a solid run to stay alive. Meanwhile, Harvick just needs a solid run to stay on the radar screen. I like that Sit ‘Em Pick.
Mike: I can’t believe the luck Harvick has been having, though! I am surprised he hasn’t blown an engine backing out of the trailer. Finally, on a sentimental note, I hope you’re on with your Roll the Dice pick. It would be cool to see Ricky have a strong run this weekend.
Tom: I’ll never forget the guts Ricky showed in getting that win with his No. 10 team back in the late ’90s. No question about it, he’s a legend in the sport that will be sorely missed come next season. Hopefully, he’ll have one last hurrah at the track he loves… we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 15.6
Sit ‘Em Down- 22.6
Roll The Dice- 19.5
Crank ‘Em Up- 15.0
Sit ‘Em Down- 24.7
Roll The Dice- 17.6