Unless your fantasy league is similar to the current Nextel Cup standings, there are still more than a few good reasons to keep reworking your driver lineup with time running out on 2007. The final four-race dash to glory starts this weekend at Atlanta, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, and any little tweak could make the difference in a tight-knit league. Obviously, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon will be garnering plenty of attention this week as they continue their battle for the title. But while they both have impressive records at Atlanta, it’s the hidden gems and the not so obvious picks that could help take your team to the next level this late in the season and help separate you from the rest of the pack.
So, which drivers will give you a run for glory at NASCAR’s Georgia gem, and which ones will leave you stuck smack in the middle of the drought instead? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out who to start and who to sit this weekend.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Tony Stewart continued to stay in the headlines of the 2006 Chase, scoring his second playoff win in last year’s Bass Pro Shops 500. While Stewart wasn’t a title contender, that didn’t stop him from flexing his muscle and taking the checkered flag first, all but wrapping up 11th in the final standings with his fourth win of the season. Smoke dominated throughout – leading a race-high 146 laps – but did give up the lead to come in for four fresh tires late in the running. The loss of track position could have been disastrous for Stewart; instead, that proved to be the winning move by crew chief Greg Zipadelli, as the No. 20 car charged by Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 10 laps to go to take home the grizzly bear trophy. Johnson made his way by Junior late to finish second, with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounding out the top-five finishers. Back behind them, it was a tough day for three drivers already behind the 8-ball in the Chase. Kyle Busch spun early and finished 27th; Kasey Kahne took the blame for contact he made with David Stremme, which resulted in a 38th-place finish; and Mark Martin was caught up in a multi-car wreck and ended his day in 36th. None of the three would recover to contend for the title in ’06.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Thanks to restrictor plates slowing the cars down at Daytona and Talladega, Atlanta is currently the fastest track on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule. It is a place where downforce is key, and more than ever, you need horsepower to get your car to the front while accelerating down the long back straightaway. The track surface itself has aged well since a track redesign in 1997, providing a multitude of racing grooves for cars to pass on. Fortunately, Goodyear has done a good job in figuring out which tire to bring here, so while the tires will wear off, there aren’t too many failures. That allows the crew to have the ability to make strategic decisions on fuel and tires, and gives teams the option of passing with ease if they do choose to give up track position.
Typically, teams that are strong on the intermediate tracks fare well at Atlanta. Of course, you’ll need to watch for the Hendrick duo of Johnson and Gordon to race up front all day. Those two have been dominant almost everywhere this year – just look at the point standings for proof – while landing among the top five in average finishes at AMS. Right behind them, Roush Fenway Racing has three drivers who rank in the top 10 for career average finish at this speedway, making them appear to be a likely factor to contend. And last but not least, let’s not forget about Stewart; he has been dominant at Atlanta for the last six years, with just one finish lower than ninth in his last 12 starts at the speedway. With the 1.5-milers back in full effect, I’d look for the usual cast of characters to be at the front of the pack again this weekend; Atlanta may feature a wide variety of racing grooves, but all that allows is for the cream to rise to the top that much more easily.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Stewart is still mathematically alive in the Chase, and is heading to a track that he has been dominant at in the last six years. Over the last 12 races, Stewart has seven top-five finishes, 11 top 10s and a worst performance of – get this – 17th. With the two-time champ in desperate need of a big points day, winning at Atlanta could go a long way toward pushing him back into contention for the championship. While it’s definitely a longshot, never count Stewart out until he’s mathematically eliminated; and I expect him to be highly motivated this weekend.
Gordon isn’t just hot – he’s on fire. Running up front for all of the Chase races but one, his worst performance has wound up being an 11th-place finish at Dover. The other five have produced top-five finishes in each, with two wins included within that span to give his team added momentum. Considering Gordon’s average finish at Atlanta is 11.2, this all adds up to a likely theory he’ll continue on this roll he’s been on. Gordon and Johnson would like nothing more than to finish 1-2 and distance themselves further from their pursuers; expect the Rainbow Warrior to follow through with his end of the bargain on Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler continues to be the whipping boy of Picks ‘n’ Pans. We hate to beat up on the poor guy, but his luck is simply brutal. Due to the fact that he still remains in the top 25 in points, he is still eligible for a sitdown in accordance with his slump – so that is just what I’m going to do. Sadler’s Atlanta resume is middling at best, with an average finish of 21.8; what’s more, he hasn’t finished above 10th at the speedway in over four years. Considering the stats I have in front of me, expect to see Sadler have another bad weekend in the No. 19.
JJ Yeley is a lame-duck driver who has not finished above 10th place since Charlotte in May. While he’s been having some decent runs during the Chase, he still hasn’t had a definitively strong one to show his teammates aren’t the only ones getting top-notch equipment. Don’t expect that sour ending to change this weekend; Yeley has four middle-of-the-pack finishes in his limited history at Atlanta. The possibility exists for Yeley to have a good run – especially considering the strength of the other JGR teams at Atlanta – but just don’t bank on it. There are other drivers who give you more bang for the buck.
Roll the Dice:
Earnhardt Jr. is pretty much the king of the non-Chase crowd – at least, whenever his engine holds up. Once again, his average finish at Atlanta is the highest of any non-Chase racer who has more than one start at the track. When Earnhardt was in the Chase a couple of years ago, he was poised to win the race at Atlanta, but used poor judgment while trying to pass Carl Edwards in a move which ended up eliminating him from the championship. Earnhardt has a win at this track, and three of his last four races have been finishes of fourth or better. It all adds up to the likelihood the No. 8 will have a good weekend – as long as they keep their motor from giving up before the finish line.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Heading into Atlanta, Johnson will look to do what his teammate and Chase sparring partner Gordon did recently – win back-to-back races. With the type of momentum Johnson has along with what track we’re at, that’s not a very tall order. Johnson is a two-time winner at AMS, scoring just one finish outside the top six in the last eight races. Watch for him to run up front as he looks to complete the season sweep.
The Chase has been far from perfect for Kenseth, but the team is coming off their first top five of the championship battle as they go to a track where their driver has found recent success. Atlanta wasn’t kind to Kenseth early in his career, but in the last four races, he has three top-five finishes and no finish lower than 13th. Even without the tiny spark from last week’s good run, Kenseth would be a decent bet at Atlanta.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Kevin Harvick managed to earn his second top 10 in the Chase last week at Martinsville, but looking at his recent results, that doesn’t bode well for this week at Atlanta. In the last seven races, Harvick has three top 10s; each of which has been followed up with two poor finishes. Looking at Harvick’s record at Atlanta, it doesn’t appear that the trend will end this week. Other than his first two outings, Harvick has no top 10s at Atlanta, and has finished inside the top 20 just once in the last 11 races.
After boasting four straight top-10 finishes, Casey Mears has struggled the past two weeks, and things don’t look good for him to snap out of it this weekend. At Atlanta, Mears has a career-best finish of 13th to go along with a dismal average of 23.9. While the newest member of the Hendrick team certainly has turned things around late in the season, don’t hold out much hope for that to continue this week.
Roll the Dice:
It seems like rocket man Ryan Newman will do just about anything to get back into Victory Lane before the season is out; and in recent weeks, he has come close. While Atlanta hasn’t been a great track for the No. 12 Dodge in recent years, Newman has run well there in the past, and the drive he has to break his winless streak could make someone overlook a few bad finishes from earlier on in the year. Watch for Newman to be mixing it up near the front this weekend.
Mike: Welcome back, Cami. We have missed you quite a bit, and I am glad you are feeling better. Your boy Tom did a pretty good job filling in for you, too… even if he did pick Bobby Labonte. Luckily, you’ve made a little more logical pick, going with Johnson this time around. Do you think he can keep up the tear he has been on?
Cami: Thanks for the welcome back. I will have to have a discussion with Tom about some of his choices; overall, I was pleased, but that could have been the fever, too! Meanwhile, I don’t think anything will stop Johnson and Gordon this week. Jimmie has been money at Atlanta lately, and he’ll be able to cash in again. I assume you agree with me that Gordon will continue his hot streak, too.
Mike: I really can’t logically pick against him. He’s got an outstanding record at Atlanta to begin with, and in seven races, he’s had one finish outside the top 10 – and that was 11th. I think this is going to be his year, unless Hendrick has a major engine problem one weekend. Do you really think Kenseth is going to stay focused with all of the questions about him and Edwards?
Cami: I think that whole thing would serve more as a distraction for Edwards than for Kenseth. Granted, he’s a bit of a stretch given his Chase performance, but he’s been in the top five more often than not the last couple years at this track. Is the “fight” the reason you backed off Edwards and snuck in to take Stewart?
Mike: No, I just looked at Stewart’s numbers. If it weren’t for the early races in his career, he’d be the king at Atlanta. He’s won here twice, and only had one finish outside the top 10 in the last 12 races held here. I think he is going to do his best to keep this thing close.
Cami: Well, he’s far enough out he can gamble a bit like he did in the Chase last year. That paid off well for him, so you never know… In the meantime, it’s nice to come back and see some things didn’t change at all. You’re still sitting Sadler and taking a gamble on Dale Jr.; aren’t you tired of that yet?
Mike: I can’t help it. Junior is third in average finish at Atlanta – at least among active drivers with more than one start since 1998. He always runs well there, though, while E-Sad will find himself just snakebitten. I know it is mean to say – but the dude’s luck is hideous. Finally, I see you are actually going to gamble with the Mears pick again. Longtime readers should know that they should start him this week, simply because of that.
Cami: Very astute of you to pick up on that, Mr. Neff. Casey had his little top-10 streak, but now has slipped back. His record at Atlanta leaves a lot to be desired, so I don’t see him jumping back to the top 10 just yet. But I’ll guess we’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 16.4
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.8
Roll The Dice- 20.3
Crank ‘Em Up – 15.4
Sit ‘Em Down – 26.3
Roll The Dice – 18.3