The long road that’s been the 2007 Nextel Cup season is finally winding down to a close; and hopefully, your fantasy team is still in a position to make you care. With just three races left, the chance to move up is fading fast; just like in the real Chase, the contenders have emerged from the pretenders in most leagues. Now, the circuit heads to the self-proclaimed Great American Racetrack this weekend, traveling down to Texas for 500 miles of jockeying on SMI’s mile-and-a-half facility. With its aged asphalt surface and multiple grooves, the racing should be full of twists and turns, increasing the importance for you to pick wisely at a time where any bad break could cost you the chance to win your league. Of course, luck will always play a factor to a certain extent, as Atlanta proved last weekend; we saw some dramatic damage hit the best-performing drivers late in the race, scrambling the fantasy finishing orders for many. For those playing to win from behind, at least you can look at that ending with inspiration; as long as you’re within striking distance, no lead is safe heading to a track that’s had plenty a yellow flag over the years.
So, which drivers have what it takes to come home with the big goofy hat this weekend, and which drivers are going to be left out on the prairie? Read on in this weeks Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out who to put front and center at Texas – and who to leave on your bench.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Tony Stewart continued his Chase supremacy with a record-breaking performance last year at Texas Motor Speedway. Stewart led a record 278 laps on his way to his third victory of the Chase, although things got interesting at the end when a late multi-car wreck, sparked by Kevin Harvick and Scott Riggs, set up a green/white/checkered finish. But even with Jimmie Johnson lined up behind him on the restart, Stewart quickly pulled away and ended his dominant day in Victory Lane wearing the infamous cowboy hat. Harvick’s car wasn’t hurt in the accident, allowing him to finish third ahead of Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer. Behind them, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished an impressive sixth after scraping the wall early and falling back as far as 33rd during a race he drove while feeling under the weather with stomach problems.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Texas comes right on the heels of Atlanta, and is another very fast mile-and-a-half oval. Initially looked at as a narrow race track where you needed to grip the inside line, the speedway has aged a bit after some initial repavings, allowing it to finally start to come into its own. With multiple racing grooves, drivers can now really search around for the best place to make their car work, minimizing the importance of track position while maximizing their ability to pass. Getting the handling to work hand-in-hand with horsepower will unlock the door to victory here, not unlike the formula used at several other intermediate tracks around the circuit.
Since this track is so similar to Atlanta, I expect the cars that ran well last weekend to be strong once again. Most likely you’ll see the Hendrick teams up front, along with Kurt Busch and Earnhardt Jr. trying to play the role of spoiler.
Crank ‘Em Up:
During last year’s rookie campaign, Denny Hamlin was very strong at most of the tracks near the end of the schedule – especially at Texas. Hamlin has raced here four times and finished in the top 10 in every event, making him a solid bet to repeat those performances come Sunday. Hamlin has experienced some bad luck during the Chase, but remember, in races he’s survived, the No. 11 has had no problem nailing down a solid finish. With a subpar result last weekend in Atlanta, look for him to rebound with a good weekend at Texas – there’s no water in the fuel here.
Martin Truex Jr. is simply overdue to get back on track. He has been running extremely well throughout the Chase, but some kind of mishap seems to cost him good finishes just about every time out. The No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy was arguably the best car at Atlanta last weekend, but bad pit strategy combined with bad luck left him slamming into the back of Hamlin with a handful of laps to go. Chances are, history shows us Truex has potential to keep that pre-wreck momentum going; he has run well in his previous Texas starts with all four finishes in the top 15 – including two in the top 10. Look for Truex to seal the deal this weekend and come home with a solid finish.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler takes his usual place at the table as the official poster child for Sit ‘Em in Picks ‘N’ Pans. Sadler continues to have terrible luck, and Texas figures to be another such track for him. Yes, he has actually won a race at Texas – but Sadler’s last three finishes include two of 33rd or worse, and he only has three-top 10 finishes in 11 career starts here. Once again, don’t look for Sadler to break out of his yearlong slump this weekend.
JJ Yeley has proven over a short career that he’s not a big fan of Texas Motor Speedway. In three career starts, his BEST finish is 20th, holding an average finish at the track of just 32.7. Yeley is trying to put on the good face and not lay down on his team, but the No. 18 has not run well to begin with this year, and it appears as though they are just playing out the string with three races left on the year.
Roll the Dice:
Casey Mears is ahead of Earnhardt Jr. in this space – for one week, at least – when it comes to his performance at Texas Motor Speedway. Mears has run seven races there, and four of them have resulted in top-10 finishes, two of which were back-to-back top fives just two years ago. Mears has been running quite well in the Chase, with four top-10 finishes in seven races. While he has struggled a little bit in the last three, Texas has treated him well in the past; expect it to do so again this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
With back-to-back top-five finishes, things are looking rosy for Matt Kenseth as the season draws to a close. Had he been able to put together this kind of performance earlier in the Chase, he might have had something for Jeff Gordon and Johnson – or at least made the race a bit more respectable. While some may think the man’s good fortune will soon be running out, don’t get off the Kenseth bandwagon just yet. Remember, he’s a past Texas winner, and in the last four races at the track, he’s finished third or better three times.
Stewart may not have gotten the finish he was looking for at Atlanta last week, but for a while he had one of the best cars on the track before the handling slowly faded away. This weekend, the series heads back to the race where he was the class of the field, scoring back-to-back victories en route to finishing 11th in the final standings. Stewart’s success here last year wasn’t a flash in the pan by any means; in 11 Texas starts, he has a win and seven top-10 finishes. If the man can keep his cool and not overdrive the car, look for Stewart to be in contention to defend his crown, er, hat.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Last week at Atlanta, Kyle Busch looked to be on his way to victory before a slow pit stop put him back in the pack and in the middle of one of the race’s final caution flags. That killed precious momentum for the Hendrick driver; and while he has been running well as of late, Busch has been hard pressed to put in strong finishes at Texas. He was fourth in this race last year, but that was his only top-10 run at a track where he holds a disappointing 23.4 average finish. Wait until Phoenix or Homestead to put Busch back on your team.
Another driver that has been running well lately is Ryan Newman. Still gunning to end his winless drought, Newman has put himself in position to win in recent weeks, coming up just short each time. Looking at the stats, though, it doesn’t appear that the past Texas winner will be able to break the streak this weekend. Other than his victory in 2003, Newman has no top-10 finishes at TMS; he’s finished outside the top 25 in six of his eight starts, including the last four straight.
Roll the Dice:
Could anything else freakish happen to Earnhardt Jr. as he closes out his tenure at DEI? Last week’s flyaway tire was one of the oddest things we’ve seen all season – but don’t count him out at Texas, a track that holds a special place in Junior’s heart. TMS was the site of his first career win in 2000, and he has a 70% top-10 finishing rate here. Junior was running well at Atlanta before his tire went AWOL, and if he can avoid any other disasters that jump in his path, he should have a solid finish and a chance of winning this weekend.
Mike: Well, last weekend was a bit of a bizarre race. You sure put in a solid effort with your Crank ‘Em Up picks of Johnson and Kenseth. I didn’t do quite so well. I sure thought Junior was going to make my Roll the Dice pick look impressive… until two laps to go.
Cami: It was certainly a nice way to come back after being out sick for so long – especially after going over some of the picks Tom made while I was out. And Junior was looking impressive last week; that tire thing was weird. Hopefully, you took his bad luck, and I’ll have him with his good luck at Texas this week.
Mike: You probably will. He was bad fast for most of Atlanta, although I think he had a real shot to win before the tire deal. However, I had to go with Mears this week. He has a very impressive average finish at Texas and just might surprise some people this weekend.
Cami: He surprised me last week; I didn’t think he’d run so well, and he wound up running 12th. What I wasn’t surprised with, though, was your Sit ‘Em Down picks. I see Yeley and Sadler are taking the brunt of your hate this week, per usual. In fact, I think next year we need a “Sadler” rule, that you can’t keep sitting the same dude in a slump all season.
Mike: You are probably right; it isn’t really nice of me to do it, but I can’t help it. I started it up early on in the season, and I feel as though it is now my duty to sit him down every week until he proves me wrong. I really hope that one week he’ll pull a rabbit out of his hat and win one, or at least have a top-five finish. This weekend could be it – he’s won here before. In the meantime, I am quite surprised you’re sitting down Kyle Busch after he looked so strong at Atlanta last weekend.
Cami: Yes, he was strong in Atlanta and he was fourth here last year – but that was his only top 10 ever at Texas. For some reason, I’m just not feeling it this week with him. Same thing with Newman – he’s run well lately, but Texas isn’t his cup of tea. On the other hand, I thought your picks of the “ones” were interesting until I saw their high averages. Truex certainly has a monkey on his back lately; that guy can’t catch a break.
Mike: No kidding. Truex has been running so well in almost every Chase race and just had stupid stuff happen to him. But after he and Hamlin got together last week, I just feel like this week they’ll both turn it around and have strong finishes; Truex is so overdue it isn’t funny. Meanwhile, do you really think Kenseth is going to shake his Chase bad luck this weekend and have two good finishes in a row?
Cami: Oh, yeah. He’s already had back-to-back top-five finishes, and even when he finishes poorly at Texas, he still runs pretty well. I think he’ll be good to go the rest of the year and be wondering “what if” in the offseason.
Mike: You are probably right. It is hard to imagine him finishing outside the top five in points, but I really don’t see him making it back that high. I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 14.1
Sit ‘Em Down – 21.9
Roll the Dice – 19.6
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.2
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.4
Roll the Dice – 17.5