The long, cold winter that was the NASCAR offseason has finally come to an end… which means it’s time to turn the key on another season of fantasy racing. Whether your team was the cream of the crop or a basement dweller in 2007, the new season gives all fantasy players a renewed hope that they can dominate their leagues, emerging victorious at the end of their Chase for the Championship. But with a new car on the track and new faces in new places, there are a lot of big decisions to be weighed by the minds of fantasy team owners this year.
So, with so many questions, where do you turn for the answers? It’s simple; kick off your season in the right direction by reading this week’s version of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Kevin Harvick completed the weekend sweep at the Beach with his thrilling victory over Mark Martin in last year’s Daytona 500. The frantic finish was set up when the sixth caution of the day came out on lap 196 after Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Rudd and Jamie McMurray were caught up in a chain reaction incident. Following a red-flag period to clean up the mess, Martin restarted the race out front, with Harvick fading further back in the top 10. As the field came around to get the checkered flag, Martin still led but Harvick was making a charge; right then, all hell broke loose behind them, as a chain-reaction wreck left half the field spinning off turn 4. Remarkably, the yellow flag did not come out, and Harvick used an earlier push from Matt Kenseth and teammate Jeff Burton to beat Martin to the finish line by inches. It was Harvick’s first Daytona 500 win, one that paired up nicely with his Busch Series victory in the 300-mile race a day earlier. Burton wound up third when all was said and done, while the unlikely pair of Mike Wallace and David Ragan rounded out the top five following that wreck off the final turn.
While the finish certainly had people talking, another incident earlier in the event garnered just as much attention. Only 50 laps from the finish, perhaps the two strongest cars of the day – Tony Stewart‘s No. 20 and Kurt Busch‘s No. 2 – made contact while battling for the lead up front. Crashing hard into the turn 3 wall, the wreck ended the chances either had to capture their first Daytona 500 win.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
The 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 is the debut of the new Car of Tomorrow (now today) on the famous 2.5-mile tri-oval. Unlike the other restrictor-plate race at Talladega, a good-handling car at DIS is crucial. Knowing the draft is a plus… but teams that have gotten the best handle on making the new car turn are going to be the ones that have the best chance at running up front.
Top speed is also important on these large superspeedway ovals, and the teams that historically make the most horsepower are also going to be favored. That means you can expect to see the Hendrick teams put on a heck of a show this weekend, with the plate prowess of Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon allowing them to flex their muscles. And let’s not forget the recent hot streak that Jimmie Johnson has been on; as it is, Johnson’s begun his bid for three straight titles by winning the pole for the Great American Race. If those teammates can work together on the race track – not apart – they’ll be a tough trio to contend with all race long.
The Toyota camp will also have some people in the mix with Stewart – who has two 400 victories on his mantle – and Michael Waltrip, who obviously has a better handle on things this year. But don’t count out McMurray and Kenseth; while ’03 Cup champ Kenseth has never won a plate race, he’s been in the mix at the end of the 500 for several years.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Earnhardt Jr. is arguably the best restrictor-plate driver of this era, and now that he’s in the best equipment in the garage, great things are expected from him in 2008. Junior didn’t disappoint out of the box, claiming a resounding victory in his debut race with the No. 88 Chevy; he led 47 of 70 laps en route to winning the Bud Shootout Saturday night. With Tony Eury Jr. on the box and Hendrick power under the hood, Earnhardt will most likely be near the front for the majority of the 500 as well.
Johnson was on fire over the last third of the 2007 season. In the final 12 races of the year, Johnson won six of them, including four in a row en route to his second straight Cup title. Heading into the new year, the No. 48 team looks to be picking up where he left off; Johnson won the pole for the 500, and probably would have won the Shootout if he had two more laps on Saturday night. Expect to see him near the front most of the day on Sunday – assuming the Hendrick engine woes don’t cost him during the race.
Sit ‘Em Down:
McMurray won the most recent points race at Daytona; he also finished second in the 400 three years ago and eighth two years ago. Unfortunately for McMurray, though, this is the Daytona 500. For some reason, that extra 100 miles takes a toll on him; in five 500 starts, McMurray has best finish of just 31st. He simply doesn’t seem to have the good luck during Speedweeks, and the Shootout exemplified that again this past weekend, when he bounced it off of the wall in a crash not of his making. The Great American Race has lost its luster with McMurray; don’t put your eggs in the Crown Royal basket this weekend.
Casey Mears is the chic sleeper pick going into the 500 this year. Everyone is excited about Earnhardt being added to the Hendrick stable, and they feel like that is somehow going to translate into success for Mears. Now, the man is a talented driver and will probably someday be a force in a Hendrick machine; but at this point, he has not been consistent enough to rate the kind of attention he has been receiving going into this weekend. Mears did finish second back in 2006 – but his other finishes have been less than stellar in this February spectacle. As such, expect the goody to show up a little later in the season for Mears… not in the 500.
Roll the Dice:
Dave Blaney is driving a Toyota Camry – and that is no longer a bad thing. The TRD people did some great work during the offseason and appear to have solved the power-band issues that the teams were having with their engines last year. With the body styles being identical now and a power plant that is competitive, look for Blaney to have a very respectable run in the 500. The No. 22 did some amazing things in 2007; now, they have equipment that matches their effort moving forward.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Many people doubted Joe Gibbs Racing when they made the switch to Toyota in the offseason. But with how the team is running so far both in Speedweeks and in testing, the joke may be on them. Stewart ran competitively in the Bud Shootout last Saturday before settling for second; in the process, he showed that Camry or Chevy, he can get it done at Daytona. While he hasn’t grabbed the big trophy yet, Stewart is still a consistent contender at the 500; before two disastrous finishes in 2007 due to crashes, he’d landed six straight top 10s in the event. Can Stewart make that last move up the standings and win? That I can’t tell you for sure… but he will certainly be in position to make a run for it in 2008.
One driver who will be fighting to keep Stewart’s winless streak at Daytona alive and well is six-time Daytona winner Gordon. Armed with a new, talented teammate who can help him in the draft, Gordon looks to put Daytona 500 trophy number four in the case this year. Coming off two top 10s at Daytona last year, Gordon also has the benefit of being the only restrictor-plate track winner in the Car of Tomorrow – well, at least for a few more days, anyway.
Sit ‘Em Down:
There is one positive thing you can say about Denny Hamlin‘s record in Daytona; he has been running at the end of all four of his career starts at the track. But that’s where the good news ends, as the winner of the 2006 Budweiser Shootout has a dismal finishing record in points-paying races here. His best finish (17th) came in the July race of his rookie year, and three other finishes of 28th or worse give him an average finish of 29.5 – one of the worst among active drivers. Strong during Speedweeks, Hamlin may surprise Sunday… but looking at his past finishes, I wouldn’t risk it.
Another driver who has failed to dazzle at Daytona is Truex, which seems a bit odd considering the dominance DEI has shown at this track in the past. But in five starts, Truex has mustered a best finish of just 13th; that’s not exactly the type of stat that will make you go out of your way to pick a guy for your fantasy team. Saturday night in the Bud Shootout, Truex was caught up in an accident and failed to finish the event; afterwards, he claimed that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time because he kept picking the wrong lane – despite the fact he was running at the back of the pack all night. Perhaps time and experience will fix that; but right now, picking Truex would be a gamble.
Roll the Dice:
Speaking of gambling, one driver you might want to take a risk with this year is Waltrip. After claiming a spot on the front row, you know he will have good track position early on in the race and should avoid any early disasters. In the Shootout, Waltrip proved that he could race with the big boys up front, and showed flashes of the talent that’s led him to three wins at Daytona in his career. Plus, you know that a strong showing here would do wonders to fix any lingering damage and ill effects from last year’s scandalous start to the 2007 season.
Cami: Hello there, Mr. 2007 Picks ‘N’ Pans champion. Are you ready to try to defend your crown this year?
Mike: I plan on doing my very best. I don’t know that I can be quite as good as last year… depends on whether someone can stink as much as GEM did.
Cami: Yeah, you certainly owe them a big thank you for that. I should get you an Elliott Sadler Fan Club membership for picking him to tank so much… by the way, I did notice you started off ’08 by sitting an old friend of yours, McMurray.
Mike: I couldn’t help it. I looked at his history during the 500, and he’s never finished higher than 31st. He bounced it off the wall Saturday night, too… I just had to do it.
Cami: But he won there in July. You should give him a little credit for that.
Mike: It’s July, Cami. McMurray has good finishes in July… but he can’t get it done in February. That’s the kind of insight our readers look for. And at least I’m not sitting someone who has won there in the last two years in February like you are with Hamlin.
Cami: But this is a 500-mile race, not some exhibition. Who knows how Hamlin would have finished that race if it ran longer. Whether it’s the 500 or the 400 in July, Hamlin doesn’t run well in either. Heck, Travis Kvapil has a better average finish at Daytona than Denny does in the same number of races.
Mike: I’ll give you that, but Hamlin was in the lead when Stewart ran over him last summer. I’m willing to bet my Sit ‘Em guys finish lower than yours… I mean, you sat Truex, who has won on a plate track in Nationwide and led the 500 last year.
Cami: I could lead in the 500 if I really wanted to – ha, ha. But I’m looking at how Truex finishes. Granted, he’s run well at times, but it doesn’t show in the final tally. I say we agree to disagree for now; and then we’ll put our picks to a vote with the fans – because I want to move on to your shocking decision to crank it up with your man Junior.
Mike: Thank you very much. I know it is the most obvious pick on the face of the Earth, but he is a former champ of the race, and he is turning over a new leaf this year. The stars just might line up for him just yet.
Cami: It would be a perfect headline Monday morning: NASCAR’S golden boy wins the golden anniversary of the 500 10 years after his father won the race. But it’s almost TOO perfect, ya know?
Mike: Oh, I know. And I will honestly admit, I picked Stewart to win the race. I am willing to bet Junior wins the Shootout, wins his qualifying race, and then something stupid causes him to finish third in the 500.
Cami: Great, you probably just jinxed my Stewart pick! He should be fine, though, as long as he stays away from that blue car with the big No. 2 on it. But who would have thought last year that in this year’s race, we’d both be rolling the dice with Toyota drivers?
Mike: No kidding… but it’s hard not to. They are obviously the strongest power plants this year; you know Mikey can plate race, and Blaney was the best driver Toyota had in 2007.
Cami: I agree. Hopefully the stars will align for us and our picks, too… I guess we’ll have to see how it pans out.