NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans: 2008 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta

After a weekend in Sin City, there are always those select few who fly home happy after hitting the jackpot… and just as many who wind up empty handed after going bust. Case in point: if your fantasy team last week had Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth on it, you’re probably feeling a bit of that post-Vegas hangover; but if you went with Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle, you’re probably still at the slot machine collecting your coins. Such was the roller-coaster race that was last weekend, with treacherous track conditions and an unusual mistake at the finish turning the fantasy world upside down.

Now, the circuit heads back east; but don’t expect the change of scenery to stop this roller coaster season just yet. The high speeds of Atlanta Motor Speedway, combined with the new car configuration, could present some challenges for more than a few teams – letting other surprises shine through the cracks in the process. So, which drivers will come out of the woodwork to help you keep the heat on your competition, and who’s on their way to crashing and burning once again? Read this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.

Cami’s Race Rewind

After scoring his third straight win at Las Vegas, Johnson came into Atlanta and claimed his second straight victory by overtaking Tony Stewart with three laps to go. As is often the case, a series of late-race adjustments by crew chief Chad Knaus helped Johnson dial in his car at exactly the right time. Earlier in the day, Johnson was best on the long run; but when it counted, he was able to power past Stewart after the final caution left just 11 laps of green to the finish. For his part, Stewart felt he had more car than he was able to show because he didn’t think Johnson gave much room to race him for the win; but in the end, no amount of griping changed the fact the No. 20 crossed the line in second place. Veterans Kenseth and Jeff Burton finished third and fourth, respectively, while rookie Juan Pablo Montoya impressed the field with his first top-five finish.

Mike’s Keys to the Race

Heading to the fastest circuit in the series, there are a few questions facing the Cup teams this week. Will the new configuration of car race as well as the old one did as the CoT debuts in Atlanta? And after the last two weeks of Goodyears popping, is there a problem with the tire, or are teams involved in a setup issue? Like Vegas, Atlanta offers a lot of racing grooves; and if the experience at California and Vegas holds true, then the drivers will be able to move around quite a bit. That makes handling, horsepower and fast pit work equally important at a track that offers the prospect of long green-flag runs.

Should that scenario play out, look for the cream to rise to the top; both Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports will be strong again this weekend. Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle all seem solid in the new car configuration, with Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. looking equally competitive (even despite Johnson’s Vegas snafu). But if you’re looking for an upset, don’t discount the GEM drivers here; Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler have had some strong efforts in the early season to date.

Mike’s Picks

Crank ‘Em Up:

Edwards is on a bit of a streak, to say the least. Victories at California and Las Vegas had him on top of the point standings for the first time in his career – that is, until a 100-point penalty from a missing oil cover knocked him down a peg or two. But Atlanta’s the perfect place for Edwards to pick up the pieces; in need of a boost, it’s a track where he has run very well in the past. In seven career races at AMS, Edwards has four top-five and six top-10 finishes, and scored his first Cup victory in a thriller over Johnson back in 2005. After a rough Wednesday night, expect to see Edwards to drive with some added fire in the next few days; it’s a strong possibility the series could see its third backflip in a row by the end of this weekend.

Gordon started his Cup career in 1992 at Atlanta. That race ended poorly – he crashed out of the event – but the track has treated him well after that, with an average finish of 11th and three career wins to his credit. While the last of those victories came in 2003, he’s still had five top-10 finishes in the eight races since. Add to those stats that the No. 24 has run well the last two weeks, and you’ve got a recipe for success – even if Gordon’s finish at Vegas was tainted by his late-race crash trying to make a pass for second place. In need of a good finish, expect the No. 24 team to begin a climb back up the points standings with a solid run on Sunday.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Denny Hamlin has put together some impressive statistics during his young Cup career. He has won races, made the Chase in his first two full-time seasons and finished in the top 10 in at least half the races he’s entered since 2006. But what he hasn’t done well at is racing at Atlanta. Hamlin has run five races at the track and has just one eighth-place result to show for it; his other four races have ended in 19th or worse, with his average finish a paltry 20.2. The stats say it all: Hamlin may not be ready to break out of his slump at Atlanta just yet.

Martin Truex Jr. is now the flagship driver for DEI, and has been doing a good job flying the company banner so far this year. But while he has had some decent runs in ’08 – including a top-10 finish at California – Truex has not had a solid history at Atlanta. The New Jersey native has run six races there, scoring just one finish higher than 19th while suffering through four finishes of 31st or worse. While the DEI organization seems to be getting better in their new car configuration efforts, Truex’s Atlanta struggles beg that he spend this weekend on your fantasy bench.

Roll the Dice:

There is something known as courses for horses, and Atlanta is the course for Bobby Labonte. Labonte is the active win leader at the track with four wins; and even when he’s been struggling in less than stellar equipment, the 2000 Cup champ has been able to find the old magic every now and then. Labonte has looked racy at times in ’08, and heading to his best track could be just the thing the doctor ordered for a top-10 run.

Cami’s Picks

Crank ‘Em Up:

It’s not often that Johnson and the No. 48 team are off the mark; but last week at Vegas, their performance wasn’t close to the three-time defending race winners they were supposed to be. That run isn’t going to sit well with this team, so watch for them to come back strong this weekend at Atlanta. Johnson swept both races last year, adding to his win back in 2004; and while he’s not immune from having a slipup at this track, he has managed to score a top 10 in eight of his last nine starts at AMS.

Stewart is another driver who is looking to heal from a bad week at Vegas; and for Stewart, that means in more ways than one. A hard crash took him out of the race early and gave him his only finish outside the top 10 this season; it also left him gingerly walking to the ambulance. But while Tony may be banged up and bruised, he says he will be ready to go this weekend; and for the rest of the competition, that’s bad news. Stewart’s a two-time Atlanta winner and has scored 11 top 10s in the last 13 races; that makes him a strong contender for this weekend as long as his health holds up.

Sit ‘Em Down:

In 2001, Kevin Harvick scored an emotional win in his Atlanta debut and finished third later that season; but in the 12 races since, he hasn’t found that same magic again. In fact, he has yet to find the top 10 in any of them, with a 15th place the best he could muster. Harvick may have gotten off to a strong start in 2008, but he isn’t known for staying on a roll for long; he’s due for a bad race. There are plenty of other drivers out there this week that should run better; it’s not worth taking the gamble on Harvick.

A second driver that has struggled at AMS is Casey Mears. His 10 races at the track have been a picture of mediocrity, culminating in an average finish of 22.7. Last week at Vegas, Mears did manage to score a 13th-place finish, but that was aided by so many top drivers falling out of the event; more telling is the fact Mears stands 34th in points, as much of a threat to fall below the dreaded Top-35 cutoff than to qualify for the Chase at this point. Mears should improve as the year goes on; but right now, he and his new team aren’t quite there yet on a track like this one.

Roll the Dice:

It’s been four years since Earnhardt Jr. scored his first and only win at Atlanta, but this week, he could easily find his way back to victory lane. During the time that DEI was running strong, Junior was upfront at Atlanta, scoring six straight top 10s and then three top fives in a row from 2005-06. Now that he’s with Hendrick, Junior should easily be able to once again flaunt his talent at the high-speed Atlanta track – scoring big points for your team in the process.

Trash Talk

Cami: Looks like we both crapped out last week at Las Vegas – other than our Roll the Dice picks, that is.
Mike: Yeah, that’s true, although your averages were higher than mine. Interestingly, your Sit picks were higher than our Crank picks, while mine stunk all the way around. But hopefully, things will look better this week – just like you think they will for Smoke.
Cami: Atlanta is a track that seems to suit Stewart. I admit, I was worried about how he would do with the Camrys; but at this point, it looks like they are running the same as they did with Chevrolets. But bouncing back from an injury is different than bouncing back from breaking the rules; you aren’t worried Carl will have some post-penalty letdown this week?
Mike: There is certainly a worry, but I think that there is going to be an ever greater determination on the team’s behalf to run even stronger. That, and the fact that I think the whole oil cover thing is probably very, very far from a downforce advantage. Shouldn’t you be more worried that J.J. might be out to lunch again this weekend?
Cami: Well, it’s rare that they bomb as bad as they did last week, and they won’t do it twice in a row. I’ll take the No. 48 on their comeback week any day… you can keep the hit from Vegas. Speaking of recent results, I was surprised to see you sat Hamlin… he had a top-10 to finish out the West Coast swing.
Mike: Yeah, but his past performance at Atlanta has been very far from stellar. I thought it would give me an opportunity to make an impressive call, or get me closer to your average in the Sit ‘Ems. I give you credit for not drinking the Kool-Aid about Harvick, though. A lot of times, people don’t realize that his victory there was his only real strong effort at the track; however, he is the highest Chevy in the points right now, so that may come back to bite you like Hamlin could bite me.
Cami: It could. Granted, Harvick has two straight top 10s – but like you said, he’s not that great at Atlanta. Plus, I think there will be plenty of other top drivers rebounding from Vegas to take those top spots away from him. Speaking of which, I’m intrigued by your Labonte pick… I know he’s auditioning for jobs, but he’s still in Petty equipment.
Mike: He is in Petty equipment, but he’s been flirting with the front of the pack during races, and he just might surprise you at his best track. He’s won a couple of times there, ya know? By the way, I saw you took my advice and jumped on the Junior bandwagon. Pretty hard to pick against the highest Hendrick driver when you can Roll the Dice with him, huh?
Cami: That’s the beauty of going off last year’s points until after Week 5. We are pretty Hendrick heavy this week with our pick; but knowing my luck, only Casey will be the one who does good.
Mike: Well, you know Casey will do well because you always sit him during the season, and he always runs well when you do. I believe you sat him for Charlotte last year, didn’t you?
Cami: I would have to look that up. I know he came back to bite me a few times last year, but I don’t think it was that bad. We’ll just have to see how things pan out this week.

Scorecard (Average Finish)

Cami
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.3
Sit ‘Em Down – 20.5
Roll The Dice – 21.7

Mike
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.2
Sit ‘Em Down – 21.0
Roll The Dice – 30.3

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