If you’re like many fantasy owners, last weekend’s race at Talladega left your team looking like it had seen better days. But as you try to regroup, beware; seeing Richmond on the schedule this week may not give you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Saturday night’s Crown Royal 400 offers both the excitement and headaches of short-track racing, with the capacity to bump and bang mixed in with the multi-groove feeling of an intermediate track. But even though there are plenty of opportunities to pass there, know that qualifying well is the key to success when it comes to finding your way to Victory Lane. In the last 10 Richmond races, the winner has started within the top 10; so, pay special attention to qualifying if you have the opportunity to build your team on Saturday.
With that in mind, which drivers will help you get over the fantasy hangover from Talladega, and which ones will leave you reaching for more aspirin? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out how you should put the Band-Aids together to allow the restrictor-plate wounds sufficient time – and points – to heal.
Cami’s Race Rewind
It took an extra day to pull things off, but Jimmie Johnson was able to keep Hendrick Motorsports a perfect 4-0 in the CoT with his win in the rain-delayed Crown Royal 400 at Richmond last year. With seven wins in eight races, there was no doubt HMS was on a roll at that point in the season; but seeing Johnson keep up the streak at Richmond was a bit of a surprise, especially considering he had just one other top 10 at the Virginia short track in his 16 previous starts. Kevin Harvick appeared to have one of the cars to beat early on, leading a total of 105 laps in the race; but a mishap on pit road quickly took him out of contention. Jeff Gordon led the most laps (114) before ultimately finishing fourth behind Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five finishers in last year’s event.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Richmond has been described as a short track on steroids. The facility is ¾ of a mile in length, but has enough banking in the corners to hold the speed that can be generated on its straightaways, making it almost like an intermediate track in many ways. The oval also offers quite a bit of racing room – cars can go two-wide all of the way around the track – but they are just slow enough to be able to do some rubbing without totally taking their competitors out of contention.
Last year, the teams who had the new car configuration under control dominated both races at this track. Hendrick, Childress, Gibbs and Penske all ran well, and expect to see Childress probably lead the way this weekend – with Gibbs tailing hot on their heels. After their 1-2-3 finish at Bristol, Jeff Burton, Harvick and Clint Bowyer certainly will be tough to contend with, too; and you can’t count out Johnson, who won both of the races at the speedway last year.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kyle Busch has not won at Richmond, but that is about all he hasn’t done. With the exception of the fall race last season, Busch has been a guaranteed top-five finisher at this track. In fact, two seconds, two fourths, and a fifth in the previous five races make Busch the best average finisher among active drivers at Richmond. Busch was second to Johnson in this race last spring, and is coming off of the win at Talladega which should produce some added momentum for the No. 18. The young hotshot may not bring the win home this weekend, but his chances are as good as anyone else’s with the way that team’s been running as of late.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was very strong at Talladega last week, but he was unfortunately damaged in the late race melee started by Tony Stewart. The end result was that his losing streak continued, even though the No. 88 is sitting third in the current points standings. But Junior now heads to another track that he has run quite well at during his Cup career; he has competed in 17 Cup races at Richmond, and only has two finishes worse than 20th and only five finishes out of the top 15. With the success Hendrick Motorsports had at this track last season, expect to see Junior near the front once again on Saturday night.
Sit ‘Em Down:
If the season ended today, check this out: Juan Pablo Montoya would be in the Chase, all courtesy of his 12th-place standing in the points. Montoya finished second at Talladega, and has by far been the shining star for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates this year; that is the good news. Now, here’s the bad news: Montoya is heading to Richmond, where he ran like he was dragging an anchor last year. He finished 26th and 41st when Ganassi was actually running well on short tracks. Do not expect Montoya to improve much on those results based on the disarray that Ganassi currently finds itself in. JPM may be doing well this year, but this is not a weekend to have him in your lineup.
Brian Vickers had a very strong run again at Talladega this past weekend. He has been outstanding this year for Team Red Bull, emerging as the fourth-best Toyota driver in the series besides the Joe Gibbs brigade. However, Vickers’s history at Richmond has been less than stellar. His first trip to the track resulted in an eighth-place finish, but that is the lonely shining point by far in his career. In the subsequent six races, in fact, Vickers has two 24th-place finishes, and the other four are 32nd or worse. The youngster may still pull off a surprising finish this weekend; but more than likely, he will be back in the pack and not scoring anyone valuable fantasy points.
Roll the Dice:
Gordon is not in the top 12 in points and therefore eligible for a Roll the Dice selection this week. Needless to say, you have to get a jump on Gordon if you’re at all allowed to in your fantasy league. gordon’s record is not great at Richmond with an average finish of 19.7, but he’s won two times at the track, finishing in the top 10 60% of the time in his 30 races. With two fourth-place finishes at the track last season, expect to get another quality start out of Gordon this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
After a rocky start to the season, Hamlin has caught fire in the last five races, scoring one win and no finish lower than sixth place. Currently fourth in the standings, he now heads to his home state track looking to keep that rocket-like momentum going. It’s a good spot for him to be in; while Hamlin’s yet to find victory lane at the track, he has had plenty of success there. In four starts, Hamlin has three finishes of sixth or better and just one finish outside the top 10, a 15th-place effort in the fall of 2006 when his No. 11 was down on power in the closing laps. The combination of his recent success, his past results at Richmond and his desire to win in front of his friends and family are a perfect storm for a big night from Hamlin this weekend.
Harvick hasn’t always performed well at Richmond; but with six straight top 10s, including a win in 2006, it’s obvious he has the hang of things now. After running off four straight top 10s early in the season, Harvick has run into a stumbling block in these last four races; but all that means is that Richmond couldn’t have come at a better time for the team, as they work to both maintain and improve their spot in the top 10. Harvick was one of the top lap leaders in this race last year, and look for him to be near the front again this Saturday night.
Sit ‘Em Down:
With just one top-10 finish in the last seven races, Martin Truex Jr. has seen his position in the standings continue to slide on down. Currently 17th in the standings, Truex heads to Richmond looking for his first top 10 ever at the Virginia short track. In four career starts, the closest he has come was a 15th-place finish in the 2007 fall race; but two finishes of 40th or worse on his resume give him a dismal average finish of 31st, and should earn him a place on the bench this weekend.
This weekend, Jamie McMurray will be toting the race sponsor’s name on his No. 26 Ford – but he will need a lot more luck than that if he plans to pull off a good finish this Saturday night. After pulling off back-to-back top 10s in the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005, McMurray has gone cold at Richmond; he’s scored three finishes of 38th or worse in the last five races here. Firmly on the hot seat earlier this season, the veteran cooled down some of his critics with an eighth-place finish at Martinsville; since then, though, the No. 26 hasn’t been able to match that success. Don’t bank on them doing that anytime soon, either.
Roll the Dice:
One driver hoping a trip to Richmond will help him turn things around is Kasey Kahne. Kahne started the year with five top 10s in the first six races, but in the last three events, he has yet to crack the top 15. At Richmond, Kahne has been hot and cold. He has four top 10s in his eight career starts, including a dominating first career win there in 2005. He was eighth here in the fall of 2007; given the potential he showed early in the season and his past record at Richmond, Kahne is definitely worth the gamble to repeat that effort come Saturday night.
Mike: Hey, just wanted to give you a little shout out for your Crank ‘Em picks last week. Average finish of 29th… very nice. But I think that is enough on that subject…
Cami: Yeah, yeah. Rub it in while you can. I don’t expect to ever match that mark again the rest of the season; that was a mess for sure! I thought I’d let you catch up a bit anyways. Normally, 10th and 13th isn’t a wonderful showing, but for that crazy race, it wasn’t too bad.
Mike: Very true, and I am darn proud of it after the mayhem that happened with the wrecks. I do take pride in Casey Mears getting a nice seventh-place finish, though. He generally places well for me and not for you, and once again that proved true.
Cami: I’ve noticed that, guess we won’t be seeing him on my picks anytime soon. In fact, I notice this week you decided to roll the dice with another Hendrick driver instead.
Mike: Oh, yeah. The opportunity to use Gordon as a Roll the Dice driver this late in the season is a very rare occurrence, so I am jumping on it. Although his record at Richmond isn’t stellar, Gordon does finish in the top 10 two-thirds of the time, and that’s all you want from a RTD driver. I’m surprised you are rolling with Kahne considering how poorly he has done in the spring race in three of the four times he’s run in it.
Cami: He’s kinda like Gordon at Richmond – either hot or cold. I’m voting for hot this weekend, though. He was good earlier in the year, and Kahne just needs to get back to a good track for him so he can turn that around. We both wanted to sit Montoya this week. You know I will laugh my butt off if he winds up doing well and backing up that Talladega finish.
Mike: Oh, I know you will. But I just don’t feel it. Last year, Ganassi’s one high point was their short-track program. And Montoya still sucked at Richmond. Their organization is in total disarray right now, so I can’t imagine him improving a whole heck of a lot over last year. However, I did notice you jumped on my old whipping boy MACMurray this week.
Cami: Yeah, I couldn’t resist. I’m surprised you left him on the table. Let’s just hope he doesn’t pull a Mears when he’s on my side, though. That would be crazy, but I highly doubt it would happen; he’s been pitiful at Richmond, and that good feeling from Martinsville hasn’t lasted. Do you really think Kyle can pull off two in a row?
Mike: I don’t know about two in a row, but the dude has taken to Richmond like a duck to water. Five out of six races in the top five with two second-place finishes? That’s a great track record. JGR has awesome short-track cars so, as long as something stupid doesn’t happen like the fuel pickup issue or his power steering problem, he’ll be right there. I see you’re thinking Hamlin will do the spring Virginia sweep.
Cami: Well, I will agree with you about JGR’s short-track program – funny neither of us picked Stewart – but I think Hamlin has an edge, given how well he’s run lately and the fact he wants to win at this track so badly. On the other hand, your boy Dale Earnhardt Jr. just wants to win anywhere. Aren’t you worried about how he’s finished at Richmond lately?
Mike: Not at all. Junior was at the front of the pack with five laps to go when his engine blew up last fall, and he’s won at Richmond three times. Now that the man’s in Hendrick equipment, I can’t believe he’ll be anywhere outside of the top five. I’m curious to see if Harvick is going to recapture some of the magic that seems to be slipping away from that team as of late.
Cami: I wondered about that myself, but Harvick’s been money in the top 10 at Richmond over the last three years. You can’t discount that; it’s the perfect chance for him to turn things around. But, as usual… we’ll have to see how it all pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Cami and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings, and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 13.8
Sit – 21.6
Roll – 14.3
Crank – 11.8
Sit – 22.6
Roll – 15.7