The Sprint Cup Series went from the gritty Darlington Raceway to the glitzy All-Star Race in the last two weeks; but now, it’s time to get down to business in the longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600. Sunday’s event will be a test of endurance for the drivers and crews, as they fight the change from racing in the daylight to finishing under the lights. But how will your fantasy team hold up during the year’s longest marathon? More than any other race, you need to build around not drivers who that not only finish first, but specialize in being around at the finish: consistency and durability in your lineup are the keys to coming out on top.
So, which drivers will help you go the distance and have your team outlasting the competition, and which ones will fizzle out before the end? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.
Cami’s Race Rewind
The most unlikely member of Hendrick Motorsports kept the four-car team’s winning streak alive at five with a victory in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Casey Mears scored his first Cup victory in a race that was marred by 13 cautions, but ultimately came down to a race of fuel strategy over the last 100 miles. Tony Stewart led the majority of that final stretch, taking the lead from perennial Charlotte favorite Jimmie Johnson after he suffered a slow stop with under 80 laps to go. But one by one, the front runners peeled off the track and onto pit road for a final splash of fuel in the final 20 laps. That left an unlikely group of conservationists at the front when the checkered flag fell, as the others were left with no time to make up the difference of an extra stop. Behind Mears, JJ Yeley scored his career-best finish of second, while Kyle Petty earned his first top-five finish in 10 years by coming home third. Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers – who led 76 laps in the first half of the race – rounded out the top five. Kurt Busch, who started along his Penske teammate Ryan Newman on the front row, led the most laps (107), but was involved in multiple wrecks and finished 32nd. Newman’s night was also cut short with engine failure, dropping the polesitter to a 39th-place finish.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Charlotte has been a very schizophrenic racetrack over the past few seasons. From the levigation process, to the tire woes that followed, to the Flintstone tires that Goodyear brought to try and prevent the disaster, to the repaving that has brought on high speeds and multi-groove racing… you get the picture. Passing is difficult and the racing is unpredicable; and with the new car, it is even harder to handicap which teams will be strong. The best bet is to look at the teams who are doing well so far this season with the new car, as well as the teams who ran well Saturday night during the All-Star Race. Joe Gibbs Racing has continued to run up front with the new car this year, and won the last points-paying race at Darlington. Carl Edwards has dominated the intermediate tracks this year, and you have to expect most of his Roush Fenway teammates will be strong in the race. And don’t forget about Dale Earnhardt Jr.; he is the only Hendrick driver who has been consistent this year. On the flip side, while Richard Childress Racing has run well this year, their teams all struggled during the All-Star event.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kyle Busch won the most recent points race on the Cup schedule at Darlington Raceway. And while he hit the wall more times than a marathon runner, he was able to dominate the field for most of the night in taming the volatile Lady in Black. Busch picked up where he left off in the All-Star Race, too; he acted like he was shot out of a cannon, leading the first 39 laps before his engine went south. But even with seven cylinders, Busch was still faster than a quarter of the field before being forced to the garage. JGR will not be using any experimental engine parts this weekend, so look for Busch to be able to finish the race this time – and finish well. Assuming his car handles anywhere near like it did in the All-Star Race, the No. 18 will be very strong again this weekend.
Edwards has been the king of the intermediate tracks this year. When he hasn’t had car problems, he has been the car to beat on all of the 1.5-mile cookie cutters. After Kyle Busch dropped out on Saturday night, Edwards was the best car on the track until a bad set of tires caused his handling to go away in the closing laps of the race. But now that we go from 150 to 600 miles, expect to see Edwards to be able to work through any issues and keep his car near the front of the pack all night.
Sit ‘Em Down:
David Gilliland has run three times at Charlotte – and effectively struck out. He has not been able to run better than 25th in any of his starts and his average finish is 31.0. While Yates Racing has been performing better as of late, Gilliland has still been a middle of the pack performer, and his history at Charlotte indicates he will most likely not improve on that this weekend.
Paul Menard has shown marked improvement during his Cup career and is now solidly in the top 25 in points. However, his career at Charlotte has not been very productive. He’s attempted to make the race four times, but has only qualified twice. On top of that, his Sprint Showdown success has been mediocre at best. While Menard may surprise with a top-15 finish this weekend, he’s more likely to be in the mid 20s or lower.
Roll the Dice:
Matt Kenseth has not been very impressive to start out the 2008 season. Before his sixth-place finish at Darlington, he had three consecutive finishes of 38th or worse. However, Kenseth was strong two weeks ago, and followed that up with a third-place finish in the All-Star Race. The team appears to be developing momentum that should propel them toward the upper part of the standings, so expect Kenseth to continue his move up this weekend at Charlotte.
Crank ‘Em Up:
He might not have made much noise last weekend, but look for Stewart to crank up the volume Sunday night. The No. 20 team came from last in the field up to fifth, taking notes along the way about how important track position will likely be during the 600. Last year, Stewart posted top-10 finishes in both Charlotte races and was poised to win on Memorial Day weekend if not for the fuel-mileage gambles. Memorial Day unofficially kicks off the summer season, and Smoke fans are well aware of what happens to Tony’s finishes as the temperatures rise.
With eight top 10s in the first dozen races of the season, Earnhardt Jr. has continually put himself in a position to win during his first season with HMS. Looking at his record at Charlotte, this weekend should be no different. In 17 starts, he has four top fives and eight top 10s, including an eighth-place finish in this race last year. There is little doubt Junior should be easily able to rake in another top 10 this go around; but he will need to have strong communication with his team to make the right adjustments throughout this 600-mile marathon if he wants to visit victory lane.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Perhaps the biggest thing standing in the way of Juan Pablo Montoya’s sophomore season success is his own car owner. Coming into the longest race of the year, Montoya will now be with his third crew chief in the past month. The change within his team – from Jimmy Elledge to Brian Pattie – along with a less than stellar record at Charlotte make Montoya a risk for your fantasy team this weekend. With finishes of 28th and 37th in his two appearances at LMS, there isn’t much hope that Montoya will be able to overcome the newest change to his team on Sunday.
Another driver unlikely to make any progress in improving his season on Sunday is Scott Riggs. With no top-15 finishes this year, Riggs and his No. 66 have yet to show that they have turned a corner. And his own history at Charlotte doesn’t give much weight to the argument that things will be any better this week. In eight career starts, Riggs has a dismal average finish of 25.1. If you’re looking for a fantasy bargain, look somewhere else.
Roll the Dice:
He may no longer be the King of Charlotte, but that doesn’t mean Bobby Labonte doesn’t deserve serious consideration for your fantasy roster this weekend. His days of being a regular fixture in the top five might be over, but in the four races he’s run for Petty Enterprises at LMS, he has finished in the top 15 three times, including a fifth-place finish in the fall 2006 race. So far in 2008, Labonte has managed to finish each race he’s run, and this weekend is his first great opportunity to record his first top 10 of the year.
Mike: I hope you enjoyed your week off as much as I did. I’m ready to get back at it again, especially since neither one of us really set the world on fire last race – although we both did quite well with our Dice picks.
Cami: Yeah, at least there was that bright spot. I’ve tried to block out the rest of what happened at Darlington. Now it’s time for the 600-mile crapshoot, but neither one of us picked Johnson – what’s up with that?
Mike: Have you seen him running this year? Phoenix was a fuel-strategy race. Saturday night, the only reason he was out front was because of strategy. I asked Chad Knaus at the Charlotte test what it was going to take for them to get back to their dominance at the track, and he said they would have to become much, much smarter. I just don’t feel like they’re at a point where they’ll resurrect a win at the end of the day like they have for years.
Cami: You have a point there; they certainly aren’t the team they were last year. But it’s still Charlotte; I bet Johnson’ll put in a decent finish. Anyways, you’re using the hot-streak strategy by picking Busch. It can’t be his track record at Charlotte that’s got you excited.
Mike: No, definitely not. His record at Charlotte is hardly stellar. But have you watched Busch in Trucks? Or, better yet, dominating the first 39 laps Saturday? Heck, with seven cylinders Busch was still faster than a quarter of the field. As long as the engines they are using are from TRD and not built in house, he’ll own the race this week. Meanwhile, I see you think that Junior can actually race with his car for full fuel runs Sunday night instead of 15-lap bursts.
Cami: Junior’s been solid all year; I think that will pay dividends for him this weekend. He’ll be running up front, and he should be a good choice for at least a top-10 finish. And for your sake, I hope Kenseth keeps up his momentum, too.
Mike: Kenseth was strong at Darlington and again Saturday night. So, I think he’s started to turn the corner. He acknowledged that his team isn’t quite to the point that they’re beating the people they need to beat to make the Chase, but they definitely feel like there is some momentum building. I’m feeling stronger about Kenseth putting in a good showing than Labonte. He’s still not setting the world on fire in Petty stuff.
Cami: No, he’s not. But more often than not, he’s running in the top 20, near the top 15. And at Charlotte he has decent finishes, even in Petty equipment. He may not be a contender for the win, but for a Roll the Dice pick, he should put in a good number. I guess 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 – 15.3
Sit – 21.5
Roll – 13.0
Crank – 12.6
Sit – 23.2
Roll – 14.2