The Sprint Cup Series heads to the Windy City this weekend for another intermediate racetrack. For the first time, the race will be held under that lights at Chicagoland Speedway leaving many fantasy gamers a little nervous. Some drivers are on a roll and momentum certainly plays a role in the sport. Others very well may be on a mission from God. With recently announced driver changes and NASCAR penalties, who knows what also might be playing with the psyche of combatants this weekend. Read on to see which drivers our experts feel are driving on a full tank of gas with half a pack of cigarettes wearing sunglasses in this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Rebounding from an incident with teammate Denny Hamlin at Daytona the weekend before, Tony Stewart broke his winless streak and scored his first win of the 2007 season at the Chicagoland Speedway. Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were the class of the field all day, combining to lead 190 of the race’s 267 laps, but a blown tire with 45 laps to go took Johnson’s Chevrolet out of contention. Johnson’s troubles deprived Hendrick Motorsports of a win after a strong showing that saw their No. 25 team win the pole and Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Kyle Busch all finish in the top 15. Richard Childress Racing also enjoyed a stellar day, with all three of their teams finishing in the top 10. Kasey Kahne finished a distant 24th after an unscheduled green-flag pit stop nearly halfway through the race.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Chicago is one of the newest cookie-cutter intermediate tracks on the schedule. It was completed in 2000, so the asphalt has had some time to age and over the last couple of years. With multiple racing grooves, the drivers have options to make their car work; if the car is too tight or too loose, they can adjust the groove to make the car handle better. Since this is the first trip for the new car to the Windy City, it is probably best to look at teams that have run well on other intermediate tracks this season. Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs are certainly the obvious choices after the first half of the season. Those two organizations have won four of the six races that have taken place on the intermediate tracks so far this year, and Matt Kenseth was probably going to win Michigan if it had not turned into a fuel-mileage race. The other two teams that have shown recent strength on the intermediates are Hendrick and Gillett Evernham. The bottom line is that teams that can make their car handle are the ones that will be able to pass at will and move to the front.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Carl Edwards has been the best driver this season on intermediate tracks. He’s won three of the first four, and would have won Atlanta if it were not for a blown engine. Charlotte was a strange race that still saw him finish in the top 10. At Michigan, Edwards was poised for a top-three finish had it not turned into a fuel-mileage race. Edwards is coming off of a second-place finish at a plate race and finished third in this race last year. If not for a couple of bad breaks early in the season, he’d be the points leader in the series right now. Expect to see Carl continue his strong season this weekend.
Kyle Busch is in the lead in points and has been on fire this season. Coming off of the win at Daytona, which was his sixth of the season, the momentum is certainly on the No. 18’s side. His worst finish on an intermediate track this year is 13th at Michigan. Expect the Shrub to continue to ride the wave of momentum this weekend for another strong finish at Chicago.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Mears has announced his departure from Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the season. His best intermediate finish this year is 13th and most of his runs on those types of tracks have been in or close to the 30s. The fact that Mears is a lame-duck driver tends to mean he will not run very well the rest of the season. Busch is one of the few drivers who has been able to continue running strong for a team after announcing intentions to leave in recent years. Don’t look for Mears to be an exception to that trend.
Jamie McMurray is fighting to save his job. While he and Jack Roush have denied that is the case, there is no doubt that his sub-par performances, coupled with the success of David Ragan, has to be putting pressure on McMurray to perform. While McMurray did post a top 10 at Michigan, he was 18th at Sonoma where he usually runs well, and has finished 41st and 32nd in the last two races. His average finish at Chicago is 24th and his last two finishes were 39th and 38th. Even though McMurray is running for his life, he simply hasn’t shown much of anything in Chicagoland. Don’t expect that to change this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Kurt Busch is on a roll over the last two weekends. A first and a fourth has moved the No. 2 up five spots in the standings and has him poised 192 points out of the top 12. He has three consecutive top-10 finishes at Chicago and ran quite well at Charlotte. While this season has not been up to Busch’s championship standards, the team has been looking better of late and could have another strong run this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
A blown Goodyear Eagle is all that kept Johnson from winning the race at Chicago last season. Prior to the tire failure, Johnson led 82 laps and was among the fastest cars in the field. 2007 wasn’t the first time Johnson ran up front at Chicago. Minus his 37th-place outing last summer, Johnson has never finished a Chicagoland race outside the top 10. Johnson’s career average finish at the track is 9.2; take away the tire failure of last year and it’s 3.6. HMS has posted stellar results as a team at Chicagoland, with Gordon winning this race in 2006 and three teams finishing in the top 15 last year. Johnson is way overdue to score his second win of the season, and Chicagoland is as likely a venue for him to do so as ever.
Kenseth has been Chicagoland Speedway’s designated Mr. Oh So Close the last three years. Kenseth finished second in this race in 2005 and 2007, and was leading late in 2006 before being spun by eventual race winner Gordon. Kenseth has been among the hottest drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit of late, having posted seven top 10s in his last eight races, a run that has catapulted him and his No. 17 team from also-rans to Chase contenders. Kenseth has also performed consistently on the intermediate tracks throughout the 2008 season, posting top 10s in every intermediate race except for Las Vegas. The Windy City owes Kenseth and the No. 17 something, and they’ll be raring to cash in Saturday night.
Sit ‘Em Down:
History is against Elliott Sadler coming into the Chicago race weekend. Though Sadler’s Gillett-Evernham team has been much more competitive in recent weeks, the finishes haven’t been consistent, and Chicagoland has not been kind to Sadler in years past. In seven previous starts, Sadler has only one top 10, and has failed to crack even the top 20 in the last four years at the track. Gillett Evernham Motorsports has always been hit or miss with their intermediate package, especially at Chicagoland, and there is a certain other GEM car that would be a safer start this weekend.
At the start of this season, Juan Pablo Montoya was a consistent top-20 car on intermediate tracks, and boy would he and his No. 42 team like to be back to those results. Since the crew chief carousel began at Chip Ganassi Racing, Montoya’s performance has been abysmal on the intermediate tracks. Since finishing 19th at Texas, Montoya hasn’t cracked the top 30 on an intermediate, and has posted four finishes of 32nd or worse in the last five Cup races. Montoya and his No. 42 team have not proven themselves able to rise above the quagmire of problems plaguing CGR, and, with all due respect to Montoya, Chicagoland ain’t Watkins Glen. Fantasy gamers, just say no to CGR.
Roll the Dice:
There is no question that Clint Bowyer and his No. 07 team have been in a slump as of late, but Chicagoland just may be the track Bowyer needs to get his season back on track. RCR enjoyed tremendous success at Chicago in 2007, with all three of their cars, including Bowyer, posting top-10 finishes. Further, Chicagoland Speedway is nearly identical to Kansas Speedway, a track that Bowyer has all but mastered. It may not be Bowyer’s hometown track, but Chicagoland is the next best thing to Kansas, and fantasy gamers with some room to maneuver may just want to give Bowyer a shot this Saturday night.
Bryan: Well Mike, the plates are mercifully off this weekend… but first, congrats on picking our race winner last weekend.
Mike: Thanks, dude. I’m glad I was finally able to pick a winner since you and I have been paired up. I’m also proud of rolling the dice with the fourth-place finisher and cranking the eighth-place finisher. I just wish I hadn’t sat Edwards who came home second. Sorry to say, your crank drivers didn’t fair quite so well.
Bryan: It was not a fun weekend for my fantasy team that’s for sure. Here’s hoping Daytona wasn’t a sign of things to come for Stewart-Haas Racing. But on to Chicago. Kyle Busch needs nothing said, he’s red hot. Edwards though, is an interesting pick. Roush Fenway runs real well at Chicago, but Edwards hasn’t been the most consistent of their drivers there. Why the No. 99 over, say, the No. 17?
Mike: Due to the fact this is the first visit to the track with the new car configuration, I put a little more weight on the performances earlier this season. Edwards owned the first four races and finished top 10 in the other two. He’s been the best of the Roush drivers at these style tracks so far this year. I realize JJ has the best average finish at the track, but do you really think that Hendrick has figured these cars out enough to give him the kind of cars he used to run here?
Bryan: HMS as a whole may not be where they were, but the No. 48 team has shown signs of turning the corner with five top 10s in the last six oval races. And they were far better than a 23rd-place car at Daytona last week; they’re due. Even though they’re not up to where they were in 2007, Hendrick’s cars are still better than most. Why bench Mears?
Mike: I tend to think karma plays a big roll in this sport, and the fact that Casey is a lame duck driver makes me think you can’t expect too much out of that team. Add to that he has not shown any signs of getting a top 10 on an intermediate since Las Vegas, where he finished 13th, and I just don’t think he is going to turn any heads this weekend. I know Ganassi is in a bit of an uproar but Montoya has had some flashes on the intermediate tracks this year. Why are you dissing Kyle Busch’s favorite Cup driver?
Bryan: Since the No. 42 team went to crew chief du jour, Montoya’s intermediate record has been awful… 30th at Charlotte, 38th at Pocono, 38th at Michigan. And Montoya hasn’t had a top 10 on an oval since Talladega. CGR is a sinking ship and the No. 42 is going down with it. I notice you’re big on the Busch brothers this weekend. Granted, Kurt has had back to back top fives, but do you really buy those finishes as proof that Penske racing has got their act together?
Mike: Momentum does play a big part in this sport, and on top of those strong finishes, Busch is the only driver with three consecutive top-10 finishes in the last three races at Chicago. He may not win the thing, but I think he’s got a strong shot at a top 10. How are you feeling putting Bowyer up for the gamble when RCR has been pretty far out in left field on the intermediate tracks this year?
Bryan: RCR put all three of their cars in the top 10 in this race last year, and while Kevin Harvick has been out to lunch on intermediates, Jeff Burton has had his moments. Chicago is very similar to Kansas, a track that Bowyer has all but figured out. It’s a good place for the No. 07 to get back on the wagon
Mike: You may be right, but it is definitely a gamble. I also think you might regret your Sadler selection. ESad has been bad fast of late and, if it weren’t for some bad luck, he’d be looking like a favorite this weekend. One of these weeks, his luck is going to line up and he’s going to win one of these things again.
Bryan: It’s an intermediate track, meaning Sadler isn’t getting the A-equipment from GEM this weekend. But hey, one look at my fantasy record this season gives Sadler a real fighting chance. We’ll see how it pans out under the lights on Saturday night.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan 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 – 15.7
Sit – 19.0
Roll – 23.2
Crank – 9.8
Sit – 23.3
Roll – 19.3
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