Hopefully, you enjoyed your off weekend and your fantasy team got well rested – because man, will they wind up needing that break. This weekend’s Brickyard 400 kicks off a grueling 17-race stretch to championship weekend at Homestead, and it’s time to get everything geared up and ready to go for the Fantasy home stretch. Unless you went way out on a limb with your picks at Chicago, you likely didn’t see your team get blown away in the Windy City. But with the prestige of winning at the Brickyard up for grabs this weekend, every team is going to be bringing their “A” game this Sunday. As you prepare your team for a race of historic proportions, keep in mind the delicate balance between picking a driver who is hot at a particular track and which drivers were running well before the break… but not three months before.
Confused a bit yet? We’ll sort it all out for you; just take a deep breath and get ready for the long week ahead by reading the latest edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
The dream came true, again, for Tony Stewart one year ago, as Stewart passed Kevin Harvick on a late restart to capture his second Brickyard 400 win in the last three years. Stewart’s win capped a dominating performance for Chevrolet, who took six of the top-eight finishing positions (Jeff Gordon finished third, Kyle Busch fourth and Mark Martin, Harvick and Jeff Burton sixth, seventh and eighth). The only driver whose headlines rivaled Stewart’s was Juan Pablo Montoya. The rookie open-wheel convert did prove that he had oval mettle on Sunday, racing up front all day and posting a runner-up finish. But several frontrunners found trouble, as Jimmie Johnson was involved in two accidents while Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered another blown engine. In the meantime, Roush Racing was surprisingly quiet, with only Matt Kenseth finishing inside the top 10.
Cami’s Keys to the Race
To etch your name into the record books at Indianapolis, you need to focus on three things: straightaway speed, the amount of aero push running through the corners, and track position. The 2.5-mile track boasts a 3,330-foot frontstretch and a backstretch that is just 30 feet shorter; making the amount of horses under the hood you have at your disposal to out drag race the competition down the straightaways vitally important. However, to take advantage of that straightaway speed, you first need to come off the corner running strong. If you’re back in the throttle late coming out of the corner, you’re not going to be in a good position to make a pass down the straightaway. And the final important factor is location, location, location. If we have learned anything so far this season about the new body style, it’s the fact that being out front is the place to be, and past races at the Brickyard emphasize that fact even more. Out of the 14 races NASCAR has run at the historic track, eight winners have started inside the top 10… so, with qualifying starting at 10:00 Saturday morning, getting out early when the track is still cool will be a big bonus.
Crank ‘Em Up:
He may not be racking up wins like he was in 2007, but Gordon’s season is far from being called a failure. After hitting rock bottom at Texas, Gordon and the No. 24 team haven’t laid another major goose egg, with the exception of his late-race wreck at Daytona two weeks ago. But there is always room for improvement, and Indy is a great place for Gordon to get back on the right track. With four wins at the famed Brickyard, the Rainbow Warrior is in elite company. He has scored a top 10 on 11 occasions in 14 starts, easily making him a driver that should be on your short list to pick from this weekend.
Another driver to keep your eye on is 2003 Brickyard winner Harvick. This weekend, he will be behind the wheel of the same car that was driven to a third-place finish in Chicagoland as he tries to keep the momentum going. Harvick, who is in a close battle to claim one of the final Chase positions, says his team’s performance has been strong this year, but they just haven’t had things fall their way. He may not be kissing the bricks Sunday afternoon, but with an impressive average finish of 7.7 at Indianapolis means he will very likely be in the hunt as the laps wind down.
Sit ‘Em Down:
After scoring his first top five of the year at Sonoma, Casey Mears was informed he would not be back behind the wheel of the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports next season. He followed that up with a seventh-place finish at Loudon, but in the two races since; it’s been back to mediocrity for Mears and the No. 5 bunch. Coming off two finishes of 33rd or worse, Mears heads to a track where his family’s success has eluded him. In five starts at Indy, he has managed just one top five and hasn’t managed to crack the top 20 in the other four. Considering his lame-duck status, I wouldn’t expect much more from Mears this year – and especially not at a track where he hasn’t run well at in the past.
Someone else who has had anything but good fortune at Indianapolis is Elliott Sadler. In his nine career starts there he has finished in the top 10 just once (third in 2004), while in his other eight races, he has finished no higher than 21st. In the last five races before the break, Sadler has a better average finish than teammate Kasey Kahne; but he’s not hot enough right now to overcome such a dismal past at Indy. I give him credit for running better, but until he can be a bit more consistent and is at a track where he’s had some glimmer of success, I would keep him on the bench.
Roll the Dice:
With veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig on top of the pit box, David Ragan has started to gain confidence and its showing in his finishing results. He’s finished in the top 10 in the last two races and three times in the last five, putting him 15th in points with an outside shot of making the Chase. Last year, Ragan finished 16th in his Brickyard debut after qualifying a disappointing 30th. This year, he will be driving the same Ford he drove to an eighth-place finish at Michigan a month ago. It’s unlikely that he’ll be racing for the win, but if you need a solid top-15 or top-10 run out of a driver that is probably a deal in your fantasy league; you can’t do much better than Ragan.
Crank ‘Em Up:
The Brickyard is Stewart’s backyard, and he’ll be raring to score a third trophy in four years at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Not only does the track mean more to Stewart than to seemingly any other driver, Stewart is just that good there. With four consecutive top 10s in this event, and more than anything Stewart finally has momentum. Stewart ran extremely well at Chicago after making his announcement that he would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. With that weight off his shoulders, Stewart should be ripe and raring to start another summer hot stretch, and there is no one better on the bricks.
Kenseth has been at Indianapolis, like so many tracks, Mr. Consistency, and of late has been humming along like his usual point scoring self. Kenseth has four top 10s in the last five 400s, including three consecutive. Kenseth also has two runner-up finishes at the track, including an oh-so close run during his championship season in 2003. The No 17 team has found its wings under crew chief Chip Bolin, and Kenseth has been knocking on Indy’s Victory Lane’s door for awhile now. This might be the weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Ask anyone what has happened to Clint Bowyer’s season, and they’ll most likely scratch their head. But whatever the explanation, one thing is certain; the No. 07 is flat lost on longer ovals. Since finishing 15th at Darlington in May, Bowyer has not finished better than 22nd on an oval sans Daytona. Even the recent race at Chicago – the sister track to Bowyer’s home track of Kansas Speedway – couldn’t remedy this team’s struggles. After a fast start to the season, RCR in general has slowed down, and more noticeably than any of their other teams ,the No. 07 squad has fallen behind the curve. Bowyer has run well at Indy before, but their recent showings don’t bode well for Bowyer fans on Sunday.
Like fellow Hoosier Stewart, Ryan Newman would very much like to add the Brickyard 400 to his trophy case. Unlike fellow Hoosier Stewart, Newman has not announced his plans for 2009 of yet, which regardless of whether or not a driver admits it is a large distraction on the track. And even should Newman make an announcement prior to Sunday, he’s still not likely to find a good finish on the lengthy Indianapolis track. Newman’s record at IMS is not stellar; his first and only top 10 came in 2002, his rookie season. One look at Newman’s last four races here should quash any motive to start him Sunday; 31st in 2004, 34th in 2005, 13th in 2006 (the No. 12 was a 30th-place car that stole a finish with a two-tire stop), and 42nd last year after an early wreck. Newman and Penske Racing’s intermediate package proved to be lacking still after Chicago, as Newman ran outside the top 20 for much of the race before stealing a finish with a two-tire stop. The Hoosier to start this weekend isn’t driving No. 12.
Roll the Dice:
When the field takes the green flag Sunday, Brian Vickers will have improved at Indy over 2007, when he and his No. 83 Red Bull car missed the Brickyard 400. What a difference a year makes. Vickers has gone from backmarker to legitimate Chase contender, thanks in large part to one of the stoutest intermediate track packages on the circuit. Vickers is also benefiting from the staunch improvement of the No. 84 and teammate AJ Allmendinger, who is coming off a career-best run at Chicago.
Team Red Bull will be in Victory Lane by year’s end… and there aren’t many bigger wins than at Indianapolis. TRB will come out swinging Sunday, and your fantasy roster just might benefit.
Bryan: Well Cami, with our own Mike Neff having technical difficulties, welcome back to Picks ‘N Pans… and for one of the season’s biggest races, no less!
Cami: Thanks Bryan, it’s good to be back in my old stomping grounds. Hopefully I’ve dusted off the cobwebs and can put together some good picks, not that Mike needs much help. But you did pretty well against him last week. You had two in the top 10. Nice job.
Bryan: Both my Sit ‘Em picks were also top 20, though, so it was a mixed bag… but Mike’s a formidable adversary, and I’m sure you will be too. So… Gordon’s far from his A-game at this point in the season, but he has had success at Indy… what makes you think he’ll pick it up Sunday?
Cami: Gordon certainly hasn’t lived up to what he did last year, but he’s not doing as bad as a lot of people think. Other than his trouble at Daytona, he’s been pretty good since that Texas debacle. And he’s only finished outside the top 10 twice at Indy, so it’s hard to see him falling on his face this weekend. I could ask you the same thing about Stewart.
Bryan: the weight of the world is off Stewart’s shoulders now that Stewart-Haas is out of the bag… Stewart was stout at Chicago and hey, this is the Super Bowl for him personally… he’s going to give the home crowd a lot to cheer about Sunday. As for Sadler riding the pine… the No. 19 has been markedly better performing lately… why wont that translate into a good Brickyard run?
Cami: I really tried not to put him on my list because it’s so typical Mike, but looking at his record I couldn’t ignore him. I will give him credit for running better lately, but at Indy he’s just awful. Yeah he finished third once, but that’s his only top 20 there. For some reason Sadler and the Brickyard don’t mesh well. On the other hand, though, I can’t argue with your Kenseth pick at all. He’s the hottest driver, average wise, heading to Indianapolis. Do you think he’ll kiss the bricks, or just finish in the top 10?
Bryan: A win may be stretching it, but a top five I can definitely see happening… and that’s good news for fantasy gamers.
Cami: Oh yeah, it’s not always about hitting it out of the park and picking the winner. It’s picking who will be up front when it counts. I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.