The Chase is almost to the halfway point, and the haves and have nots among the Chase contenders are pretty well defined now. Fantasy gamers need to think about how desperate their top drivers are to get back into contention, or if they’re content with their lot and intend for consistent, solid finishes to differentiate themselves from the drivers going for broke. Also, keep in mind that Charlotte is a track where drivers who are not known for running well can pull a surprise finish out of their hat. As the calendar approaches the full moon, you never know what might ultimately happen.
Jimmie Johnson started off last week running like he was towing a bass boat behind his car; can he own Lowe’s Motor Speedway like he has in the past? Will the Roush brigade continue to flex their muscle on the intermediate tracks? And can Tony Stewart continue his strong push back towards the top of the standings and make up for losing the race in May that he was leading at the very end? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers should be running for your team and which ones should be sitting at home on their couch in Mooresville.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
It seemed like Jeff Gordon’s Chase to lose one year ago after the Bank of America 500. Gordon, who led 72 laps, rebounded from a poor late-race restart when leader Ryan Newman blew a tire while leading with only two laps to go. Newman’s misfortunes sent the No. 24 to victory lane at Lowe’s, the end of what had been a very dry spell for Gordon at the Charlotte oval. Of all the teams entered in last year’s race, only Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing managed to have multiple drivers finish in the top 10. The race was a notably strong performance for Toyota, as both Dave Blaney and Michael Waltrip scored top-10 finishes. Johnson qualified second and led 95 laps but ended up hitting the wall and mired in traffic, finishing 14th. Also of note, AJ Allmendinger scored a then career-best finish of 15th.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Charlotte is the home track for nearly all of the teams that run in the Cup Series. There will be tons of members of race organizations in the stands this weekend who don’t get to go to any other track during the year, and their drivers will be pushing extra hard to win one for the squad. Goodyear will be bringing another rock hard tire this weekend, and the teams will have to deal with trying to make their cars stick while going through a four-tire drift in the corners. This race will take place primarily at night, since the sun sets just before 7:00 p.m. and the green flag drops at roughly 7:30. That makes the car set up much more stable for the teams since they don’t have to transition from day to night. Qualifying is also at a premium at Lowe’s, since nine of the last 10 winners have started in the top 10.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Stewart was declared the winner this past weekend even though he did not cross the start finish line first for the checkered flag. That moved him up four spots to seventh in the points standings, but he’s still 203 out of first. Stewart needs to have a Johnson type run over the next six races if he’s going to have a chance to win the title. This weekend would be a great start to that run, avenging a lost victory that Stewart feels he gave away when he was leading the race with under 10 laps to go in May when he blew a tire. Stewart has 11 top-10 finishes in his career at Charlotte and an average finish of 13.2. He will be on a mission this weekend, and will have a very good chance of taking the win.
Kyle Busch has nothing to lose. He was the most dominant driver over the first 26 races of the season, only to see the Chase dawn with him running like Fido’s rear end. Now that he is 335 points out of the lead, his only hope is to try and win the next six races, and he’ll still need some help to get back to the top. Busch has run well on all track configurations this year, and has done quite well at Charlotte the last two times the circuit has run there. Back-to-back third-place finishes have Busch looking like he can shake off his demons of late and get back to his winning ways.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Clint Bowyer ran very well at Talladega last weekend. He’s also run very well on short tracks this year. Unfortunately, he’s not run quite so good on intermediates. His teammates have had decent runs on cookie cutters, but that success has not transitioned over to the No. 07 team. Bowyer’s average finish at Charlotte is 19.6, and he only has one top-10 finish in five races. Bowyer may surprise with a good finish, but it will be just that – a surprise.
Juan Pablo Montoya has run three races at Charlotte and his best finish is 28th. Even though he’s coming off a race where he was running near the front before he was taken out in one of the Big Ones, his efforts on 1.5-mile tracks this season has been lacking: His best finish on any intermediate track this year is a 16th at Atlanta. Expect more of the same from JPM this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Kasey Kahne had five finishes out of six races leading up to Charlotte in May of 17th or worse. Then, the fans voted him into the All-Star Race and he proceeded to win that and the Coca-Cola 600. In the last five races, Kahne has four finishes of 19th or worse, and an 11th-place finish at New Hampshire. Kahne has run well at Charlotte in the past with three wins and a couple of other dominating performances cut short by bad luck. The stars might just be lining up properly for Kahne to shake off his doldrums and have another solid run.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Johnson has referred to LMS as “his house.” And don’t let the fact that he hasn’t won there since 2006 fool you – it still is his house. Johnson has two poles and five wins to his credit at LMS, and while he finished 39th in the spring race here he was running in the top five before suffering engine failure. With Johnson leading the title chase and a victory all but expected for the No. 48, don’t count on the engine department at HMS taking any chances with this piece. Look for the No. 48 to score Lowe’s win number six this Saturday night.
Though Carl Edwards has yet to visit victory lane in Charlotte in a Cup car, it is a question of when, not if, for Roush Fenway’s flagship driver. In seven career Cup starts at the track, Edwards has never finished outside the top 15, and his average finish of 7.6 trumps even that of Johnson. The No. 99 teams looks to be the only team with a shot at stopping the No. 48’s Chase for the Cup, and you’d best believe RFR will be pulling out all the stops on Edwards’s No. 99 Ford this weekend. The No. 99 has been by far NASCAR’s best time on intermediate ovals this season, and look for that to continue this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray’s career at Lowe’s began in the most unlikely and desirable of ways. Filling in for the injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray took the No. 40 Dodge of CGR to victory lane in only his second career Cup start. And while McMurray’s success at the track continued through his tenure with Ganassi and his debut with Roush, things haven’t been so rosy for the No. 26 team in Charlotte the last few seasons. In the last four races at LMS, McMurray has averaged a distant finish of 25.0, with no finishes on the lead lap. McMurray also has little momentum to speak of, as he has scored only one top 20 in the last six races. Plus, with the pressure on teammates Edwards and Greg Biffle to close the gap left by Talladega, RFR’s focus is not going to be on the No. 26 team at any point this weekend.
Newman will make plenty of headlines this weekend with the announcement that the U.S. Army will sponsor his No. 39 car in 2009, but don’t look for those headlines to carry over onto the LMS oval. Newman’s career in Charlotte began with a bang, with five poles, the 2002 All-Star Race trophy and a runner-up finish in the fall race of 2003. Since 2006, however, success has been well removed from the No. 12 car at this track. Despite winning two poles in that time frame, Newman’s best finish here since 2005 is a paltry 21st, his average finish in the last five races there 30.0. Granted, Newman did nearly pull out the victory in this race one year ago, but looking at the spring race this season, in which Newman’s CoT could not crack the top 20 to save its life, it’s hard to imagine this team with all the distractions of Stewart-Haas Racing breaking its string of bad luck this time around.
Roll the Dice:
I paid the price for recommending that fantasy racers bench Bobby Labonte this weekend, so to try to make it up to fans of the No. 43 I’m going to roll the dice on him this weekend. Labonte has returned Petty Enterprises to competitive form at LMS with good, quiet consistency. In his five starts at Lowe’s driving for the Pettys, Labonte has never finished outside the top 20, with a top five in the fall race of 2006 and an average finish of 11.6. Labonte finished 11th in the Coca-Cola 600 this spring with the new car, and it’s a good gamble that the No. 43 may well crack the top 10 this weekend.
Bryan: Well Mike, point your finger and laugh at me. After last weekend, I am a true disgrace to fantasy experts.
Mike: I don’t know about a disgrace brother. Talladega is a known wild card, and you simple were outdrawn on the river. Although having an average finish between your crank and roll drivers of 37 is quite possibly the worst week ever. You definitely gave Newman the kiss of death talking about how confident you were in his superspeedway equipment.
Bryan: The last time I ever put stock in Penske engines. Ever. Thank God for SHR and their Hendrick horsepower in 2009. Fortunately we’re headed to Charlotte, much more of a driver’s track but a wild card in itself. Any race fans know that when the lights go on at Lowe’s anything can (and will) happen.
Mike: I hear ya. I must admit I felt guilty taking the victory with Stewart, but he did what he had to do to win. I’m pretty sure Hendrick and Chevrolet are going to work very hard to make sure SHR is a success out of the box next year. Charlotte can certainly be crazy, although with the race being a night race, things are quite as nuts. The cars shouldn’t go through as much of a transition as they do during the 600, so the guys who have it right should be good all night. I’m curious how some of the guys in the bottom half of the Chasers are going to approach the race.
Bryan: Bottom half, heck, anyone who’s not Johnson darned well better be approaching this race with a win at all costs attitude. LMS is arguably Johnson’s best track and the last place Edwards and Biffle among others want to be forced to chase down the No. 48. Only guy I wouldn’t recommend a win or wreck strategy to is Denny Hamlin because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver come as close to knocking down a wall as he did on Sunday.
Mike: That was a pretty brutal hit. I’m sure he’s still sore. It looked like a typical Dover hit, only on a much bigger scale. Speaking of big scale, I still can’t believe how the back of Junior’s car exploded from that tire. I really hope we aren’t in for a tire issue filled weekend this weekend. I know they’re going to be using a rock-hard tire again but I just hope we don’t see any more explosions. I was a little surprised at how many engine problems there were last weekend. It’s been a while since we’ve seen engines as vulnerable as they seem to have been at Talladega.
Bryan: The engines don’t concern me as much as the tires. With the CoT we’re seeing plate engines forced to push more RPMs than they used to, which we wont see in the cars this weekend. The tires though, I can’t help but be worried about. Goodyear’s complacency is going to have me cringing everytime I see a Goodyear Eagle for the rest of the season. The question, however, I have on my mind more than anything is what we’re going to see out of the non-Chasers. After seeing Regan Smith nearly pull the upset of the season in Alabama, you can’t help but think an unexpected car or two out there is going to throw everything they’ve got on track before the hometown crowd.
Mike: I agree. Charlotte is certainly a track where we’ve seen some surprise winners in the past, remember Casey Mears in the 600 last year. And some non-Chasers have done well, like Brian Vickers before the wheel fell off this year. I would not be surprised to see David Ragan pull it off and make us both look foolish for not picking him.
Bryan: Ragan ran well last weekend when he wasn’t supposed to, no reason to think he can’t do it two weeks straight. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for fellow truck driver Scott Speed… look for a top-25 run out of him assuming he races his way into the field.
Mike: That might be a bit of a reach for Speed, but then again, I’ve been truly impressed with everything he has done in the ARCA series this year, and he just might jump up and steal a top 15 when no one is looking. Don’t count out ol’ Mark Martin either. He makes no bones about the fact that Charlotte is his favorite track, and the DEI boys are coming off of a huge “shot in the arm” weekend at Talladega.
Bryan: DEI is definitely riding the momentum right now. I’ll tell you who to count out though, Yates and Penske. Yates’s plate prowess is parked till Daytona now, and Penske, is, well, the Penske of 2008.
Mike: You’re probably right about Penske. From the sound of it, they’re trying a bunch of new stuff for the upcoming season, and that usually means they are going to experience failures most weekends. If it weren’t for that, I might feel good about Kurt Busch this weekend. He was pretty stout during the 600. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
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 – 13.9
Sit – 20.9
Roll – 21.4
Crank – 10.9
Sit – 21.2
Roll – 18.5