The intermediate track-heavy run to the finish is underway this week, and the heavy reliance on downforce and the resultant “aero push” that comes from being in traffic will be prominent this weekend. Now that the race for the title is pretty much a three-man battle – with Carl Edwards barely within shouting distance – the majority of playoff contenders are going to be pushing for wins the rest of the year. The top 10 drivers in average finish at Atlanta are loaded with Chasers, which means that the potential for a non-Chase race winner is once again rather limited. There are some diamonds in the rough that aren’t too far back, though, so making the right mid-pack choices for your fantasy roster can pay off handsomely for gamers this weekend.
In the meantime, Jimmie Johnson has been handed the trophy by almost every pundit on the planet who follows NASCAR. Can he live up to the expectations, or will a mistake drag him kicking and screaming back to the pack? And which teams are in the best position to become true fantasy gems up front? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers are the Peppiest of Boys for Atlanta this weekend.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
After winning Martinsville the week before, Johnson continued his push to catch teammate and points leader Jeff Gordon with a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway last October. After using a two-tire pit stop to gain track position, Johnson averted disaster on a restart two laps from the scheduled finish that saw Denny Hamlin run out of fuel and trigger a massive multi-car crash that collected many of the race leaders. Johnson then proceeded to stay in front of the pack during a green-white-checker that ended when Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost a tire and slammed into the wall. It was a surprising day for Dodge, which had three cars from three teams (Reed Sorenson with CGR, Kurt Busch with Penske and Kasey Kahne with GEM) score top-10 finishes. The late-race incidents erased what had been a stellar day for DEI, with Earnhardt running in the top five late and Martin Truex Jr. having led 135 laps before both endured hard crashes. Roush had two top-five finishers in Edwards and Matt Kenseth, while Brian Vickers was the lone top-10 Toyota.
Mike’s Keys To The Race
After coming off the shortest track on the circuit where the average speed of last week’s race was 75.931, the circuit heads to arguably the fastest track on the schedule in Atlanta. The surface of the track has aged and lost some of its grip, but that has also resulted in racing grooves from the top to the bottom of this speedy oval. This weekend’s race will come down to whose car is making the most horsepower, which driver can figure out how to “stick” to the track in the corners, and which team gets their car out front near the end of the race. Track position will be important – but not as critical as always, with the multiple grooves affording the drivers behind the leader at least some options to potentially make passes on the track. Don’t forget that the intermediates may not be exactly the same; but they are similar enough that drivers who are good on one will most likely be good on others. So, search for the ones who have shown well on the past few 1.5-milers.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards was truly dominant early in the spring race before his engine failed, stopping momentum that followed victories at California and Las Vegas and was revived by a victory at Texas. And while Edwards’s ownership of the 1.5-milers may have slipped later in the season, he is still running very well on that style of track. Keep in mind he’s won twice here already; in fact, Edwards had three top-five runs in the first year and a half at Atlanta. He then finished 40th, but followed that performance with three more top 10s before finishing 42nd this spring. He should run very well this weekend if you believe in numerology.
Earnhardt Jr. finished second last weekend, and a good part of the reason why was that he conserved his car early in the race so that he had something at the end. He was doing the same thing at Charlotte when his right-front tire let go, a sign momentum may be changing after weeks of slumping during a race’s final segment. Atlanta has been a good track for Earnhardt his entire career; in 18 starts, he’s only had five finishes outside of the top 15. His average finish is also 11.7, which is third-best among active drivers. Earnhardt was third in the spring race, and a good run could move him closer to the top five in points. Expect to see Earnhardt near the front for the entire day on Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler had back-to-back 10th-place finishes at Kansas and Talladega. But in the other seven races that have taken place since Michigan, he has come home 20th or worse. Sadler’s average finish at Atlanta is 22.5, which almost mirrors his season’s average finish of 23.0. He could very well surprise with a strong run at Atlanta, but since the Virginian hasn’t had a top-10 finish there since 2005, it’s best to leave him on the bench this weekend.
Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a top 15 on a 1.5-mile track this season. His career average finish at Atlanta is 18.3, but that number is inflated because his first run there was a fifth-place finish in March of ’07. Montoya’s other two runs were 34th and 16th, not exactly the type of performance that merits mentioning. With the way Ganassi’s team is struggling, the Colombian’s more likely to come home 35th than he is in the top 15. Montoya also has the specter of his sponsor leaving for next year and nothing secured for the hood, with rumors his organization might be merging with another race team swirling around him. The bottom line is Juan is not going to run well this weekend – so keep him on your bench.
Roll the Dice:
Bobby Labonte is a heck of a race driver at Atlanta. He’s won on the track six times in his career, and has an average finish of 18.7. A few DNFs in the 40s over the last few years have severely hurt that average; however, Labonte has come home 12th in two of the last four races there, placing 16th in one of the other two. Labonte continues to do amazing things in Petty Enterprises equipment, and if he can keep his nose clean and not get taken out by someone else, he can usually come home in the top 15. It’s a roll of a dice, but Labonte could certainly surprise at his favorite track.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Johnson and Co. are turning the Chase into a snoozefest. They’re on their A-game, and entering this event as the defending race winners. They’ll be in victory lane by the end of Sunday afternoon, so put ’em on your fantasy team.
Kenseth has definitely not had the results to show for it, but his No. 17 team has run really well over the course of the Chase. Since a wreck at Loudon to start things off, Kenseth has posted three top 10s, and in the two races he failed to finish, had a car that led laps and was running at the front. The No. 17 team will more than likely be stout on race day in Georgia, and that bodes well for them given Kenseth’s record at AMS. He is riding a streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes at the super-fast oval, and has an average finish of 6.4 there since 2006, second among active drivers. Their result at Martinsville showed that the No. 17 team may finally have some good fortune on their side, and that may be all this team needs to contend come Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Say what you will about his equipment in past trips to Atlanta, but the fact still remains that Travis Kvapil’s record at AMS is lackluster. In five Cup starts there, Kvapil has yet to crack even the top 25 in any of them despite having only one DNF. An average finish of 32.2, a poor 78.8% laps completed percentage, and being on average five laps down when the checkers waves here are all reasons to keep the No. 28 off your roster this weekend. Kvapil, a former Truck Series champion, has found AMS challenging even in that division, having cracked the top 10 only once there in his entire accomplished Truck Series career. Stay away, stay far away…
On Friday, there are no better drivers to start at AMS than Ryan Newman. As for Sunday, that’s a whole other story. Newman last scored a top 10 finish at AMS in 2004. Since that spring race, Newman’s average finish on the gritty oval since has been a distant 22.0, with only two lead lap finishes in that eight-race span. The No. 12 team’s last run on an intermediate oval at Lowe’s was also not encouraging, as even with clean air the team was not able to keep their Dodge competitive for long. A middle-of-the-pack finish is the best case scenario for this team this weekend, so only put Newman on your roster this week if you have room – and your league offers bonus points for qualifying.
Roll the Dice:
Truex was the class of the field in this race one year ago, leading 135 laps and contending for the win before Hamlin ran out of gas directly in front of the No. 1 Chevrolet on a late-race restart. Though Truex doesn’t have a stellar record at AMS, he has on numerous occasions run very well, able to take advantage of the track’s versatile grooves. DEI definitely had something at this track in the fall of last year, and though they struggled in the spring, the recent race at Lowe’s was demonstrable proof that their intermediate package has made strides back to competitiveness. Truex is a true sleeper this weekend, but remember the No. 1 team has the win, not points, on the brain. For fantasy racers trying to grind out a title and needing to gamble, look no further.
Mike: Congratulations, Bryan. Your wisdom and insight led you to pick Johnson last weekend, so you garnered another first-place choice for the year. I really need to pick first one of these weeks…
Bryan: After sitting the winner twice this year, I need all the Ws I can get. We all need a win. And in all honesty, I don’t know how you’re expecting Dale Jr. to be your savior. Sure, he ran well last week, but I don’t know how a top five at Martinsville has got you convinced this No. 88 team has somehow gotten its intermediate groove back.
Mike: At least my driver had a win at Atlanta. Kenseth hasn’t finished better than third there, and he pulled a finish out of his rear end last weekend.
Bryan: You say third like it’s a bad thing… top fives are good points days for fantasy racers. Speaking of which, benching Montoya this weekend gives me pause. The guy debuted at AMS with a top five, and let’s face it, the track is kind to open-wheelers… just ask Montoya and Michel Jourdain Jr. for a few examples.
Mike: I’d rather sit a guy who’s had 1/3 of his races at the track outside the top 15 than a driver like Newman who has been in the top 15 six out of 13 starts and the same number of top fives as Montoya. Your disdain for Penske is going to catch up with you very soon.
Bryan: If my disdain for Penske catches up with me anytime soon, it’s going to be at Daytona in 2009, not on an intermediate oval. And after benching Sadler and Montoya, I’m scratching my head as to how you can justify rolling the dice on a Petty Dodge. Labonte’s a great driver, but come on, AMS is one of his best tracks, and the only car he’s had capable of winning there lasted less than 100 laps and came because the team loaded the motor with way too much gear. That’s not a gamble, it’s a throwaway.
Mike: 12th place in the spring is enough of a statement to make me take a gamble. Honestly, I feel better about that pick than gambling with a driver who has one finish better than 19th in seven starts at the track. Truex has struggled mightily at Atlanta in the past, and with the distractions from all the talk about DEI merging, I think the team is going to have a hard time focusing on the task at hand.
Bryan: DEI may have a hard time focusing – or they may finally get the win they got stolen from them in Alabama. 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 – 14.0
Sit – 20.8
Roll – 22.0
Crank – 10.9
Sit – 21.0
Roll – 17.5