The 2008 Sprint Cup season started 10 months ago in Daytona, traveled through the North, South, East and West; and now, it all comes down to this. After 35 races, your fantasy team is on the verge of taking home the trophy; or, you need to make a desperation move to get past the leader.
Homestead has been on the schedule since 1999, seen six different winners, and remained the track where the Chase was decided in all five years of its existence. Only hosting one race per season gives gamers a little pause, though, because there is no body of work with the new car design to fall back on. With drivers trying to extend winning streaks, others auditioning for jobs and two men still competing for the title, any number of scenarios could play out.
Is Jimmie Johnson going to stroke it for the title, or is he going to race like he’s been racing during the Chase to try and score max points? Will Carl Edwards‘s push to get the most out of the race cause him to drive over the edge, or can he bring home the checkered flag? Will any of last year’s winners who haven’t won this year finally break through; or, will a non-Chaser continue the streak of at least one race won by a driver outside the Chase every year?
Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers can make your fantasy dreams come true one last time – and which ones should be on the beach drinking Mai Tais already.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
One year ago, as Johnson sat on the pole and cruised all afternoon to score his second consecutive Cup title, Matt Kenseth gave longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser a perfect parting gift… one more win. Kenseth suffered from battery issues early, but rebounded to lead a whopping 214 laps and hold off a hard-charging Kurt Busch by less than one second at the finish line. Kenseth led a Roush assault on the field, which saw all five of the team’s racecars finish in the top 15. Dave Blaney was the highest-finishing Toyota in 13th, though JGR driver Denny Hamlin scored a third-place run. 40 cars were also running at the finish, despite running the old car instead of the CoT.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Homestead is a progressively banked 1.5-mile track that varies from the common cookie-cutter intermediates in the fact that there is no dogleg on the front straightaway. Since the track was changed to incorporate the progressive banking it has opened up multiple racing grooves, and the aging of the track has made all of the different lines viable. As always, rolling through the center of the corner is going to be important, but the various racing lines will give drivers the opportunity to adjust their angle of attack or overcome their cars’ handling difficulties. All season, because of the new cars’ handling issues in traffic, qualifying up front has been very important. This weekend will be no different. Of the nine races held at this track, seven have been won from top-10 starting positions. Since this is the first trip to Homestead with the new car configuration, expect things to be more of the same.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards is the only driver still in the hunt with a mathematical chance of beating Johnson for the title. To do so, he’s going to have to mirror Johnson’s efforts from last weekend, leading the most laps and winning the race while hoping that Johnson has trouble and ends up 36th or worse without leading a lap. The chances are decent that Edwards can fulfill his part of the bargain, since he has the best average finish among active drivers at the track. It’s a sizzling 7.8, with two top fives, three top 10s and four top 15s in four races. Edwards also finished fifth in the race last year. Since his only hope for the title is to dominate the event, expect to see the No. 99 come out with guns blazing all race long.
Kevin Harvick has six top 10s and eight top 15s in the nine Chase races so far. His other result was a 20th-place run. As a result, Harvick has quietly climbed to fifth in the points without very much fanfare at all. His record at Homestead is solid, too, and includes two top fives and five top 10s in seven career races. Harvick is 59 points out of fourth and 125 points out of third in the standings, which means a strong run combined with a little trouble for Greg Biffle or Jeff Burton could allow him to move up by the end of the day. With the second-best average finish on the track among active drivers who have run at Homestead more than once, Harvick should have a very good chance of a strong finish this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler has eight top-10 finishes this season, but only two of them – both 10th-place runs – have come in the last 12 races. Sadler’s decent start to the season has slid to a middling bunch of finishes in the mid to low 20s, 30s, and one worse than that. While his job is safe, that is about all Sadler has going for him right now. Whether his team is testing new things for next year, or just is completely lost, chances of them running well these days are pretty non-existent. Don’t waste a roster spot on a driver who is not hitting on many cylinders – and also has an average finish at Homestead of 27th.
Brian Vickers has shown some flashes of brilliance on the 1.5-mile tracks this season, but most of that came in the first half of the year. Vickers hasn’t had a top 10 since Michigan in August and he’s only had two top 15s during the Chase. Adding to the pressure this weekend, the team is putting Vickers in the No. 84 car to try and get it back into the Top 35. Vickers’s history at Homestead is far from stellar, with only one finish better than 21st. His average finish is also just 31.6, which doesn’t bode well for a good finish this weekend. Keep Vickers on the bench until you can see what Red Bull has to offer in 2009.
Roll the Dice:
David Ragan continues to impress this season, especially on intermediate tracks. He also came home 10th last week on the tricky oval in Phoenix. Having already secured 13th in points, Ragan should be able to relax this weekend and just go out and race. He’s only run once at Homestead, but finished in 10th place to end a rookie year in which he underachieved. This year has been a whole different story, though, as Ragan has gotten a handle on racing in this series and looks poised to make a Chase run next season. Look for Ragan to finish on a high note once again in 2008.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Who’s scored the last most points at the Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2004? It’s none other than Biffle. Before Biffle had a disappointing 13th-place finish in this race one year ago, he rattled off three consecutive wins in the season finale. That may not be in the same league as Johnson’s three-peat, but it’s still a gold mine worth checking out for fantasy gamers. Biffle has been, along with his fellow Roushketeers, on the money with the CoT on intermediates this season; and with his past history at this track, he’s primed to lead another Ford assault on the finishing order. There’s no title on the line for the No. 16 team, so they’ll be all systems go for the checkers on Sunday.
The only driver able to break Biffle’s stranglehold on Homestead’s victory lane in the last four years has been Biffle’s Roush teammate Kenseth. Kenseth flat dominated this race one year ago, leading 214 of 267 laps despite having early troubles in the race. Kenseth was atrocious at this track early in his career, but has caught onto it in recent years, posting three consecutive top-10 finishes in the last three Homestead races. Despite finding trouble often, Kenseth has run well throughout the Chase, and the No. 17 team is too good for that stretch to last much longer. Kenseth will finish in the top five, if not steal Biffle’s thunder this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Kasey Kahne and his No. 9 Dodge team used to be feared for their intermediate track prowess. Sans Charlotte, those days seem like distant memories nowadays. Kahne and crew have gone from contender to backmarker on longer ovals over the course of the 2008 Chase. Just look at their finishes: 21st at Kansas, 33rd at Atlanta and 24th at Texas without a lead-lap finish in the bunch. The entire GEM operation seems to be off-kilter right now, as the driver posting the best results for the team is their filler driver, AJ Allmendinger, in the team’s third-tier car. The house that Ray built is a mess right now, and it’s going to take long past Homestead to get things all sorted out.
Ryan Newman’s farewell tour in the Alltel Dodge has not gone the way he or Penske Racing wanted it to. The team has gone from bad to worse on the intermediate ovals the second half of the season, with an average finish of 20.25 on those tracks during the Chase. Add that to Homestead, a track where Newman is averaging a finish outside the top 20 for his career, and you’ve got another also-ran weekend for the No. 12 team. Perhaps the best example of why not to start Newman is this: his last top 10 at the track came back in 2005, when the team made its controversial decision to run the old Dodge Intrepid body instead of the touchy new Charger. Shame they can’t pull that trick this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Martin Truex Jr. has quietly had himself a solid finish to the end of the season. Before suffering an early engine failure at Phoenix last weekend, Truex had rattled off four consecutive top-15 runs, a sign he’s ready to again take the lead at the new DEI. That said, there’s no track Truex would rather close out the season at than Homestead, where he’s averaging a fourth-place finish in Cup. His success at the track has been with him his entire career in NASCAR; between the Nationwide and Cup Series, since the track was re-banked Truex’s worst finish in a touring series race has been seventh. The No. 1 team was a solid eighth in the Cup Series’ last intermediate race at Texas, and should be a lock for a top 10 this Sunday.
Bryan: Well, Mike, you went with the tried and true start Johnson in November formula, and it worked. Nine wins – you’ve officially topped Kyle Busch.
Mike: Thanks, brother. I tried to do you right and let you have Edwards, since he’d won two in a row and looked like he had the momentum. But I forgot to take into account the fact that Chad Knaus would be pissed off about being out to lunch at Texas and come back with a vengeance. I’m just glad you aren’t under a severe weather advisory this week so we can get back to some good old-fashioned trash talking and you can shoot yourself in your own foot with your picks.
Bryan: I fear that picking Harvick may be equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. Harvick was supposed to contend for a win last weekend at one of his best tracks, yet struggled to stay even in the top 10. RCR is consistent, but also consistently not a threat… and let’s face it, most fantasy owners need wins, not top 10s to close out their respective seasons.
Mike: Well, if I subscribed to that theory, then I should be laughing all the way to the bank with your Kenseth pick. I realize he won at Homestead last year, but last weekend he made the most headlines by wrecking more cars than Sam Hornish Jr. has all year. He’s more worried about making it to New York this weekend than winning the race, I fear.
Bryan: Kenseth the robot worried about a banquet? You seem to be overly worried about Vickers having to drive the No. 84 Toyota into the field this weekend. I can’t say I agree with you benching him over what is essentially a change in car number… Vickers qualified for this race even last year when he missed tons of races. And Red Bull’s no slouch on 1.5-milers.
Mike: True, but Vickers has lost the magic of late. You, on the other hand, are looking down your nose at Kahne, who rustled up a 13th-place finish last weekend and ended up fourth in the Miami suburbs in 2006. While their luck has been less than wonderful the last few weeks, he could very easily put in a top-10 run this weekend.
Bryan: As a fantasy racer, I want surefire top 10s, not “very easily could be” top 10s. Unfortunately, I can’t take shots at your Roll the Dice pick of Ragan. Have to give you props for that call.
Mike: Well, thanks for the love. I hope you are able to reap the same benefits from rolling Truex. But after last weekend’s debacle, the just announced merger, and the associated layoffs, it’s hard to imagine the team is going to have too much focus this weekend. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Truex follow last week up with another stinker of a weekend. Who do you think is going to be the best driver neither of us picked?
Bryan: Much as I hate to say it… Kyle Busch. It’d be appropriate for the guy that flat owned the “regular season” to remind everyone that this hasn’t all been the year of JJ.
Mike: You could be right. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his brother bring home another solid finish either, the way they’ve been running lately… assuming their new engine is able to stay together for the whole race. 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 – 13.3
Sit – 21.2
Roll – 22.0
Crank – 10.3
Sit – 20.7
Roll – 17.4