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Friday, February 22, 2008
Spin the Black Circle: Auto Club 500

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Puzzled about last weekend's Daytona 500? Vexed about what to do with your underachieving fantasy team after one week?

I refer you to that great bible of Sprint Cup racing, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

No, not that part about the answer to the question of the meaning of life, the universe and everything being 42. Because if that was the advice we were supposed to follow, we'd all own Juan Pablo Montoya (Whose car number is ... oh, you get the picture).

Rather, I refer you to the soothing words that appeared emblazoned on the Guide itself:

Don't panic!

Seriously. It's been one race. And superspeedway events are, at best, random. Good cars get wrecked by crummy cars. Middling cars get a big push on the last lap and pass guys who've been better all day. Stuff breaks on the cars of four-time series champs.

Fantasy NASCAR isn't always like this. I promise. Order will be restored beginning this weekend in Fontana, California, where the Smokeless Set will convene for the season's second race, at a nice, big, wide-open two-mile track where the better cars will be able to escape forward, away from the maddening crowd, and where crummier cars will fall multiple laps down and often see their engines go kablooey. Will a couple of the sport's big names struggle? Yeah, probably. It happens. But my words to Ford Prefect's ears, at the race's finish, the top 10 will look like a who's-who of Sprint Cup elite.

"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9th; Jimmie Johnson, 27th)
The history of Fontana (and its sister two-mile track in Michigan) is inextricably intertwined with the history of Roush-Fenway. A Roushketeer has won three of the past five races at this venue, and has finished in the top 5 of every Cup event here save one since 1997. (A Roush driver has won three of the past five events at Michigan, too.) Carl Edwards is my pick to finally break through and win in SoCal. Edwards has finished sixth or better in six of the seven races he's run at this venue, yet has never taken the checkers. He was the fastest car here through much of the January testing, and was also very strong at the high-banked track in Vegas. After a middling Daytona 500, I'm not going to be surprised to see King Carl break into the top 10 in points with a win Sunday.

I'd also grab Matt Kenseth in the Stock Car Challenge. Kenseth's value in that game went from $22.6 million to $22.1 million because he crashed out of the 500 in a wreck not of his own making and finished 36th. I'm wagering that'll be the last time you get the No. 17 at such a discount, so jumping on his bandwagon here locks you in at a discount on Kenseth, at least until the game's second segment. (That would also be an argument for using Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who'll also be strong this weekend, but I'm riding the Roush drivers hard.) Kenseth has won two of the past three Fontana Cup events, though he probably had the second-best car here in his win last spring, but Tony Stewart sped in the pits. It remains to be seen whether Roush's past excellence here will translate in the "Car of Tomorrow," but lacking any other data, that's where I'm placing my fantasy bets this weekend.

Mark Martin
Mark Martin has enjoyed success at Fontana, and looked good in his new number at Daytona before an accident ended his day.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Mark Martin, 31st; Jamie McMurray, 26th)
Martin was sailing along in Daytona, minding his own business with what looked to be a top-10 car when he ran over debris and suffered two flat tires, which caused him to go a lap down. Eventually, he worked his way back up through the field, got the Lucky Dog and got back on the lead lap, only to get caught up in the 10-car wreck initiated by Dave Blaney. I'm not holding that result against ol' Martin. He hasn't finished worse than 12th in the past seven Fontana events, and he won here way back in California Speedway's second-ever event, in 1998. He's also led a lap here in six straight. While it's hard to be completely sold on the "new" (read: downsized) DEI and how well its engines will run at an unrestricted high-banked track like this one, I'm getting over those fears because I expect if anyone can ease his car into a nice clean finish at a track where massive wrecks aren't typically a concern, it's Martin.

Kasey Kahne makes a fascinating play this week. Before 2007, this was the kind of track where Kahne did his damage; he has seven career Cup wins, six of which have come on high-banked, intermediate, unrestricted speedways (and one of which came here at Fontana, in the fall of '06). Of course, the entire Evernham organization went to pot last year, and it's unclear whether it'll ever be an elite organization again. Kahne is one of the sport's most popular drivers, but managed exactly one top-5 finish in all of '07 and wound up a moribund 19th in points. Rumors have swirled around the circuit that Kahne and his teammates struggled because of an engineering error made in the winter of '06, but it's hard to believe a multimillion-dollar organization couldn't overcome such a mistake in an entire year, isn't it? Anyway, if Kahne's going to prove he's back, he'll have to start this week, at a venue he loves. In January testing at this track, Kahne had a car he could put into the top 10; if he gives us that output Sunday, we'll be happy.

"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Tony Stewart, 3rd; Carl Edwards, 19th)
I know I just picked Mark Martin. But because of his experience, I consider him a special case. In general, the teams I'm most suspicious about right now are Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the squads who merged engine programs this winter. Can these new engines stand up to the wide-open pounding they'll take at Fontana? I'm worried, which is why I'll stay away from Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick. Listen, Harvick could easily have won this race last spring; he made an amazing late charge at Kenseth, and only finished 17th because he ran out of fuel late. But he also struggled on downforce tracks for the rest of 2007, and it's unclear whether those troubles are behind him. As for Truex, he's driving engines that are at least kissing cousins to the motors that blew up seven times for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in '07, he's having to lead a team that's fighting to stay relevant, and again, I'm entirely not convinced these RCR/DEI power plants are ready to run nearly 200 mph for three hours. Early-season races are about answering questions, and this is a pretty big question. I'm prepared to be wrong about these engines, and to adjust my thinking as soon as Vegas, but for this week, I wouldn't take the fantasy risk.

"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: David Gilliland, 28th; Dave Blaney, 38th)
After finishing fifth in the Daytona 500, does Reed Sorenson count as a sleeper? Yeah, probably. He's never won a Cup race, and finished 22nd in Cup points last season. But if Sorenson is going to save his job at Ganassi (his contract expires at the end of '08, and rumors persist that Dan Wheldon could come to NASCAR as soon as '09 ... if that happens, Ganassi sure would make a logical landing spot), it's time for him to find consistency he's never exhibited in the sport's biggest series, and that includes staying clean on a track where multi-car wrecks don't typically take down half the field. Sorenson's best tracks in his two years as a Cup driver have been Michigan and Atlanta (he has two top-10 finishes at both). Each of which bears some similarity to Fontana. Sorenson was also second-fastest in the final day of Fontana testing, behind Edwards.

David Ragan
David Ragan will look for a happier ending at Fontana after finding the wall in the Daytona 500.
I also think David Ragan makes an interesting play for Fantasy Stock Car players who have tough sit/start decisions. Ragan is an inexpensive way to buy into what I think will be a strong day for Roush. He was 16th and 12th at Fontana in '07, and 21st and 18th at that sister track up in the Irish Hills of Michigan. A top-20 finish would be just fine for the second-year Driver X.

"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 12th)
It's been a long time since Jeremy Mayfield has made any kind of splash in Sprint Cup racing; it seems like a decade since Mayfield was shaking things up by making the first two Chases for the Championship while driving for Evernham. After a disastrous detour through Bill Davis Racing, Mayfield has landed at Haas CNC in the No. 70 car (which in 2007 was the No. 66, driven by Jeff Green). Because the No. 66 finished 2007 32nd in points, Mayfield is guaranteed a spot in the season's first five events, and he'd better perform well, because if he falls out of the top 35, he'll have to qualify for each week's race on time. Things started acceptably well for Mayfield at Daytona, where he quietly finished 23rd, and if test speeds at Fontana a couple weeks ago are any indication, he might have a fast piece Sunday. In four test sessions, the No. 70 posted the 11th-, 22nd-, 10th- and sixth-quickest laps. Mayfield could be a decent fill-in driver at the bottom of your Stock Car Challenge entry this week, and he might even be a free agent in your Fantasy Stock Car league.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time fantasy sports writing association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.