|ESPN.com: 2008||[Print without images]|
Paddock talk this week has centered around rain tires.
In the Nationwide race last weekend at a road course in Montreal, NASCAR decided not to be vanquished by the elements, and outfitted the day's cars with rain tires. Even as water streamed from the heavens onto Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the Nationwide cars kept racing (until, at least, a true downpour made visibility impossible, but the race did get going again with a very wet track). It made for exciting viewing for the fans, even if some of the drivers didn't know what they were doing, as when Jacques Villeneuve and Joey Logano wrecked late under caution. It was particularly amusing to watch Carl Edwards use a squeegee on his windshield while driving around during a yellow flag.
Now, one of the primary bummers about NASCAR, especially for TV fans, is that events get delayed by the faintest of sprinkles, and sometimes even get declared over when they're only halfway finished, as happened at Loudon earlier this summer. Remember Michael Waltrip winning a rain-shortened Daytona 500? Ick. I absolutely think NASCAR R&D should do more research into rain packages, wet-weather tires, windshield wipers, short-proof dashboards and anything else needed to run in the rain. I've had many friends tell me they think it's dumb that these races don't get run in the rain. They think it's exciting and suggest that the drivers should just slow down.
The Nationwide race in Montreal proved that my friends were right. Provided NASCAR can convince itself that drivers wouldn't be putting themselves in more harm's way than usual, I think we should see rain tires and rain races on the Sprint Cup level. It won't happen this year, and probably won't happen next year. But don't bet against it happening eventually.
"Given To Fly" (Featured elite drivers)
(Last Race: Denny Hamlin, 23rd; Jimmie Johnson, third)
Serendipity dictates that this week's Sprint Cup race is also on a road course, just like Montreal, in the currently-rain-soaked Northeast, at Watkins Glen. Don't be fooled: you won't see rain tires on Sunday. But you will see Tony Stewart near the front. Smoke hasn't won in a full calendar year, since this race in 2007, and you could make the argument that the No. 20 team hasn't been completely focused since Stewart made the announcement that he's leaving Gibbs at the end of the season. But last week's second-place finish at Pocono indicates to me that the team has its eye back on the ball, and this might be Stewart's best chance for a dominant performance the rest of the season. In nine career starts at Watkins Glen, he's got four victories.
Jeff Gordon also has four wins at the Glen, and while Sonoma has been his better road course lately (his most recent Watkins Glen finishes have gone: ninth, 13th and 14th), he's a very nice fantasy option at any and all road courses, simply because they suit his driving style so well. I don't give Gordon as a good a chance to win as Stewart, but provided he stays wheels-down, he should give you a very solid fantasy finish.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange drivers of note)
(Last Race: Brian Vickers, 28th; Mark Martin, eighth)
Here's where picking fantasy drivers on a road course gets fun: we get to use guys we don't normally use in fantasy. Juan Pablo Montoya might only have finished 39th his first time around Watkins Glen in a Cup car, but that was because of an accident with Kevin Harvick in which those two hot-headed drivers nearly got into a fistfight. Montoya already has a win at a road course in the Cup series (at Sonoma), and is a great handler of right- and left-hand turns.
You should also strongly consider using Robby Gordon, who has a win at this track and is a regular visitor to the top five here: in his most recent six Watkins Glen events, the other Gordon has finished outside the top five only once. Sold.
"Not For You" (Beware of this driver)
(Last Race: Kyle Busch, 36th)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy stinks at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'm staying away from Kasey Kahne. A born speedway driver, Kahne doesn't have a lot of luck on road courses. In fact, in his nine career starts on a road course in a Cup car, Kahne has never finished higher than 14th, and has cracked the top 20 only twice. His two finishes in the Car of Tomorrow on roadies were 33rd (at Sonoma this year) and 26th (at the Glen last year).
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly sleepers)
(Last Race: AJ Allmendinger, 19th; Bobby Labonte, 33rd)
You should have all sorts of options among less-expensive drivers this week, as the road-course ringers try to make the race on time. However, Ron Fellows is the only ringer guaranteed of a spot, no matter how he qualifies, because he's taking over Regan Smith's usual DEI ride. Fellows finished fourth last year, plus he won that Nationwide race in Montreal last weekend. He definitely deserves your fantasy attention.
The other potential sleepers for Watkins Glen all need to qualify, which means if rain washes out Friday afternoon's session, none of them will be in the race. However, assuming they do make the event, you should be taking a look at Boris Said, who's a regular threat on the roadies, as well as Patrick Carpentier, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Brian Simo, P.J. Jones and/or Michael McDowell. Said would likely be your preferred bet, but don't rule out a strong run from Carpentier and Ambrose.
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.