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Thursday, October 2, 2008
SCC Preview: Amp Energy 500 at Talladega

By Kevin Rounce
ESPN.com

The MLB playoffs have begun. I do love baseball, and this is a great time of year, even if my beloved Mariners were eliminated in May.

In a way, the MLB playoffs are a lot like the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There are some exciting moments that will be remembered forever. In each game or race, teams can probably overcome one mistake, but a second mistake makes winning nearly impossible. In addition, the long, arduous season can be quickly undone by a series of mistakes or bad luck over the course of a playoff series or a few races.

No one has personified that final scenario more than Kyle Busch. He racked up the wins and great finishes in NASCAR's "regular season," but when the Chase started, Busch proceeded to have mechanical problems and some bad luck that have all but officially removed him from the title chase. Now, last week I predicted that Busch would bounce back and win some races, and I thought that would begin at Kansas, seeing as how he had won at Chicagoland, a very similar track. But another poor finish at Kansas Speedway has any more wins by Busch in doubt.

This week, the Sprint Cup boys head to Talladega, a restrictor-plate track. In three plate races so far in 2008, Busch has won two of them, and he finished fourth in the Daytona 500. So what is a Stock Car Challenge owner to do? Well, judging by those three results, he is the clear favorite. But the results of his past three races paint a picture of a driver who has been snakebitten and is just as likely to get caught up in the "big one" on Sunday as he is to finish in the top 10. That kind of risk, at this late date, is just too much to take a chance on. I ranked Busch 10th, because it seems like he should be good, but I can't trust him enough to place him where he probably deserves. For my SCC team, I'm going to say thanks but no thanks. It wouldn't surprise me if he won, but there's far too much risk involved with starting him right now.

The favorites

Usually, I list a couple of different drivers. This week you get three. More directly, the Hendrick trio of drivers: Jimmie Johnson (Market value: 24.0), Jeff Gordon (21.3) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (22.4). Those three drivers have combined for 12 wins and 31 top-10s in 61 starts at Talladega, and Gordon (6) and Junior (5) are the winningest active drivers there. All three are excellent restrictor-plate drivers, and now that each is on the same team, drafting partnerships will be natural and very fruitful. When it comes to SCC, you can get all three in your lineup if you're willing to sell off a higher-priced driver like a Greg Biffle. If you want to keep a driver whose value has increased significantly and can fit only two, I rank them Junior, Johnson and then Gordon. I have Johnson and Junior on my squad and will hold on to Biffle because he has increased his value dramatically.

The next tier

Tony Stewart (21.0) is a factor in every plate race. He has led laps in nine straight races at Talladega, leading double-digit laps four of those times. For good measure, he has led double-digit laps in eight of the past 10 races at Daytona, the other restrictor-plate track. He has had some bad luck recently, but I expect him to be a factor again this weekend. Granted, at plate tracks, bad luck happens, but Stewart rarely suffers at a plate track because of a bad car or poor performance.

Kevin Harvick (21.2) continues to rack up the top-10s. He's up to nine straight and 10 in the past 11 races. The drawback here is that none of those top-10s occurred at a plate track, and he hasn't fared too well at plate tracks this year. Then again, he did win the Daytona 500 last year, and he sports an average finish of 14.3 at Talladega. I foresee Harvick getting another top-10 this week.

The sleepers

They might be a couple of midlevel sleepers, but look at Ryan Newman (18.7) and Kurt Busch (17.5). The Penske teammates both have great résumés at plate tracks. Newman won the Daytona 500 in February and was eighth at the earlier Talladega race. Kurt Busch has two top-5s at Daytona and has the best average finish at Talladega among active drivers. You can get three stud drivers, grab one of these two and then take a shot with a sleeper to balance out your squad.

That sleeper could very well be Robby Gordon (14.2). Kyle Busch has the best average finish at plate tracks in 2008, but would you have guessed Gordon was second? He has an 11th-place finish and two top-10s in the three plate races this year. He has really struggled this year, but he often runs well at plate tracks, even if the finishes don't match. Gordon is cheap in SCC and could pay off with a top-15, and that would be huge for your team.

Avoidance

My lowest-ranked Chase driver is Greg Biffle, and that's why he'll find his spot here for me. Now, those of you who had him at the start of the Chase should keep in mind that his reasonable value will not allow you to drop him. But he's not a guy to look to add until after the series has passed through Talladega. Biffle has no top-10s in 11 Talladega starts, with his best finish being 13th. His recent run cannot be denied, but his first, and perhaps only, struggle of the Chase might be this weekend.

Rounce's roster

Jimmie Johnson (Locked in at 22.8): Even if I thought he'd finish 43rd, I couldn't drop him given his increase in value.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (22.4): My pick to win the race, and no, I'm not just trying to suck up to Junior Nation.
Greg Biffle (Locked in at 21.5): Not wild about his chances this week, but he will recover any loss in value next week at Charlotte.
Kurt Busch (17.5): This guy does well at plate tracks. As long as he avoids bad luck, he'll finish strong.
Robby Gordon (14.2): A very risky driver, but he's cheap, and that helps mitigate the risk.