Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2008 [Print without images]

Friday, October 17, 2008
Spin the Black Circle: Hendrick power will dominate

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Move over Pat Riley. Jimmie Johnson may need to use your trademarked phrase:

"Three-peat."

J.J. has a 69-point lead on Charlotte race-winner Jeff Burton and an 86-point lead on Greg Biffle; Carl Edwards, who was locked in a close duel with Johnson just a couple of weeks ago, finished 29th at Talladega and 33rd at Charlotte and now is a whopping 168 points behind, with little hope for his first championship.

With five races left in the Chase, is Johnson a shoo-in? Well, not quite. After all, Jeff Gordon was leading Johnson by 68 points after five Chase races last season, and we know how that worked out. However, it took a superhuman effort from the No. 48 to pull it off: Johnson went on to win four straight races after Charlotte in '08, and cruised to his second straight Nextel Cup championship. It's more than unclear that either Burton or Biffle has such a run in him.

However, it's also important to note Gordon didn't exactly perform badly while Johnson was winning races at the end of last season. Gordon finished third, seventh, seventh and 10th in those four Johnson wins, which explains how he was still within 86 points of his teammate heading into Homestead. If Gordon had crashed out of any of those races, he'd not only have let J.J. get insurmountably in front: he'd have let in Clint Bowyer, too. All this is by way of saying if Johnson has a disaster or two in the next few races, we'll be right back in the jumbled mess this Chase started in. Need more proof? Check out this table, which shows which driver was leading the Chase through five of 10 races, by how much, and who the eventual championship winner turned out to be:

Eventual Champ Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson Tony Stewart Kurt Busch
Chase at the Halfway Mark
Year Leader lead over
2007 Jeff Gordon 68 Jimmie Johnson
2006 Jeff Burton 45 Matt Kenseth
2005 Jimmie Johnson tied Tony Stewart
2004 Kurt Busch 24 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In each of the Chase's first two seasons, the leader after Charlotte (or the guy who was tied for the lead) went on to win the points title. But in the past two, once we've seen disaster befall the top couple of guys (Burton and Kenseth), and once we've seen a second-place guy go on an insane hot streak. Either way, what looks set in stone right now most decidedly isn't. Of course, the Hendrick cars are as consistent as they come at Martinsville, so if we're looking for a points shakeup, it isn't likely to happen Sunday.

Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:

Jeff Gordon over Jimmie Johnson
Denny Hamlin over Tony Stewart
Jeff Burton over Clint Bowyer
Carl Edwards over Kyle Busch
Kevin Harvick over Greg Biffle
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Matt Kenseth
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Jeff Burton over Greg Biffle
Jeff Gordon over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Matt Kenseth over Kevin Harvick

"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 6th; Carl Edwards, 33rd)
The top two cars in the Hendrick stable are so consistently good at Martinsville, you'd be foolish to go anywhere else with your top fantasy plays. Jimmie Johnson is my best bet this week. That's not to say he'll necessarily win the race, because he doesn't have incentive to push the envelope, but he hasn't finished outside the top 10 at Martinsville since the spring of 2002, a span of 12 races. He won each of the first two Car of Tomorrow events at this track (last season), and finished fourth here back in March. He'll be in the top five Sunday, come rain or shine. Well, OK, they don't run in the rain, so: come shine.

Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon is actually my pick to win the race outright, but because he might be more willing to push his car (and the competition), he's a slightly riskier fantasy selection. Still, Gordon hasn't finished outside the top 10 at this track since the fall of 2002 (that's 11 straight races), and of course has those seven career Martinsville wins. Since Gordon is 245 points out of the Chase lead, he's got nothing to drive for here except a win, to break his victory-free skein in 2008. I think he'll do it. The guy has finished second, third and second here in the Car of Tomorrow.

"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Kasey Kahne, 2nd; Elliott Sadler, 20th)
Juan Pablo Montoya is a nice sleeper for a top-15 here, because Martinsville's exceedingly sharp and flat turns in some ways resemble a road course's hairpins, and of course, Montoya is an awesome road-course driver. In his three career starts at this venue, all in the Car of Tomorrow, JPM has finished 16th, eighth and 13th, and he'll be under-priced for Sunday's event.

I'll also take Martin Truex Jr. as a surprise top-15 entrant. Truex has never been very good at Martinsville: he's never topped 19th here, and his finishing average in the COT at this place is right around 23rd. But that's never made very much sense to me. Truex is a really good driver on flatter tracks, as evidenced by his dominant runs at Loudon over the past couple years: he's got four straight New Hampshire finishes between third and seventh. I think some of those skills finally translate to Martinsville, and the No. 1 team looks sharp Sunday.

"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Denny Hamlin, 16th)
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 will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'm staying away from Greg Biffle. (Remember, during the season's final 10 races, I'm only allowing myself to select "Not For You" drivers who are actually in the Chase.) Per usual, I issue my regular disclaimer that Biffle (and every team in the Chase) has tremendous equipment and always has a chance of flat-out winning nearly any event he enters. But Martinsville isn't a place where the Roushketeers are typically all that great, and The Biff himself has managed only one finish better than 20th in the past five Martinsville events. The No. 16 team won't like to hear this, considering they've still got a legit chance at their first points title, but they're going to be in survival mode in this one -- hoping to hang on until Biffle can get back on the mile-and-a-half cookie-cutters he loves so much.

"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: David Reutimann, 32nd; Sam Hornish Jr., 22nd)
Travis Kvapil finished 18th here back in March, and overall on the flat tracks in the Car of Tomorrow has a finishing average right around 20th. Kvapil has stumbled badly over the past month, his pole at Talladega notwithstanding, and hasn't ventured inside the top 20 in any race since Loudon, the Chase-opener from last month. Still, given that he was pretty good in that race (and at Richmond the week before), and given his top-half finish at this track earlier this season, I feel all right taking a deep flier on this Yates team.

And I'll also give a nod to Aric Almirola, who fills in once again for Mark Martin in the DEI No. 8. Almirola qualified and practiced really well at Martinsville back in March, but had his radiator blow up on him during the race, whereupon he finished 42nd. But remember: Almirola has been really solid on the short tracks this year in relief of Martin, and finished 18th at Loudon back in September. He needs to keep his nose clean and his car on the track, but if he does, I think Almirola gets you a surprise top 20 on Sunday.

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.