|ESPN.com: 2009||[Print without images]|
Pick your cliché for Kyle Busch. His back is against the wall, there's no tomorrow, it's not over until the fat lady sings. Sitting 14th in the Sprint Cup standings and needing to move up two spots to make the Chase, the 24-year-old driver needs to come up big at Richmond in Saturday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, the final race before the 12 playoff contenders are decided -- and he will.
If there was a place Busch could really take it to the competition and put the heat on guys like Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who are trying to keep him out of the top 12, this is it. In the nine events Busch has run at Richmond, he has a win (earlier this year) and seven top-5 finishes. His other two finishes were 20th and 15th, leaving his average finish for the three-quarter mile at a sizzling 6.1.
Busch has been the man on short tracks this year, with victories in three of four events and a devilishly good 666 points, ranking him No. 1 in that category.
The bottom line is that I think Busch will duplicate what Jeremy Mayfield did at Richmond in 2004. Mayfield came into the final race of the regular season needing to win to make the Chase, and he did, leading the most laps in the process.
There are two guys, though, who I think will have something to say about that. In the past four Richmond races, Tony Stewart has been runner-up three times and finished fourth in the other. His new team was just developing when he came home in the top-5 in two short-track races earlier this year. Add the fact that his organization is vastly improved and he's got nothing to lose going for broke, and Stewart will be a handful.
Then, there's Denny Hamlin, who clinched his spot in the Chase last week and desperately, and I do mean desperately, wants to win in his hometown. In 2008, he should have won the spring race. The FedEx Toyota driver led 381 laps, but a flat tire took the air out of his dream. Hamlin then came back to finish third in the fall, and this spring he led 141 laps but faded to 14th, his worst performance in the first four short-track races of '09. He's finished fifth and second at Bristol and was runner-up at Martinsville. That's why Hamlin has scored the second-most points (641) on the short tracks this year.
When it comes to the four short-track races, only two drivers have finished in the top 10 in every one of them: Mark Martin and Ryan Newman. Martin has an average finish of 5.0 and scored the third-most points (636), while Newman's average finish is 5.7, which ranks him fourth with 616 points.
After having problems in the first race at Bristol, Jeff Gordon has bounced back on the short tracks with three top-10 finishes and two top-5 runs. That puts him fifth in short-track points at 566, just ahead of teammate Jimmie Johnson (562), who is trying to win the end-of-summer race at Richmond for the third time in a row.
There's been a lot talk lately about how good Marcos Ambrose is on the road courses, but he's a pretty good "flat tracker" and could be some help Saturday night at a fairly low cap price. In the four races under a mile this year, the Aussie driver has had finishes of third, 11th, 14th and 10th, scoring the seventh-highest amount of short-track points.
At about the same price, Jeff Burton has had a miserable season, but one of his highlights was a third-place run at Richmond in May. He is eighth in short-track points ahead of Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
In your never-ending quest to find some "budget boys" to squeeze onto your team, Sam Hornish Jr. could offer some big help because it's not a stretch that he could follow the spring's sixth-place finish with another top-10. There's also Martin Truex Jr. to think about. He has a top-5 at Richmond, and back in May, he started fourth and led 22 laps before a top finish went out the window because of late race problems. If you need to go really low, think again about David Gilliland, who delivered a 19th-place finish at Atlanta. He finished 18th last year in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 and is subbing for Robby Gordon, the guy who finished 16th in May.
On my dark-horse lookout this week, keep an eye on Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Harvick was running fourth in May when he was wrecked. He was top-10 in the three previous Richmond races and scored a win there in 2006. Dale Jr. has won three times in the capital of Virginia and was fourth a year ago.
Big bucks (SCC Value 22.0 and up)
This track is in Tony Stewart's (25.0) wheelhouse. I also think you have a potential winner in Denny Hamlin (23.8), who will save you some cap space. Two other guys with top-5 potential and a nice price are Mark Martin (22.2) and Ryan Newman (22.5). Jeff Gordon (24.0) will also be worth a thought or two, as will teammate Jimmie Johnson (23.7).
Serious Coin (SCC Value 18.0 to 22.0)
My No. 1 pick here is obviously Kyle Busch (21.9). The two dark horses in this group are Casey Mears (18.8) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (18.4). Both could be sneaky top-10 to top-15 picks. After that, nobody really leaps off the page. Depending how they qualify and practice, Clint Bowyer (21.2), David Reutimann (20.9), Jeff Burton (19.3) and Marcos Ambrose (19.3) might be worth a little consideration.
Budget Boys (SCC Value 13 .0 to 18.0)
In this group, I really like Kevin Harvick (17.9), Martin Truex Jr. (17.9) and Sam Hornish Jr. (15.4). The only Roush Fenway driver I'll even consider for Richmond is Jamie McMurray (17.9). Another guy that you should think about is A.J. Allmendinger (17.1). He doesn't have as much upside as the other four, but he could go top-20. Brad Keselowski (17.6) could also be of interest as he steps back into the James Finch Chevy that was bullet fast in the spring with Mike Bliss behind the wheel. He ran up front a good deal of the evening, but a late race crash took him out of contention for what looked to be a top-15 run. If you need to go low, then David Gilliland might be back on the radar screen. He was 19th at Atlanta, subbing for Bill Elliott in the Wood Brothers Ford. This week, he's driving the No. 7 for Robby Gordon, who's going to be out in the desert racing.
Debit ... not credit
Up at the top, there's nobody at Roush Fenway Racing that really interests me. I don't see much coming out of Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers don't do much for me either. I'm also recommend you stay away from Juan Pablo Montoya. He's a tweener this week. He'll be OK, but not great, with top-10 or top-15 potential. The problem is there are too many drivers just above and below him in value who should outperform him, so I don't see him as a wise investment.
In the middle, because there are no out-and-out "bow wows," I don't rule anyone out after Kyle Busch. Yet I don't have a strong recommendation for any other driver in the serious coin category, either. You'll have to keep an eagle eye on practice and qualifying to see who else in the group you might be able to team up with "Shrub."
Among the budget busters, some folks might be tempted to look at David Ragan as a potential floor pick, but I just don't see it.
Guru Garrow's gang
After getting wasted at Atlanta, scoring a measly 465 points, I'm blowing up my team going into Richmond and the final race of Segment 2 in Stock Car Challenge. I'm trading Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Dale Jr. and David Gilliland, keeping only Mark Martin. The other four guys I'm adding to him for my preliminary team are Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr.
Mark Garrow covers fantasy racing for ESPN.com.