Every week, some friends and I play a little game. We each pick three drivers we think are the best bets to win that week's race. I am very good at this game. In 2008, I've picked the winner (out of my group of three possible winners) in four of six events. Last week at Martinsville, I had Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth, second and first, respectively.
Now, my results aren't always so scintillating, but I do tend to win at this particular contest, and I believe it's because I've sussed out the crucial factor in predicting NASCAR races: track style. There are certain weeks and certain venues whose results correlate very well with other certain weeks and other certain venues. I make notes after each race about who ran well, who ran poorly, and whose result didn't indicate how good or bad his car was. Then I trod out the appropriate notes for the current week's race, do a little number crunching, and voila: I wind up with the winner a pretty nice percentage of the time. (In 2007, I picked the winner -- giving three possible winners each week -- in 18 of 36 events. In both 2005 and 2006, it was 17 of 36.)
This week in Texas is a nice example. Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile track with 24 degrees of banking in the turns and five degrees in the straightaways. Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the Smokeless Set ran just a few weeks ago, is also a 1.5-mile track with 24 degrees of banking in the turns and five degrees in the straightaways. Now, the turns are a little more gradual in Texas, a track that has a slightly shorter front stretch and back stretch, and the surfaces are a bit different, but suffice it to say there are a lot more similarities than differences. Cars that run well at one, usually run well at the other (and at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, too). Since the Car of Tomorrow has only run one event at AMS and zero at TMS, let's just say I'd advice you to rely heavily on what you remember about the Atlanta race just a month or so ago.
On that note, let's look at the drivers I think will be your best fantasy bets on Sunday.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Jimmie Johnson, 4th; Jeff Gordon, 2nd)
Carl Edwards torched the field in Fontana and Vegas in the COT, and was on his way to another victory in Atlanta back on March 9. Leading the race late, Edwards's transmission blew up, and he finished what, on paper, looks like a terrible 42nd. But don't be fooled; Edwards' COT program on the high-banked intermediate speedways is the best around right now. He won at Texas in the spring of 2005, and has a couple career wins in Atlanta to boot. He might not win Sunday, but he should be very, very strong.
I'll also go with Kyle Busch, the man who benefited from Edwards's Atlanta problems back in March, and posted Toyota's first-ever Sprint Cup victory. The younger Busch and Edwards clearly had the day's two best cars in Atlanta, and I think that'll translate very well to Texas. It's worth noting that Busch also finished a strong fourth in Fontana and a respectable 11th at Las Vegas. Toyota has shown superlative horsepower at these big wide-open tracks, and the No. 18 should stand in good stead Sunday as a result.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Ryan Newman, 19th; Martin Truex Jr., 21st)
Ryan Newman underwhelmed at Martinsville last week, but I'll take him again at Texas. Flyin' Ryan hasn't done much contending since his dramatic Daytona 500 victory, but in the three unrestricted super-speedway events since, he's finished 10th (Fontana), 14th (Las Vegas) and 14th (Atlanta). Consistency is a fine attribute in fantasy racing. Newman won a race in Texas in 2003, and was fifth here last fall.
David Ragan has emerged from sleeper-ville, and thundered into the land of the midrange driver. The second-year Roushketeer has benefited from his team's excellent work on their COT program this winter, work that's taken Edwards to the top of the speed charts and also helped Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth to fine starts this season. Ragan was a healthy 14th at Fontana and seventh at Vegas; his 23rd at Atlanta didn't necessarily impress all that much, but he ran better than that for the early parts of the day. I definitely expect Ragan to improve on his two rookie-season Texas results, an ugly 37th and 39th.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Greg Biffle, 20th)
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 Jimmie Johnson. Now, J.J. won at this track just last fall, so this might sound a little silly. But Johnson just hasn't run as well as he normally does at the faster tracks so far in 2008, which is extremely frustrating for his fantasy owners, considering these are the venues where he literally was best in the business over the past few years. At Atlanta, Johnson threatened to go a lap down all day, eventually finishing on the tail end of the lead lap in 13th, and at Las Vegas, he was even worse, finishing two laps down in 29th. Obviously if you're a Johnson owner in Fantasy Stock Car, you have to ride him out this week and hope the No. 48 team finds something that's been missing in their setups. But if you're playing the Stock Car Challenge? Avoid Johnson.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 23rd; Scott Riggs, 41st)
Brian Vickers keeps posting decent efforts, solidifying his spot in the top 35 in owner points, which continues to guarantee him a place in each race. Vickers was very strong in last month's Atlanta event, running inside the top 10 all day and eventually finishing ninth; like Kyle Busch and a host of others, Vickers really seems to benefit from the Toyota horsepower advantage at this track style. He's given you two top-20 finishes in three races on the unrestricted COT tracks so far this year, and another top 20 feels imminent Sunday.
I'm also giving a nod to Paul Menard, who I think can finish inside the field's top half this week. Menard hasn't run up front very much, but he was a respectable 19th at Atlanta, after finishing 22nd at Las Vegas. Take away a wreck at Bristol, and Menard has been between 16th and 27th at every race so far this season, which is the kind of reliability we're looking for when we're digging deeper into the fantasy barrel. Also, Menard finished 15th in this event last year.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: Aric Almirola, 42nd)
David Gilliland doesn't cause his fantasy owners to swoon with confidence. But he's owned in only 22.1 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, and if he can manage a finish inside or near the top 20, he'd be worth the investment. Yates shares an engine program with Roush, which is a pretty good thing for Yates these days, and Gilliland posted finishes of 17th, 23rd and 32nd in the three unrestricted super-speedway events so far in '08. Nothing to write home about, but not abysmal. The kid has three finishes between 19th and 28th in his three career Texas tries in a Sprint Cup car.
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.