Data. We have data.
With the advent of the Car of Tomorrow, my biggest lament wasn't over speed or handling; it was over that toilet-flushing sound of years of really good, track-by-track, driver-by-driver data going bye-bye. It didn't matter anymore that Jimmie Johnson was the best cookie-cutter driver in the old car. It didn't matter that Greg Biffle was tough to beat at Homestead. Sure, yes, drivers who liked certain tracks probably would still like them, but they might not perform well at those tracks any longer.
But the COT ran 13 short- and/or flat-track events in '07 and now has wrapped up the first seven events of '08. Finally, I feel like I'm gaining some footing, especially on tracks like the one where Saturday night's race will take place: Phoenix International Raceway. An egg-shaped one-miler that's relatively flat in the corners (11 degrees on one side, nine degrees on the other, nine degrees on the backstretch and three degrees on the frontstretch), Phoenix has hosted two COT events (Jeff Gordon won the first, Jimmie Johnson the second), and we've seen a grand total of nine events on tracks I consider instructive to flat-track results.
So let's sift through this blessed data and come up with some fantasy winners for Phoenix:
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Carl Edwards, 1st; Kyle Busch, 3rd)
In those nine flat-track COT events, Denny Hamlin has posted two wins, including one a couple of weeks ago at Martinsville. He also has finished in the top 6 in seven of the nine races. There is, truly, Something About Denny. In this event last spring, I thought Hamlin had the best car, but he sped in the pits early and went a lap down with his penalty. Yet, he still came back and finished third. And while I grant you that he benefited from some prescient pit strategy two weeks ago at Martinsville, leading to good track position, he had a mighty fine automobile under him as well. I think he will win Saturday night.
Jimmie Johnson also should be strong. The Hendrick COT advantage seems pretty well nonexistent at bigger tracks, but at the flat venues, it's still around. JJ finished fourth at Martinsville, and his teammates finished second, sixth and seventh. Of course, Johnson won last fall at Phoenix, and he also has posted top-10 finishes in five consecutive Phoenix races. He rolls off seventh for Saturday's race, and I expect he'll stay near the front all night.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Ryan Newman, 4th; David Ragan, 13th)
Did someone just say something about a COT advantage on flat tracks? Casey Mears is the Hendrick minion who finished seventh at Martinsville, and he posted a Phoenix career-best 13th-place finish in his winged Hendrick jalopy last fall. Now that he's pretty safely inside the top 35 in owner points (he's 27th), Mears can breathe just a little easier and focus on doing enough the rest of this season not to lose his job in the No. 5. I think he will give you a top-15 finish Saturday.
And I'm going back to the Ragan well. Suddenly, the No. 6 is one of the most consistent teams out there; since his wreck-induced 42nd at the Daytona 500, Ragan hasn't finished worse than 23rd in six events and has four top-20 results in those races. He was an impressive 11th two weeks ago at Martinsville, which tends to be a pretty good predictor for Phoenix. So despite the fact that Ragan finished 32nd and 41st at Phoenix last season, I'm rolling the dice and sticking with him as one of the best undervalued drivers of the weekend.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 2nd)
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 Kurt Busch. Listen, the elder Busch has a very nice history at Phoenix. He's won here (in the spring of '05), he's never finished worse than 24th, and he has seven top-20s and five top-10s in eight career starts at this venue. But the Blue Deuce hasn't had it together this year, currently stands 15th in points and didn't look very strong finishing 33rd at Martinsville. History says Busch has a chance Saturday, but I'd rather look elsewhere.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 16th; Paul Menard, 17th)
Mark Garrow, my pal from ESPN and Jayski, will hurl epithets in my direction because of how poorly Jamie McMurray has performed for his fantasy team, but I actually kind of like the No. 26 as a sleeper this weekend. After his horrible start, McMurray finished eighth at Martinsville and followed that up with an unexpected (to me) 14th at Texas. Jamie Mac has exactly zero top-10 finishes in nine Phoenix tries, but if we're investing in him this week, we don't need a top-10. A top-20 will do, and he's got three of those at this track. Here's a guess that Roush's overall strength so far in '08 carries McMurray to 15th or better.
I also like the smooth and steady hand of Bobby Labonte this week. Since the fall of '04, Labonte has five top-10 finishes in seven starts at this venue, including an eighth in his Petty COT last season; he also had an 18th last year. Labonte disappointed with a 25th a couple of weeks ago at Martinsville, but Saturday night's race could be more to his liking: a battle of attrition. He'll launch from the 34th spot, which means he probably doesn't have a super-fast piece, and he could even go a lap down. But Phoenix has been known for wrecks and blown engines in the past, and hopefully Labonte hangs around long enough to finish in the top half of the field.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: David Gilliland, 15th)
Very quietly, DEI has turned in some OK results in this first post-Junior season. Martin Truex Jr. is threatening the Chase again, Mark Martin has driven pretty well (including an eighth-place finish last week in Texas), Aric Almirola shocked Bristol by finishing eighth in Martin's ride and even Regan Smith in the No. 01 pulled out a very nice result at Martinsville. Smith makes an interesting Hail Mary this week; he's owned in only 25.7 percent of ESPN leagues, yet his 14th at Martinsville indicates he's got the flat-track chops to be competitive Saturday. Now, unfortunately, Smith hasn't topped 30th at any other race so far this season, which explains why he's so lightly owned. But if the final driver on your team didn't qualify this week, at least you know Smith will be in the race (he's teetering on the brink, but he's 35th in owner points), and I think he could give you a top-25.
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.