Five of the season's final eight events will take place on downforce tracks: Kansas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas and the reconfigured Homestead. So, per usual, the team with the best cookie-cutter program is going to have the best chance at winning the 2008 Sprint Cup championship. Among the leading contenders, let's take a look at who's been best at downforce tracks this season.
After his last-place finish at Dover last week, Busch is out of contention for the 2008 championship, but I include him here for reference's sake; he clearly has been the best driver on the downforce tracks all season. However, given that Johnson, Edwards and Biffle have separated themselves from the pack (they are within 10 points of one another, while fourth-place Jeff Burton is 82 points back), for the moment, I'm willing to stipulate that our titleholder will come from that trio. (I'll admit, though, that's subject to change.)
What do we see? Well, each guy has had a couple of outlier finishes (most notably Edwards in the first Atlanta race, which he had won when he blew an engine while continuing to build an insurmountable lead), and each guy has had some great finishes. Edwards clearly had an advantage at the aero-sensitive tracks at the season's commencement and probably should have won all four of the first such events. But since then, Biffle has taken the lead in terms of consistency, which is what you need to win the Chase. Meanwhile, Johnson was so dominant at Fontana a few weeks back that it's hard to say he won't go out and sweep all five downforce events.
The bottom line? We can't really say, now can we? Edwards' presumptive advantage on this style of track appears to be mostly gone, but of course, he won as recently as the second Michigan race, so he still will be very strong. Biffle is riding two straight wins at non-downforce tracks, so maybe that means he has all the momentum. And Johnson simply has been the king of the aero tracks during his two-year reign. The bottom line is that we don't really know. And that's why we'll watch.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Carl Edwards over Kyle Busch
Jimmie Johnson over Greg Biffle
Kevin Harvick over Jeff Burton
Tony Stewart over Jeff Gordon
Matt Kenseth over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Clint Bowyer over Denny Hamlin
Jimmie Johnson over Carl Edwards
Greg Biffle over Kevin Harvick
Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Jeff Gordon
Kyle Busch over Tony Stewart
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Carl Edwards, 3rd; Kyle Busch, 43rd)
I can't help it: I'm swayed by my memory of the circuit's most recent downforce race, in which Jimmie Johnson just dominated the field at Fontana. He cruised to the pole, and despite getting shuffled back into the pack by various cautions and pit stops, he always managed to get right back to the front. Now, Kansas isn't exactly the equivalent of Fontana -- it's a half-mile shorter and a little steeper in the turns. But I still think JJ has the best shot at a win, and I strongly believe he makes a very safe fantasy play.
I'll also take Carl Edwards. Granted, his dominance on aero-sensitive tracks really came about six months ago, but the fact that he won Michigan in late August gives me hope that he'll churn out another top-5 Sunday. I know Greg Biffle is the defending champ at Kansas (he won on fuel-mileage in 2007), but that was in the old car. I also know The Biff has looked really good and consistent in the new car at aero tracks lately (see the chart above). But if I'm taking a Roush car this weekend to anchor my fantasy team, it's King Carl.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Martin Truex Jr., 20th; Mark Martin, 4th)
If it seems like it's been a while since Brian Vickers' name got mentioned in Sprint Cup races, that's because the series hasn't run at a big, wide-open aero track in about a month. Vickers made his bones this year with terrific finishes at cookie-cutters, while smaller tracks like Richmond, Loudon and Dover really kind of escaped him. But Vickers finished fourth and seventh at Michigan, 11th and 12th at Fontana, sixth at Chicagoland and ninth at Atlanta. I think he'll have a top-10 car Sunday, and you won't have to pay top-10 fantasy bucks to get him on your team.
Similarly, another young gun who has had a great 2008, David Ragan, made his bones on this track style. Heck, Ragan nearly made the Chase on the strength of his abilities at these venues, where the Roushketeers in general have been really strong. He was 14th and 13th at Fontana, eighth and third at Michigan, eighth at Chicagoland and seventh at Vegas. Plan on using Ragan and/or Vickers a lot on your fantasy team in these final eight events.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Denny Hamlin, 38th)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding 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 Denny Hamlin again. (Remember, during the season's final 10 races, I'm allowing myself to select "Not For You" drivers only from those who actually are in the Chase.) I issue my regular disclaimer that Hamlin (and every team in the Chase) has tremendous equipment and always has a chance of flat-out winning nearly any event he enters. But Hamlin has been much better on the smaller, flatter tracks lately (as is his wont), while he's been posting finishes like 39th at the second Michigan race and 40th at Chicagoland (granted, he was third in the second Fontana event). I just think there are safer plays among the very expensive fantasy drivers.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Juan Pablo Montoya, 39th; Dave Blaney, 12th)
Team Red Bull has created its exciting future by performing quite well at the aero-sensitive tracks; I've already mentioned Brian Vickers, and A.J. Allmendinger could be due for a top-20 finish Sunday. Now, that's a bit of a dicey proposition, considering Allmendinger wasn't renewed for 2009 and this might be his final race in the No. 84. (The aptly named Scott Speed seems in line to take over a couple of races here at 2008's end.) But I wouldn't put a solid finish past Allmendinger on Sunday. He has top-20s at Charlotte, Fontana, Michigan and Chicagoland this season, which makes him a pretty good value pick.
I also don't mind taking another look at David Reutimann, who has been surprisingly strong the past few weeks on flatter tracks but has some decent results on the downforce tracks this year, too. In fact, in the past two cookie-cutter events, the 2-milers at Michigan and Fontana, the No. 44 team has finished 14th and ninth, respectively. That puts him in line for another possible top-20 Sunday, and that would make him a very nice fantasy acquisition indeed.
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.