Admit it. You still look at stock-car racing like Meryl Streep looks at Jennifer Aniston. "Sure," you say. "Some people might think it's sort of ... cute, or whatever. But heaven knows NASCAR's not part of the cultured American sports landscape. Now pass me some caviar."
Hey, I know how you feel; in 2002, I was just like you. I had a couple friends who watched the races on TV, and who I roundly criticized for the red on their necks. After all, can you think of a worse combination? A shimmering display of shirtless bumpkin blubber. A hubristic bonfire of fossil fuel wastefulness. A lifetime's worth of pork rinds. And a corporate whoredom that makes George Clooney shilling for Budweiser look sublime. No thanks, I said, and returned to the transcendent respectability of my fantasy cricket league. (Excuse me, old chap, would you take Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Marcus Trescothick as your overall No. 1 pick?)
Then someone offered me a paying gig to write about NASCAR.
And a funny thing happened on my way to the ATM. I fell in love.
All right, maybe "love" is strong. But, to my eternal surprise, I'm deeply in "like" with Nextel Cup racing. I am from the northeastern United States. We don't do noisy, greenhouse-gas-emitting events. In fact, we typically confine ourselves to self loathing and, y'know, mittens. And yet my very first season, in which Tony Stewart nipped Mark Martin by a mere 38 driver points, hooked me. Hard. I was worried I'd get bored by all those left-hand turns, but I came back each Sunday to soak in the pageantry, tradition and, um, beer. I started to understand that success in NASCAR is often about so much more than who goes the fastest. I began to grasp the rudiments of fuel and tire strategies, car setups, rule changes, drafting, restrictor plates, driver feuds and Waltrip-to-English dictionaries. I was asked to pick every race in 2002, and I sucked.
But I learned a lot. I learned what kinds of drivers excel on what kinds of tracks. I learned the tracks' results that you could apply to the finishing order at other, similar, venues. I figured the drivers whose odds tended to get inflated by fan expectations (hello, Dale Earnhardt Jr.!). I saw how a clever fantasy pick could have a huge impact on my league's standings. I began to look forward with irrational exuberance to the Saturday night race at Bristol, Tenn., which always seems to coincide with my primary fantasy football league's live draft. Essentially, I learned that NASCAR is fun.
My ascension to Nextel Cup sentience paralleled the emergence of such "Young Guns" as Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle (though he's not actually so young), Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch, as well as the fading of old stars like Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte. That was kind of cool: while I could recognize the greatness that guys like Elliott, Rudd and Wallace represented, they weren't my guys in the way that, say, Mickey Mantle was George Costanza's guy. With so much new talent, there was (and still is) a chance to develop fresh attachments.
As I got more hooked into the NASCAR culture (somewhere between buying a Matt Kenseth coffee mug for my dad and purchasing bib overalls for myself,) I also began to recognize how perfect the sport is for fantasy players. Really. It's both diabolically simple and divertingly intricate. In most leagues, you don't exclusively "own" drivers; instead, you choose to "start" different drivers each week. And you're either assigned a maximum number of times you may start any single driver per season or given a salary cap, which you must fit all your starting drivers under.That means you have to consider a driver's: history at that week's track, performance at similar venues, practice speed, qualifying speed and momentum (both of the individual driver and their team.) Once all that has been calculated, you must determine if you're ready to "burn" one of your starts on a given driver that week, while taking into account the salary cap ramifications of your decision. Points are awarded to your team based on how well your drivers finish, as well as other factors, which may include whether or not they qualified at or near the front, whether they led laps, and how many laps they led. What's cool is that a single bad week won't kill you, but it'll cause enough pain to make you curse Carl Edwards down to the very gleam on his enormous front teeth.
For me, the experience of playing fantasy NASCAR is a nice combination of fantasy baseball and fantasy football. It's got the weekly feel of football, and the big-event mind-set that comes with it. You don't have to pay attention every single day; a couple times a week will suffice. Fantasy football playoffs, however, are a bit arbitrary. Larry Johnson goes nutso, some mediocre 7-5 team catches fire in the playoffs and wins your league championship. Leaving you wondering why you spent the summer scouting the Atlanta Falcons' backup fullback. Fantasy baseball is the ultimate every-single-day marathon, which can represent more of a time commitment than some folks can muster. At least with fantasy baseball stats accumulate, which means yesterday isn't completely forgotten. So it is with NASCAR: you won't win your league just because you pick perfectly in the season's final month. You have to put yourself in position by picking well all season long.
I learned a little something about the sport in 2002 and, despite my dreadful performance in the actual race-picking, my editor asked me back the following season. ("You're stupid, but you're funny-stupid," were his words.) In 2003, selecting three possible winners for each race, I hit 19 out of 37 race winners, a vast improvement. I also won my fantasy racing league for the first time, thereby earning my first-ever "Golden Sparkplug," the anatomical details of which I won't share here because this is a family Web site. Over the past few years, as my familiarity with the sport grew, my fantasy performance varied. In 2006, I once again earned that ever-elusive Golden Sparkplug. And man, am I sore.
Most importantly, now I think NASCAR is kick-ass. I admit, I'm something of a latecomer -- this'll be my sixth season of fandom. So when old-timers start wheezing about the good ol' days of Lee Petty and Red Byron, I adopt a Kevin Harvick sneer and proclaim my ignorance. But I've got an entirely new vocabulary at my disposal. When Sterling Marlin mumbles about how his car was "loose in and couldn't come off the corner," I know what he means. When Junior's once- and future-crew chief Tony Eury Jr. says he wants to "come in for a splash before the green-white checker," I understand. And, because of my fantasy selections, I've got a different set of guys to root for every week, which makes the races fun and interesting. Trust me, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glued to the tube for hours every Sunday, watching those boys go 'round and 'round.
Try it. You'll like it.
If you have a question on Fantasy NASCAR, you can email Chris here.