NASCAR: Spin the Black Circle

Okay, I grant you: it's annoying to watch the self-satisfied smiles Nextel Cup fans exhibit as they chirp, "Starting the year with the Daytona 500 is like having the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season!" It's just not a good parallel. While the season-opening 500 is the year's most prestigious NASCAR event, it's not the Super Bowl, simply because it's not the result of a playoff tournament, and because no season championship gets won at event's end. So you can rebut these smirking know-it-alls, I'll give you a couple better analogies.

• Imagine if Tiger Woods teed off in the Masters during the PGA's first weekend of play. That's what the Daytona 500 is.

• Imagine if Roger Federer had to travel to London and win Wimbledon right out of the box. That's the Daytona 500.

• Imagine if Spider-Man 3 was forced by act of Congress to shift its premiere date forward to January 1st. There's your Daytona 500.

• Imagine if the creators of Lost were legally mandated to reveal exactly what the heck is happening on that freaky island in the show's first episode. Yup, that's the Daytona 500.

• Imagine if Ellen DeGeneres revealed Best Picture at the beginning of the Oscars broadcast, rather than waiting until after midnight...(actually, hey...that's a good idea...no dance numbers...no fawning tributes...does anyone have the Academy of Motion Pictures' direct line...?).

Anyway. The Daytona 500 is exciting. Restrictor-plate racing offers rush-hour traffic at Autobahn speeds, and The Big One (i.e., a massive wreck that takes out half the field) is always just an eyelash away. For fantasy fans, this means an appetite for destruction. After all, we make our fantasy points off where our drivers finish, and if a good car suddenly gets caught up in a wreck not of its own making, our fantasy fortunes can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in half-a-second flat.

No matter what fantasy format you play, whether it's ESPN's own Stock Car Challenge, or any other fantasy racing game of any format under the sun, there are few things you need to know. Given the upcoming race's track style and history, who will this week's favorites be? Who's likely to be overvalued? And, perhaps most importantly, who are this week's potential sleepers?

That's what I'm here for. Each week in "Spin The Black Circle," I'll unearth the right superstars and the potential pitfalls, and find those underrated drivers who can make all the difference to your fantasy fate. Let's get right to business for the Daytona 500.

"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)

The restrictor-plate elite really comes down to four men. Other things being equal, a quartet of Chevy drivers -- Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon -- are your best Daytona bets. Each has something to recommend him. Stewart's recent plate-track finishing history goes something like this:

That gives Smoke a four-year plate-track finishing average of 8.3, best in Nextel Cup over that span, and a ridiculous two-year Daytona average of 3.5, which speaks for itself. Stewart has learned from his good buddy Earnhardt Jr. about the draft and about early plate-track patience.

Johnson, of course, is this race's defending champ, and won his first two restrictor-plate events in '06; there's little reason to believe he won't be near the front when push comes to shove Sunday evening. Little-E was the unquestioned king of the draft until the past couple of years; while he's still about as good a bet as anyone to notch a top-10 in the 500 (which is invaluable for your fantasy team), he's actually only won once at this track, in the spring of 2004.

Gordon's the real wild card here. Too often in recent years, the No. 24 team has fallen prey to mechanical issues or bad luck at these tracks; Gordo has four finishes of 26th or worst in his last six plate-track tries, including finishes of 26th and 40th at Daytona in 2006. Still, as recently as 2004 and the spring of '05, Gordon was impossible to top at these tracks; my memories of him in those races include his car being faster by itself than any other driver drafting with a partner. I'd put him fourth in this list of studs, but I wouldn't rule him out as a fantasy asset.

"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)

You probably only think about using him at Bristol and maybe some of the flat tracks, but Kurt Busch has my interest this weekend. A couple of poor Daytona finishes in the last two years skew his finishing averages, but a closer look at those races helps Busch's case. In last year's Daytona 500, he was in second place very late in the race, when his Roush Racing replacement, Jamie McMurray accidentally slammed into him and wrecked him out of the event. In the 2005 Pepsi 400, Busch got involved early in an accident not of his own making, when Scott Riggs didn't get the message that drivers were slowing in front of him because of a caution, and swerved, wrecking Busch and several other contenders. Consider those notes as you peruse Busch's recent plate-track history:

Casey Mears is another person of interest. Most fantasy games haven't yet accounted for Mears's team change, and so have him rated more like a Chip Ganassi driver than a Hendrick Motorsports driver. But Mears can be a factor early this year, especially on tracks where the cars go wide open. Driving the No. 42 for Ganassi last year, Mears finished the two Daytona races second and seventh. While those were by far his best plate-track results, add to this equation the fact that Brian Vickers, the man Mears replaces driving the No. 25, had a fair amount of super-speedway success himself. Driving for Hendrick, Vickers had three consecutive top-10s at Talladega, including the controversial fall '06 win, and two top-10s in his most recent five Daytona events. Will that success translate directly to Mears? Not necessarily. But it's a good indication that the No. 25 crew, fabrication and engine teams know what they're doing when it comes to plate tracks. Mears bears watching.

"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)

By handing out a basketful of suspensions after last weekend's qualifying, NASCAR itself did our work for us in this category. Under normal circumstances, I'd actually endorse Matt Kenseth as a possible surprise winner of this race, and Jimmie Johnson did prove it's possible to win the Daytona 500 without one's crew chief. But odds would still seem to be stacked against it. The No. 17 team tried to get away with some illegal aero modifications during qualifying, and so it appears Robbie Reiser will be suspended for the 500, which is enough to steer me away from Kenseth.

Similarly, the crew chiefs of Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs have all been suspended because of improper modifications. While I wouldn't rule out any of these Evernham drivers overcoming some potentially bad starting positions and missing personnel to perform well in Sunday's race, I don't think I'd bank my fantasy team on it, not when there are other very good options.

Finally, you may be attracted to the notion of Michael Waltrip on a restrictor-plate track, especially because the only four wins of his 20-year career have come on super-speedways (three of them at Daytona), but his qualifying violations may have been more serious than all the rest. He, too, will lose his crew chief for the 500 and thereafter, and as of this writing, it was unclear whether Mikey would be allowed to participate in Thursday's first Twin 150, or in Sunday's race (if he qualifies). My gut tells me NAPA (a major NASCAR sponsor) would have a cow if Waltrip wasn't in the 500, so that will probably get resolved in Waltrip's favor. But there's too much drama, and too many unknowns, to consider using him this week.

"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)

I don't care what he's driving; at a plate track, Dale Jarrett is still someone to consider for your fantasy squad, and here's why. Come Sunday afternoon's green flag, Jarrett will head directly backwards. Mark it down. This wily veteran knows that nothing good can come from jockeying for 15th place on Lap 37. No matter where he qualifies, Jarrett will disappear from Fox's cameras early in the event, and then as the sun sets and the cars get racy, Darrell Waltrip will say, "Gosh, where in the world did D.J. come from?" Check this out: even over the past few seasons, where Jarrett hasn't turned in many good results and while Robert Yates Racing appeared to be coming apart at the seams, Jarrett was still fantasy gold at plate tracks:

Until the summer Daytona race last year, Jarrett hadn't failed to fall inside the top 20 in 15 straight plate-track events. If I told you you'd have a really good chance to get a 10th-place finish from a guy who'll cost as little as Jarrett will this weekend, I think you'd take it, Toyota or not.

Next, I'm quickly gaining a reputation around the ESPN hallways for being a Clint Bowyer enthusiast. First I picked the sophomore to make his first Chase this year, and now I'm recommending him as a possible Daytona sleeper. Why? First off, he's got Kevin Harvick as a teammate, and Happy knows his way around the super-speedway draft. Next, there were Bowyer's '06 results at this joint; he finished sixth in last year's Daytona 500, and backed that up with a 10th in the Pepsi 400. A more worrisome sign is the fact that he finished 35th and 40th in the two Talladega races, but I think you can take a chance on Bowyer.

Finally, let's go way back to 1988, when Ken Schrader won his first-ever Cup race, at Talladega. Since then, Schrader hasn't won at a super-speedway, but he did win the pole at the Daytona 500 in '88, '89 and '90, and driving for some decidedly non-stellar race teams the past couple years, Schrader has managed to finish his last three Daytona races 10th, ninth and 12th. He's another of the crafty vets who understands the draft, and also drives conservatively, allowing the crazy youngsters to duke it out early in the race, saving his stuff, and picking off stragglers as the race ends. He's not much of a threat to win, but he also gives you a better-than-average chance of owning a driver whose wheels will still be turning 180 mph come late Sunday evening.