After a week off, the Nextel Cup boys head to Sin City for Selection Sunday. Oops, I mean, that is to say, they head to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400. Ahem.
The biggest story this weekend is the track: LVMS is no longer the flat diamond in the desert; it's been redesigned to potentially be one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR, with 20 degrees of banking in the turns, nine degrees of banking on the two straightaways, and absolutely nothing blocking air on the carburetors. Speeds should easily reach 200 mph this weekend, and with a soft Goodyear tire on board, we could see some ugly wrecks, a la Charlotte two years ago, after that track was levigated.
Throw out past Vegas results; they don't matter. Sure, Matt Kenseth won here in 2003 and 2004, and Jimmie Johnson is the two-time defending champ here, from 2005 and 2006. But that was a whole different car, a whole different setup, and a whole different speed. We can't be positive what we'll get Sunday, but I'll take a look at recent results from some of the higher-torque, higher-banked tracks like Homestead, Bristol and Dover for possible parallels. Let's take a look at my fave Sin City drivers for the weekend.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Kevin Harvick could easily have two wins already this year. He snuck past Mark Martin for his Daytona 500 victory, and he was coming hard after Matt Kenseth at Fontana, before a flat tire sent him into the pits and way back into the pack. Happy has been happy at Homestead since that track was reconfigured; in those four high-banked events, Harvick has finished second ('03), 10th ('04), eighth ('05) and fifth ('06). That's pretty good. Also remember Harvick is a perpetual contender at Bristol, and backed up his third-place spring Dover finish last year with a near-win in the fall race, before running out of gas very late. Considering the early-season story appears to be the reemergence of Richard Childress Racing, and considering how hot Harvick is, I'd ride him this week.
I know I just got finished saying the fact that Jimmie Johnson's the two-time defending champ here doesn't mean squat, but that's not to say he can't win on Sunday. Oh, he can. J.J. was the best car late in Fontana, but sped in the pits and couldn't get out of traffic fast enough to catch Kenseth late, and finished third. It's been asserted a million times, but no one adjusts his car mid-race better than Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, so as the guys get used to the new Vegas surface, the No. 48 has as good a shot as any car to have the track come to it.
Finally, I expect Kasey Kahne to come back and have a big day. His car was strong early at Fontana after qualifying and practicing well, but his Evernham engine popped before that strength could translate to a good finish. There's been some speculation that the transition from leaded to unleaded fuel in Nextel Cup cars led to more blown engines at Fontana, and while I'm no gas man, I find that a bit hard to believe. Not that it's not possible the Evernham Dodges had unfortunate engine setups, and not that it's not possible that Kahne misses his suspended crew chief, Kenny Francis, who'll sit out Vegas, too. But I have to believe the week off did the No. 9 team some good, that all Evernham engines have been checked and re-checked, and Kahne can go back to what he does best on downforce tracks: leading.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Maybe it's a bit of a fudge to consider Greg Biffle a "midrange" driver, but he's finished 25th and 15th in two events so far this year, and last week's desultory effort at Fontana, where Biffle has dominated in the past but had trouble staying on the lead lap two Sundays ago, is a warning sign. The reason Biffle deserves mention here is that he's the three-time defending champ at Homestead, and has also run really well at Dover and Bristol over the past couple years. In fact, Biffle has the best finishing average in Cup racing at those three high-torque tracks in the last five seasons:
Is Jeff Burton the new Mark Martin? Not often a threat to win races, Burton (in the second RCR car) does seem like a perennial top-10 finisher over the past year-plus. Burton won at Dover last year, and contended with strength in both Bristol races, so his high-torque program is solid. His third place at Daytona was pretty lucky (thank you, Kyle Busch), but his fourth at Fontana was just very solid. In fantasy racing, solid is good. And speaking of RCR cars, I really like Clint Bowyer this week. His buzzard's luck of '06 seems to be wearing off, and what's taking over now is the nice, steady driver who tends not to beat himself. (His problem in the past, of course, has been everyone else beating him....) Bowyer finished 10th in his first Homestead race last autumn, and looked extremely strong finishing sixth at Fontana two weeks ago. I said this in ESPN Motion video: I wouldn't be shocked to see Bowyer register his first Nextel Cup win this weekend at LVMS.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
Until you see evidence he's turned it around, be careful of using Dale Earnhardt Jr. He didn't have a great car at Daytona when you'd expect he would, and he was pretty much dogmeat at Fontana right out of the chute, though his various wrecks ruined any late-race suspense. I still admire the way DEI tackled their downforce-track weakness in '06, and wouldn't be surprised to see Junior make this anti-pick seem stupid. But I want to see it once before I'm sure he's back to last year's high standard at the cookie-cutters.
Ryan Newman hasn't been awful at either Daytona or Fontana, but when Flyin' Ryan begins to resemble the Little Engine that Could, you know the No. 12 bunch is struggling. Let's be clear: Newman is handling better in traffic. That's "better," not "well." He posted a solid 12th two weeks ago at the season's first aero-sensitive track, and hung with the leaders for the middle part of the race, but when things got tight, and there were a lot of restarts and driving in close quarters, Newman just couldn't go forward, reinforcing the perception that his cars just won't perform in bumpy wind. I'm still waiting for the season-long rust to shake off the Rocket Man.
Oh, and Dale Jarrett. Big name. Driving like poo.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
While I'm not high on Junior, maybe his teammate Martin Truex Jr. could be a sneaky play. Truex's engine went boom early at Fontana two weeks ago, so I'm basing this mostly on his Cup-career-best second-place finish at Homestead in 2006's final event, as well as a sixth-place in the second Dover event last year. You're probably interested in sleepers because you're either in a salary cap game and need a budget driver, or you need a free-agent acquisition in a deep draft-and-trade league. In either circumstance, Truex could pull out at least a top-20 for you.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned Driver X himself, David Ragan, who's now posted a fifth and a 16th in his rookie year driving the No. 6. Am I a believer? Mm, not really. The Roush cars tend to be good at aero-sensitive tracks, but Ragan spun himself out with no one around him at Fontana, which is a sure sign of a driver unfamiliar with what these huge cars feel like with all that air rushing crazily around them and tires going bad. That's doubly going to be the case at the new Vegas this Sunday, so I'm not going to be surprised if Ragan has troubles. Still, he's probably pretty cheap in your game, and he races for a big team and sits fifth in points. Not a bad bargain.
Christopher Harris covers fantasy baseball, football and NASCAR for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.