I made my debut on ESPN2's NASCAR Now TV program this week. I mention this not by way of tooting my own horn (toot), but by way of saying there's just got to be a decent chance they'll never have me back.
After all, I was brought in to talk about fantasy racing options for the Aaron's 499 from Talladega this weekend. And as we all know, restrictor-plate racing is random. If you had Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart at Daytona (as I did), you were feeling pretty good about yourself right up to the point where the two touched bumpers at 190 mph, and wrecked one another while jockeying for the lead. That's plate-track racing. The best-laid plans go to pot faster than Larry Mac can shout, "Trouble in Turn 3!"
But that's not to say we shouldn't try. Sure, my picks (here and on basic cable) will likely wind up looking silly when all's said and done, as the Big One sucks in 20 drivers at once. But at least we can take a look at who's been consistent at the 'Dega, and be happy they lead a couple of laps before the inevitable happens.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
My pick to win this race is Kurt Busch. He has five consecutive Talladega finishes of eighth place or better. He had what I believed was the best car during the Daytona 500 before getting wrecked in the lead. And he's been absolutely snakebitten the last two weeks, at Texas and Phoenix, contending for leads only to get caught in the pits during late cautions, and get shoved a lap down. Busch has never won a plate-track race, but check out his history:
What that tells me is when Busch isn't wrecking, he's contending. Of course, it also tells me he hasn't quite found a way to get the job done late in plate-track races when he hasn't wrecked, but that could change Sunday.
The other dominant car at Daytona in February was Stewart's, and Smoke clearly has one of the sport's best recent plate-track-racing pedigrees. He's won twice at Daytona and has finished second at Talladega a remarkable six times. Over his career, his average finish at NASCAR's largest track is right around 12th place, which is very good, considering how easy it is to get trashed in an accident not of one's own making. Impatience was the watchword of Stewart's early career, and when he's gotten into trouble at plate tracks lately, it's been because he feels a need to get ahead of a car now, without delay. But one assumes the lessons of this year's Daytona 500, an event he probably should've won, aren't lost on him. Smoke dukes it out in the draft with Busch again at race's end.
Honestly, you can put the elite drivers and throw 'em in a hat at plate tracks, but for my third top fantasy option, I'll go with Matt Kenseth. Can Kenseth get bounced around and finish 40th? Of course, everyone can. But Milwaukee Matt has three consecutive top-10 finishes at Talladega, and hasn't finished outside the top 14 in five straight races here. He's been really strong in each of the last three times he's raced Daytona, even if he doesn't have good finishes to show for it. The way I figure it, if anyone can wind up in the trash heap at any moment, you might as well go with the smoothest and most consistent guy on the block, and that description fits Kenseth to a tee.
"Rearview mirror" (midrange drivers of note)
Clint Bowyer started the season strong, but has finished outside the top 10 in three consecutive races, including a 22nd at Phoenix on Saturday night after he won the Busch event in the desert a day before. These relative struggles have dragged Bowyer's fantasy value down a bit, to the point where we can once again consider him "midrange," and at a superspeedway, you should jump at the chance to get him on the cheap. Richard Childress' cars finished first, third and 18th at Daytona (and Bowyer would've been better than 18th had he not gotten caught up in the late crazy wrecks), and in three Daytona starts, Bowyer's finishing average is 11.3. He's been worse in his two Talladega tries (35th and 40th) thanks to getting wrecked in two consecutive Big Ones. Could it happen to him again in '07? Of course. But other things being equal, I love Bowyer here as a value pick.
Ryan Newman ran very well for a long time at the 500 in February before crashing out and officially finishing 38th. Like his teammate Busch the Elder, Flyin' Ryan has never won a plate-track race, but he's been close several times. Newman may sit 26th in points right now, but that isn't actually a great indicator of how well he's run of late. He would've had a fine finish at Phoenix last week but for some bad luck with a late caution and a panicky pit stop in which he left with only three wheels attached to his car, and generally speaking, it's too much to expect any of the Dodge drivers to do anything on downforce tracks. 'Dega ain't downforce, and Newman has shown a knack for the draft in the past. He's a risky pick, because trouble seems to find him, but a top-15 finish is possible.
"Not For You" (beware of these drivers)
He's one of my favorite drivers, but Greg Biffle has been poison on plate tracks. Last year at Talladega he finished 38th and 41st, and he hasn't finished better than 25th at Daytona in six straight tries. He also has zero career top 10s at Talladega. Now, Biffle did get his first-ever Cup win at the Daytona summer event in 2003, but that was a crazy fuel-mileage race in which most of the best cars wound up a lap down. Hey, it's a superspeedway, and anything can happen, but the good Vegas players tell you never to bet against a streak, and Biffle's got a lulu of a bad streak going at this joint.
It might be tempting to select Juan Pablo Montoya this week, but I'd be nervous about using him during his first Talladega run. Montoya was 19th in his first shot at Daytona, which isn't bad, but he gave all manner of quote afterward about how wild the racing was, how out-of-control the bump-drafting was, and how challenging the event was. If J.P.M. thought the bump-drafting was nasty at Daytona, wait 'til he gets a load of Sunday. The Ganassi cars generally were quite competitive in the 500, but I'm not expecting a repeat.
"Nothing As It Seems" (weekly sleepers)
Well, my weekly sleeper picks have to get better this week, don't they? After all, David Stremme finished 43rd last week in Phoenix, and Scott Riggs finished 42nd. Way to go, Harris. Anyway, first up, I'm taking a look at Johnny Sauter. The No. 70 car has been surprisingly competitive at a number of tracks in '07; Sauter posted a season-best ninth at Phoenix on Saturday night, and finished 16th at Daytona and 18th at Fontana. Sauter is securely inside the top 35 in points (despite not qualifying for the first Car of Tomorrow race in Bristol), so you can be sure he'll be in the field Sunday, and of the inexpensive fantasy options who've got a chance to have some decent horsepower under the control of a relatively seasoned driver, Sauter stands apart.
David Gilliland also looks better than many of his less-expensive compatriots. Remember, Gilliland won the pole at Daytona, stayed up front for most of the race, avoided the big mess at the end, and wound up eighth. Will that success translate to Talladega? Well, the kid finished 15th here last fall in his only other Cup ride at this track, and while the Yates cars haven't looked competitive anywhere else, they've still got that fabled horsepower and drafting ability that gets 'er done on a superspeedway. Elliott Sadler was a restrictor-plate success story in this No. 38 as well, and I can envision a scenario in which Gilliland gets you a top-15 on Sunday.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.