Best moment watching the Sonoma race last weekend for me?
I'm tuned in to TNT, and the cable network advertises something called "Wide Open Coverage," which will occur during the second Daytona race this year, the Pepsi 400, in two weeks. Apparently, the network will only air four minutes of full-screen commercial interruptions per hour, and the rest of the time, the race video will continue to appear on the top half of your TV in widescreen, while commercials (with sound) will air on the bottom half.
The entertaining part of this, for me, was that TNT interrupted race coverage for several minutes combined to tell us about this.
It's like your extremely chatty friend walking up to you and saying, "Hey, Billy, guess what? I'm totally joining a monastery. That's right, you heard me, I'm becoming a monk. It's going to be really hard. I mean, I really like women, and so that's going to be tough to give up, and also drinking and the occasional soft drug, cigarettes, all that's going to be hard, but the hardest thing is probably the vow of silence. You know, like when you have to walk around and not say anything to anyone for like weeks at a time? I mean, I'm totally going silent soon. I won't be talking at all. Like, you won't hear my voice one bit, so you better get your fill of it now, ha-ha. I wonder what it'll be like to be so silent. I bet it'll be weird only hearing the voice in my head. I wonder if my larynx will start to wither or something. Man, I bet you'll barely even recognize me, Billy."
Anyway, all joking aside, I'm completely looking forward to Wide Open Coverage, and have been advocating it for years. If you like watching NASCAR on TV, make sure you watch in two weeks, because we need to make those Daytona ratings high. And patronize the sponsors you see. If TNT gets enough positive feedback (i.e., money) from keeping races on the screen more, maybe networks will keep doing it.
We'll have to wait another week for that; this weekend, it's time for a race in Loudon, N.H. Let's look at the week's best fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
Loudon is called the Miracle Mile, but its races are rarely miraculous. This is a flat track that's one of the hardest places on the Nextel Cup circuit to pass. You tend to get long, drawn-out, green-flag runs here, which result in great big leads and a whole lot of lapped cars. Also, this is a Car of Tomorrow race, so you have to believe both the Hendrick and Gibbs cars will continue to have something of an advantage, though Penske does appear to be narrowing the gap a little. Anyway, for my top fantasy pick this week I'm going with a Gibbs boy: Denny Hamlin. Hamlin was sixth and fourth at Loudon in the old car last year, and he finished third at both flat Martinsville and flat Phoenix earlier in '07. Phoenix, in particular, is an interesting equivalent in terms of driving style and equipment, and Hamlin had the best car in the field for that race back in April, but sped in the pits and could never get back up to the very front.
And despite the penalties that Hendrick standard-bearers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson received for COT violations in Sonoma last weekend, which include losing their respective crew chiefs, Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus, for six weeks, I'm going to say Gordon gives you a really steady fantasy finish in New Hampshire as well. (And let's face it: in a COT race, I could just as easily pick Johnson.) Gordon's a new papa, and he's probably been the best and most consistent COT driver. He won Phoenix and could've won Martinsville if he'd chosen to wreck Johnson (Gordon had the better car). Gordon has three wins at Loudon, and finished third here last fall.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
Ryan Newman had a disappointing race at Sonoma. He'd finished in the top 10 four out of the five times he'd run the California roadie, but only managed a 20th-place finish Sunday, and while a lot of drivers can claim that they were bitten by fuel mileage and deserved a better finish, Newman never really ran higher than 20th all day. Nevertheless, I've liked what I've seen from Flyin' Ryan in the COT lately: He finished sixth at Richmond, fourth at Darlington and second at Dover. Remember also that he has two career Loudon wins, including his first-ever Nextel Cup victory back in 2002 and a dominating effort in the fall of '05. He wasn't very good in New Hampshire last year (12th and 39th), but before that, he'd managed seven top-10s in eight tries on this track.
I also think Newman's Penske teammate, Kurt Busch, is a little undervalued here. He swept both Loudon races in 2004, and then finished second here in the spring of '05. Since then he's only been 35th, 38th and 19th, but there's no debating he knows how to run a flat track, considering he's also posted wins in his career at Martinsville and Phoenix. Both Penske cars currently sit outside the Chase for the Championship; Newman is 13th, 96 points out of the Chase, and Busch is 16th, 171 points back. With 10 events to go before the Chase cutoff date, the top-10s need to start coming fast and furious for the Penske boys. In the COT, with how competitive the No. 2 and No. 12 have been of late, there's an outside shot they both make it in.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
Last week I gave you a series of guys who don't particularly love road courses, and said you could find better options; hopefully you took that advice. Granted, Jeff Burton finished third (mostly thanks to his car's very good fuel mileage), and Kyle Busch finished eighth, so that's two on me, but here were the other drivers I mentioned: J.J. Yeley (21st), Kasey Kahne (23rd), Casey Mears (27th) and Bobby Labonte (33rd). So that's not bad. This week, I'm going pretty far out on a limb, and asking you to avoid using Greg Biffle. This pick has the potential to blow up in my face, because Biffle has posted top-five finishes in three of the four last Loudon events. But Biffle hasn't looked good so far this season in the Car of Tomorrow, and one wonders if perhaps there's something about the way the new car handles that doesn't agree with Biffle's driving style (or if perhaps Roush just isn't as far ahead as some other teams in the COT). In addition, I wonder if free agency isn't weighing a bit on Biffle's mind. Either way, I wouldn't be shocked to see him contend, but I also wouldn't be shocked to see him out early. That doesn't make for a very safe fantasy play.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
My sleepers last week were Boris Said (ninth) and Ron Fellows (15th), which wasn't particularly taxing because they're road-course ringers, but I'll take wins wherever I can get 'em. This week, I like J.J. Yeley. He hasn't been good in the Car of Tomorrow (only two finishes in the top 20), but he did come in 12th and eighth at Loudon last year, perhaps because he's from Arizona and his home racetrack is Phoenix. As I mentioned earlier, you have to believe in the Gibbs COT program, which is another reason to be interested in Yeley as the last driver on your fantasy team this week.
And if it's not Yeley, here's a deeper-sleeper shout-out to David Ragan, who's quietly having a decent rookie year having replaced Mark Martin in the No. 6. He's 29th in points, finished 15th at Martinsville before wrecking out extremely early in Phoenix, and was 14th at COT Dover. Like everywhere else the Nextel Cup circuit visits this year, New Hampshire will be new to Ragan, and it's a tricky course where, as I said, it's very difficult to pass. But Ragan has shown a decent proclivity lately to stay out of trouble, and a finish around, say, 20th place feels possible to me.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.