Paul Menard had a really good week.
Menard, the third driver in the DEI stable, has been putrid by just about any measure in Cup racing so far this year. His best finishes have been a 12th at Michigan, a 15th at Texas, a 16th at Richmond and a 20th at Fontana; those are his only top-20s in 13 starts, and he's failed to even qualify for six races. He sits 38th in points.
But as DEI and Ginn Racing have announced a merger, big changes are afoot. DEI has absorbed Ginn, creating a four-car operation consisting of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (until the end of this year), Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin (spelled occasionally by Eric Almirola, not Regan Smith) and Menard. Joe Nemechek's No. 13 car has been erased from the face of the world. And Sterling Marlin's No. 14 car is out, too, but (here's the part where Menard hits the jackpot) since Marlin was 29th in points, Menard gets to suck down Marlin's points and now officially sits inside the top 35.
So Menard doesn't have to qualify for the Brickyard this week, or any other race for as long as he stays in the top 35. Smith, who was about to take over on a full-time basis in the No. 14 for Marlin, was perhaps most hosed here; he gave up his part-time ride with the No. 01 team usually piloted by Martin for a full-time gig, then had that gig disappear before it even began. For now, the kid's being a good soldier, though, which means if Menard continues to struggle this year, or if Martin retires for the 76th time this offseason, Smith could finally get his long-awaited Cup job.
For now, though, the man in the spotlight has to be Menard. He's still in the No. 15, Michael Waltrip's old ride, and he doesn't have to worry about qualifying for the time being. But it's the same equipment, the same team members, the same engines and the same driver. Things had better turn around quickly for Menard, or he could find himself going the way of Marlin and Nemechek: bye-bye.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
It's Tony Time. Stewart won at Chicagoland two weeks ago, and anyone who's been following this sport for the past five years knows that Tony Stewart's wins tend to come in bunches. He won the Brickyard in 2005 in dominating fashion (whereupon every crew member scaled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway fence with him), and finished eighth last year. He also had one of the field's best cars at Pocono earlier this summer, and finished fifth in that rain-shortened event; I find that there are often statistical similarities between results at Pocono and Indy (they're both giant, insanely fast, very hard to pass, very aero-sensitive and involve a ton of braking into their relatively flat corners). Stewart's my favorite to win this race.
I also like Stewart's teammate, Denny Hamlin. Oh, sure, it'd be easy to pick one of the Hendrick stars, or someone like Matt Kenseth, who's got four top-five finishes in the last five Brickyards. But Hamlin is a sneaky play here, one I think could benefit fantasy teams a lot. He was 10th last year in his first Brickyard, and he's the latter-day king of Pocono: he won twice there last year, and probably had the best car in the field earlier this summer, but got out of pit sequence and didn't have enough time to catch the leaders before the rain came. It would take another quantum leap in this kid's career to win the Brickyard in just his second full Cup season, and I did find it curious that "Sports Illustrated" mentioned Hamlin as one of the most overrated drivers on the circuit (as voted on by fellow drivers). Still, his record is his record, and Hamlin just seems like a top 10 waiting to happen this week.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
I like Casey Mears this week. He does have a career sixth-place finish here, in 2005, but remember, all his statistics before '07 came while Mears drove for Ganassi. I believe Mears is finally figuring out the Hendrick cars, and he's driven the wheels off the No. 25 in just about every event since his fuel-mileage win at Charlotte back in May. (The only exception was the road course at Infineon, but I think we'll let that slide.) Don't get me wrong: I don't think Mears wins this race. But for the price you'll have to pay on your fantasy team, I think a top 15 is very likely, and would be quite rewarding.
I was considering giving Kasey Kahne a try this week; Kahne's star has fallen so quickly that he's easily considered midrange in most fantasy games. But I'm just uncomfortable taking an Evernham car at such an aero-sensitive track. It's clear that whatever the new Dodge nose needs, the Evernham teams haven't figured it out the way, say, the Penske guys have. So I'm falling back on Jamie McMurray, who let me down two week ago as one of my midrange guys at Chicagoland. Jamie Mac was very good at the Brickyard his first two times out, with Ganassi: a third and a seventh in 2003 and 2004. Unfortunately, he hasn't been good since then: an 18th his last time here under the Ganassi banner, and a wreck-induced 37th last year in his first Brickyard go-round with Roush. I'm not crazy about this pick, but given the choice between Roushketeer McMurray and Evernhamite Kahne in this slot, I'm going with the hair-jell magnate.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
I had Ryan Newman as my driver to avoid at Chicagoland and he finished eighth. Yikes. That's two not-so-great "avoid" picks in a row; alas, we can but try. At the Brickyard, as I say, it's so difficult to pass that track position means everything, and ESPN's own Hall of Fame crew chief Tim Brewer mentioned the other day that when he used to come to the Brickyard, he'd basically use his Phoenix setup, and treat the place as a giant, relatively flat short track, just like that egg in the Arizona desert. It wouldn't be intellectually rigorous to pick Kahne here, because he's not someone a lot of people are using on their fantasy teams right now, so I'm picking Greg Biffle. This can definitely backfire, because The Biff has been pretty hot lately, using finishes of 11th or better in three of his last four events to climb up to 16th in points, and he does have a sixth-place finish at the yard of bricks. But Biffle struggled at Pocono earlier this year, wasn't good at Phoenix either, and his other three Brickyard finishes have all been 21st or worse.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
I was 1-for-2 in sleeper-picking two weeks ago; I gave you Reed Sorenson, who finished 12th at Chicagoland and could've been even better than that, but I also gave you Dave Blaney, who used the occasion of his first time back in the top 35 in points to crash out and finish 40th. This week, I went on TV and picked Brian Vickers as my super-sleeper, so I can't give up now. Vickers finished third at IMS in 2005, and posted twin fourth-place finishes at Pocono last season. Of course, this recommendation comes with the usual Vickers warning label: he has to qualify for the race on time, because he's still 39th in points. If he does, though, I believe a top 20 could be in the offing, because I feel like this is his kind of track.
Finally, I'm giving a nod to David Ragan for a possible top-20 finish. He was only 26th at Pocono, and he's apt to be a bit knock-kneed on Sunday because it'll be his first race on these hallowed grounds, but I have to admit, if there was one rookie I really thought would wind up tempting the top-35 fates this season, it would've been Driver X, yet Ragan has been steady enough to stay an impressive 22nd in points, and he's very consistently been in that 15th-to-25th range most every week. No promises, but as an ultra-cheap guy at the back end of your fantasy team, you could do worse.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.