Oh, thank heavens. Junior picked a number.
Listen, I know there's something to be said for the appearance of the cars in Nextel Cup racing. Nobody enjoys how pretty and shiny they look under the lights at, say, Bristol more than I do. But is all this sponsorship/number/car color stuff really worth the coverage it gets?
This just in: no.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be No. 88! Hendrick paid Robert Yates for the famous number! Little E's sponsor will be Mountain Dew! And oh my, look, it's Kasey Kahne! Riding in on a Clydesdale wagon! Does that mean ? Could it be ? Yes! It is! It does! He's the new Budweiser driver! Hallelujah!
If stock car fans have ever wondered why they get laughed at by a lot of other sports fans, this is part of it. Marketing is an element of every professional (and college) sport, at every level. The only reason any of this exists, the only reason I'm getting paid to write at this very moment, is because someone is convinced they can make a buck off of you. I get that. And yes, with every new sign on the boards at a hockey rink, with every new distracting green screen behind home plate, with every "tonight's first pitch is sponsored by Hal's Toupees," the line between entertainment and aggravating capitalism gets blurred. But typical fans of most sports merely tolerate this nonsense, and consider it a mind-numbing annoyance. They don't embrace it, at least not with such breathy abandon.
The cars we root for are rolling billboards, and their drivers are a hundred walking logos. And even that's tolerable, if only because at least we can tell the cars apart by their purty colors. But when we all get drooly because we can't wait to see who Dale Jr.'s new sponsor's going to be, or which number we should prepare to go out and buy merchandise in? It's too much, folks. It's too much.
Anyway. On to the second Chase race, at Dover. Let's take a look at the week's best fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 6th; Carl Edwards, 12th)
The most consistent driver in nonroad course Car of Tomorrow events has been Jeff Gordon, so I'll be glad to have him helm my fantasy team this week. In those 10 nonroadie COT races, Gordon's average finish is 4.7, and the ninth place he registered at Dover back in June was his worst result in such events. That's nuts. Obviously, if ninth place is our downside with this pick, we're in awfully good shape with Gordon.
And I know he'll have a target on his back all weekend, but I'm also selecting Martin Truex Jr. to be very good again at what this Jersey boy considers his home track. Truex rocked the Monster Mile the first time around in '07, taking over the race partway through and leading 216 laps on the way to his first and, to date, only Nextel Cup win. He was significantly better than everyone else that day, and while setups typically don't translate from event to event even at the same track, it's comforting to know the No. 1 found something so excellent back in June. Also, Truex revealed last weekend at Loudon that while he could have brought the Dover-winning car to New Hampshire last week, he didn't want anything to happen to it, so he kept it in mothballs waiting for Sunday. Sounds good to me.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Kasey Kahne, 20th; Ryan Newman, 9th)
Greg Biffle and the entire Roush Fenway organization have struggled with the COT. This probably isn't news to you. What may be news, however, is that even during a down season, Biffle maintained his Dover excellence back in June, finishing sixth. That result and a fifth at Bristol very early in the year were the only two times The Biff's been competitive in the COT, and I don't think it's coincidence: They're two tracks on which Biffle's been good for years. He loves to slide his car out of the turns, right near the wall, a skill he perfected in his dirt-track days. That works well at Bristol and Dover, venues that share some high-banked characteristics. In fact, Biffle's Dover record is awesome lately: sixth, fifth, eighth, 13th and first. I think he'll be close again Sunday.
I'll also give Mark Martin another try. Martin's a DEI driver now, and in his only race for DEI so far he ran 21st at Richmond. But Dover has been very good to the veteran; he's won here four times and has 26 career top-10 finishes in 42 starts. At a rock 'em-sock 'em place like the Monster Mile, it's good to have a steady hand at the wheel, and Martin is that. Sure, he's started only 18 events running a part-time schedule, but his average finish is still 13th, and he's only failed to be running at the end of one event (because of an oil leak at Michigan). He's also finished on the lead lap in 15 of his 18 races.
(Last week: Clint Bowyer, 1st)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. I've also decided that for the rest of the season, I'm only going to pick from among the guys who made this year's Chase. That way, I can continue to look as foolish as humanly possible which is, let's face it, the primary fun you get out of this column (and telling you to stay away from last week's winner is oh so humiliating, believe me). So this week, I'll stay away from Kevin Harvick (congratulations, Kevin you just won the race). Harvick was strong, finishing third here back in the spring of '06, but otherwise he's been poor at Dover. His other recent finishes read: 20th, 32nd, 19th, 25th and 19th. Also, I continue to maintain that Harvick's cars have tended to be better on flatter tracks for a couple seasons now, and Dover ain't a flat track.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: David Ragan, 19th; J.J. Yeley, 10th)
Oops, I did it again. I'll take David Ragan one more time, as I still don't think his perceived value in fantasy games has caught up to how well he's run since August. He was 18th at Michigan, 12th at Fontana, third at Richmond and then 19th last week at Loudon. Now, 19th doesn't make you want to run out and buy a bunch of "Driver X" merchandise, but it beats the living heck out of 40th on your fantasy team, wouldn't you say? Ragan still has an outside shot at the '07 rookie of the year award, and he finished a more-than-respectable 14th at Dover in June. No guarantees, but another top-20 finish seems like an OK gamble.
Finally, I'm giving the nod to Brian Vickers, though as always these days with Vickers, you need to make sure he qualifies for the race. Back when he was with Hendrick, Vickers put together a couple pretty good runs here, including one in which he seemed to have the best car, but smashed into a water barrel marking the entrance to pit lane. Vickers finished 19th here in the spring, and does have a sixth-place finish to his credit here as well. As I just mentioned, though, this Team Red Bull No. 83 is 38th in owner points (nice numerical transposition I just pulled off there, huh?), so it's not guaranteed a place in the field. Assuming he gets in Friday, though, I think Vickers pulls of a borderline fantasy-worthy performance.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.