Sunday's Talladega event might be the least predictable in NASCAR's history.
Think about it. When in the sport's history has the body template of its cars changed so dramatically (from the "old car" to the Car of Tomorrow, in its first superspeedway event), while maintaining restrictor plates guaranteed to keep all participants bunched together while driving 190 miles an hour?
I mean, you thought trying to select your fantasy racers in a normal restrictor-plate race was tough. Now we have to include questions about how well the COT will handle in roving supersonic packs on a high-banked track. If the Big One was guaranteed to happen at every other modern Talladega race, how much of a lock-cinch certainty is it Sunday? Heck, if we don't get two Big Ones, I'll be absolutely flabbergasted.
The best we can do for our fantasy teams is try to intuit which guys are likeliest to be near the front, and thus out ahead of the automotive carnage. Your guess might, in fact, be as good as mine. But with careful perusal of the data and knowledge about whose COT program has been solid, let's see what we can do.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 3rd; Carl Edwards, 37th)
Kurt Busch never has won a plate race, but he sure has been close. He has consecutive third-place finishes at Talladega and hasn't finished outside the top eight in six straight races here. He finished third in the summer Daytona race this year and in '06, and he had the car to beat in the Daytona 500 before Tony Stewart wrecked him while they battled for the lead. Penske's COT program has been pretty good in the second half of the season, and while assuming flat-track performance will definitely translate to superspeedway excellence might be folly, there's enough to go on here to make me think Busch gets near the lead Sunday and stays there.
You also have to give Jeff Gordon serious consideration. He won here in April, and unlike many restrictor-plate winners, he actually did have the day's best car. Plus, it's hard not to like Hendrick's COT program, no matter the track configuration. Hendrick simply has been the best in the new car this year. Given Gordon's history of success here (five wins at this track, three since the spring of '04), it's not hard to imagine the No. 24 giving you a solid fantasy finish.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Mark Martin, 12th; Bobby Labonte, 42nd)
Can I really be going back to the Jamie McMurray well? I mean, is there a guy whose car's broadside screams "Punt Me!" louder than Jamie Mac's? I can't help it, though. Even before his win at Daytona this July, McMurray occasionally proved he has some pretty good drafting chops. He has four top-10s (and only one crash-out disaster) in his past eight tries at Talladega, and he had a second-place finish at Daytona even before his win at the Pepsi 400. The squeamish might want to avoid Mr. McMurray, because I think the extensive hair product he uses underneath that helmet may in fact magnetize his head, inviting other cars' sheet metal to make contact.
Ryan Newman's 43rd-place finish last week (and his 28th at Dover) has driven down his fantasy price in a lot of games, qualifying him as a midrange guy once more, and I'll take advantage of Kurt Busch's partner in crime. Newman, too, is a guy who often is in contention at plate tracks. Since the fall of '03, he has logged six finishes of 16th or better in eight races at this track, which is about what we should expect for a guy with his current price tag. One hopes both Penske boys stay in this one for a while, because even in the COT, drafting partners are going to be invaluable late Sunday.
"Not For You" (Beware of These Drivers)
(Last week: Denny Hamlin, 29th)
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. So this week, I'll stay away from Kyle Busch. You can't hold his bad finish at Kansas last week against him, considering his soon-to-be replacement, Dale Earnhardt Jr., jacked him up from behind and crashed him. But the younger Busch's erratic and overly risky driving tends to bite him just about every other time he comes to a plate track. Yes, he's got two second-place finishes in his past three visits to Daytona, and he finished 11th here at Talladega in this event last fall. But he's also recently gotten a 37th, 40th and 26th at these joints, finishes that seem to come regularly to guys who push the issue from the green flag forward.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Brian Vickers, DNQ; Reed Sorenson, 7th)
David Gilliland isn't usable at any other track style, but get him on a restrictor-plate venue, and he turns into a contender. He won the pole for the Daytona 500, led 18 laps and finished eighth. He qualified second at Talladega in April and finished a career-best fourth. And he was competitive when finishing 11th at Daytona in July. Yates has the engines and a terrific superspeedway heritage, and Gilliland just seems to get the draft. I think he stays near the top 10 for much of Sunday's race.
Finally, if you need another sleeper, you might look David Ragan's way. From the 500 on, this rookie has seemed to be eerily comfortable on plate tracks. He finished fifth in that race, then came in 12th and 17th in the season's other superspeedway races to date. He hasn't qualified all that well in those events, which might be a bit worrisome, since someone who's trapped farther back in the field is that much more subject to the whims of the Big One. But the kid's been impressive lately, and a finish in the field's top half is a strong possibility.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.