There are differences between Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. The racing surface is much newer in Fort Worth, and has been repaved a few times in the scant 10 years Cup races have been held here. Atlanta is craggier and older. Texas used to have a "dual-banking" setup that had 24 degrees of bank for Cup cars but just eight degrees for open-wheelers, but a second groove was hard to find, so Bruton Smith had the whole joint done at 24 degrees. Texas also now has more gradual banking on its backstretch, which means the five-degree-banked backstretch itself is shorter than Atlanta's.
But we are seriously picking nits.
These are nearly identical tracks, and they're also pretty much like Charlotte, site of a race just three weeks ago. For the fantasy player, this offers us a do-over. Take a look at the drivers who were strongest in Atlanta (hint: they weren't the drivers who finished first or second), and hope they can stay cleaner Sunday afternoon in Texas.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Jimmie Johnson, 1st; Tony Stewart, 30th)
Kurt Busch had the day's best car in Atlanta, but once again, that wasn't enough. In five events at Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas so far in 2007, Busch has led laps in each event, but hasn't finished better than eighth in any. In addition, he's led a total of 274 laps in those five races, but something always seems to happen to him. Last week, it was a bad pit stop that shuffled him too far back in the field to let him recover and win. The law of averages just has to even things out here, doesn't it? I think Busch contends for his first Texas victory.
I'm tempted to go with Kurt's brother Kyle here, but that would be too much familial angst for one fantasy team. Instead, I'm using Martin Truex Jr., who dominated Atlanta for a good long while last weekend before Denny Hamlin ran out of fuel (or, to be more specific, had too much water mixed in with his fuel), whereupon Truex Jr. bashed into the No. 11's rear bumper and ended his day. Truex finished seventh here in April, and I think he'll at least match that effort this week.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Ryan Newman, 37th; Kasey Kahne, 9th)
Kasey Kahne is back, at least on the A-C-T (Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas) triumvirate which has been his Nextel Cup career's calling card. After making a hash of those three joints in 2007's first go-round, he's now finished eighth (Charlotte) and ninth (Atlanta) in the past three weeks. Also recall that Kahne has four career Cup wins on this track style. Now, those victories came in a simpler time (as in: 2006), but as I've said for a couple weeks running, the Evernham Dodges have figured something out on these high-banked cookie-cutter tracks.
Adhering to my spanking-new policy of "All Casey, All The Time," I'll also cast my lot with Casey Mears, who's winding up his first Hendrick season studiously avoiding being covered in glory like his more famous teammates. That said, Mears has also quietly gotten better since the Chase began. Check out his finishes: eighth, sixth, fourth, sixth, 21st, 20th, 12th. Mears has four finishes of seventh place or better the past six times he's run at Texas Motor Speedway.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Kevin Harvick, 15th)
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 Kevin Harvick again. I know he was 15th in Atlanta last week, but that was due at least in part to his skills as a wreck avoider, because last Sunday's race featured late carnage to make Macbeth blush. Happy's finishes in the five similar A-C-T races in '07: 15th, 21st, 25th, 29th, 33rd. No thanks.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Juan Pablo Montoya, 34th; Bobby Labonte, 41st)
Last week was my worst of the year picking sleepers, and I can't even blame late problems; both Montoya and Labonte crashed early and often, and made it a mopey fantasy Sunday. First up for me this weekend is Reed Sorenson, who probably didn't actually have the car to finish third in Atlanta, but finished third in Atlanta. Sorenson runs well at high-banked tracks, and he did have a top-10 car for most of last Sunday's second half. Sorenson was 40th in Texas back in April, but hey, who said sleepers don't come with risk?
Lastly, I'll go with Brian Vickers. Per usual when I recommend Vickers, I mention that you have to be sure he qualifies for the race, and add the caveat that he didn't qualify at Charlotte three weeks ago. But Vickers did get in the Atlanta race (qualifying 14th), and made that speed hold up, finishing 10th in the event itself. The early-season days of Toyota engines not producing enough horses to be competitive at the high-banked, wide-open tracks are over, and Vickers finished eighth at both Fontana and Michigan in the season's second half. Speed is his friend. If he qualifies (fingers crossed), he could do a little fantasy damage. The good kind.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.