Here's hoping your fantasy league is as tight as the actual Nextel Cup points standings. Jimmie Johnson passed Jeff Gordon and has a 30-point lead with two races left. Let's take a look at the two drivers' results at Phoenix and Homestead, the last stops on this long summer's journey into winter.
By this macro logic, Gordon would appear to be the slightly better bet. Of course, there are numerous mitigating factors. The Car of Tomorrow will run again at Phoenix, so the relevance of historical data for all PIR races except this spring's is certainly up for debate. Homestead changed its configuration before the fall '03 race; in '02, it was a much flatter track. And of course, we're not accounting for the momentum that's seen Johnson win three straight races, after Gordon had just finished firing off two straight. (How crazy is it that these guys have combined to win the last five Chase events?)
Most poignant in all of this is the extent to which Gordon has gotten completely screwed by the new points system for the second time. He would've won a Chase-free points title in 2004 instead of Kurt Busch, and he easily would've won under the old points regime here in 2007, as well. I'm not arguing that the Chase isn't a good thing, because frankly, no one would want to watch the next two events with Gordon up 400 points. But when you're bashing the No. 24 team and saying Gordon couldn't carry water for any of your old-time favorites, ask yourself whether any of the sport's greatest drivers would've lost a title or two if they'd had to go through the Chase. If Gordon had been born 10 years earlier, he might have six crowns.
Okay, let's take a look at the best fantasy bets for Phoenix.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Kurt Busch, 8th; Martin Truex Jr., 3rd)
These two picks are my easiest ones of the season. Let's see: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win the last five races overall. They finished first (Gordon) and fourth (Johnson) the first time around at Phoenix this season. They feature the two best flat-track Car of Tomorrow finishing averages in the sport (Gordon is 2.57 in those seven events, while Johnson is 2.71). They have a ton on the line, so they're unlikely to take silly chances that could jeopardize a consistent fantasy finish. There's no question: Get one or both of these guys on your team for Phoenix.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Kasey Kahne, 18th; Casey Mears, 31st)
Ryan Newman doesn't have a great finishing history at Phoenix. He was a crashed-out 38th here in April in the COT and was 39th and 15th here last season. But very quietly, the sport's most consistent qualifier has become really good in these flat-track COT races. He was second and 14th at Martinsville, sixth and 11th at Richmond and ninth and 10th at Loudon. Even with the disappointing Phoenix finish, that puts Newman seventh among all drivers' finishing averages with this track/car combination. And in the fall of '03 and '04, Flyin' Ryan placed third and second, respectively, at this venue.
I'll also try the wily vet, Bobby Labonte, one more time this year. Listen, when you're coming up with "midrange" drivers this late in the season, the pickings tend to be slim. The "best" drivers are pretty clear (most of them are in the Chase), and nearly everyone else is a sleeper. But I'd say Labonte, whose climb to respectability I've chronicled in previous weeks, qualifies as mid-priced in most fantasy games. Labonte will disappoint you about every other time out, but he does have five top-10 finishes at PIR in his last six tries here. I grant you: several of those were with Gibbs, and only one of those was in the COT (he was eighth here in April). Beggars, as they've been known to say, can't be choosers.
"Not For You" (Beware of these Drivers)
(Last week: Kevin Harvick, 10th)
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 Kurt Busch. Now, Busch won here in the spring of '05 and has two career wins at Loudon, one at Martinsville and one at Richmond. But he hasn't been sparkling on the flat tracks in the COT. He was just 21st and 25th at Loudon, 12th and 31st at Martinsville, a much-better fifth and ninth at Richmond and 18th here in April. He's obviously capable, and I daresay he's as likely as just about anyone to look super-strong when the race begins. But given his luck lately, I'd just as soon take several of the safer fantasy entities out there.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Reed Sorenson, 40th; Brian Vickers, 23rd)
J.J. Yeley just has to run well Sunday, doesn't he? The poor guy was fired from Gibbs and will run lesser equipment for Hall of Fame Racing next season (in the No. 96 car). He's from Phoenix, and PIR is his home track. Plus, honestly, the friends-and-family-in-attendance angle aside, Yeley has been pretty OK on this venue style in the COT in '07. He finished 10th at Richmond in the last event before the Chase and then 10th again at Loudon in the first Chase race. He crashed out of Martinsville before the event even got going (finishing 42nd). C'mon, J.J. Give us a Hollywood ending.
Finally, I'll eschew more veteran options for that youngest of Roushketeers, David Ragan. Ragan's career-best finish came during that same September Richmond race, when he came in third. Of the seven events I'm calling "COT flatties," Ragan posted five top 20s, not exactly a championship-level endorsement, but not too shabby for a kid who probably doesn't cost you very much in your fantasy game. Heck, if he gives us a top 20 Sunday, it'll be time to break out the "Driver X" DVDs.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.