Atlanta Motor Speedway is fast. First-helpings-in-an-army-barracks fast. Charlie Sheen-paternity-suit fast.
For fantasy prognosticators, the first Atlanta race may also be the most important event of the year. While Daytona is a blast, Fontana is smooth and wide-open and Vegas is a 1.5-miler, AMS might be the most predictive track we have. That's because the configurations at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth are nearly identical to this Sunday's track. Yes, the surfaces vary (Atlanta's is notoriously bumpy), so car setups won't be identical. But all three of those tracks are 1½ miles long and have 24 degrees of banking in the corners and five degrees of banking in the straightaways. And a look at results at one of these venues is almost a primer on which cars will be good at the other two.
That's why Sunday's race will bear special notice. We've got all sorts of great data on the A-C-T triumvirate during the last umpteen years, but 2008's first Atlanta race marks the Car of Tomorrow's debut at the fastest tracks NASCAR runs. In the old car, speeds exceeded 200 miles per hour at the ends of the straights, and the COT shouldn't be far off that scorching pace. But when they're moving that fast, will the new cars be able to pass? Will they be able to run side-by-side? And, most importantly, which teams will they favor? Sunday's performances will set the stage for five more direct parallels throughout the '08 season. Let's go to school.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Carl Edwards, 1st; Kyle Busch, 11th)
The COT tested in Atlanta at the end of '07, and while it's dangerous to draw conclusions based on a test that happened before a winter of COT development, one thing stands out to me: Kyle Busch was fast. Now, granted, he was running in a Hendrick Chevy with the No. 18 stenciled across its broadside, but driver comfort stands for something, and you'd have to say that the Shrub was comfortable. He was the first-, third-, first- and second-fastest in the four test sessions. That fact combined with how well Toyota horsepower has done at the fast tracks we've visited so far, puts me in the mind of the Japanese manufacturer's first-ever Sprint Cup win. It's coming, folks, and it could be as soon as Sunday.
Before Carl Edwards was docked 100 points and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, got suspended for a month-and-a-half, I was set to make him an "elite" pick for the third consecutive week. After all, I went on TV two weeks in a row and selected Edwards to win the race, which he did, making me look like the idiot-savant of NASCAR Now. You could say the No. 99 has been good to me. But there's too much drama surrounding Edwards again, and it's just too hard to win three straight races. So instead, I'm going with Busch's teammate, Tony Stewart. Smoke may have finished last at Vegas, but was running in the top 10 when his right-front tire blew and he smashed into the wall. As with Shrub, I'm into the Toyota horsepower Stewart brings, and it's hard not to be impressed by his 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 Atlanta events.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Kasey Kahne, 6th; Casey Mears, 13th)
I'm going to exercise a little self-discipline (rare for me) and proclaim that Kasey Kahne no longer qualifies as "midrange." He's up to being the 16th-most-valuable driver in our Stock Car Challenge game, and I'm sorry, that's elite. So I'll have to be satisfied with being one of the first back on the No. 9 bandwagon to begin the year. In his place, I'll go with David Ragan, another driver I've picked a few times already this year to good effect, but who probably doesn't count as a "sleeper" anymore in salary-cap games. The Roush cars have their COT act together, and Ragan has benefited, to the tune of a 14th-place finish at Fontana and a seventh-place result last week in Vegas. Ragan finished 33rd in each of his first two Atlanta Cup races, in '07, but expect him to be a lot better than that Sunday.
Mark Martin stands in 17th place in Sprint Cup points, but has run better than that; his 31st in the Daytona 500 came after a courageous effort to get a lap back and stay competitive until late in the race, whereupon he was wrecked in someone else's mess. Martin has five top-10s in the last seven events at Atlanta, and my misgivings about the DEI/Childress engine programs have to this point been relatively unfounded. Martin's No. 8 should have the horses to at least be competitive Sunday, whereupon he'll take two races (Bristol and Martinsville) off, and be replaced by Aric Almirola.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Clint Bowyer, 28th)
Based on the way he ran last week in Vegas, I have to say I'm going right back to Clint Bowyer as my stud driver to avoid. Obviously, any car on the elite teams (and Childress is elite) can turn out a good performance in any given week. But Bowyer was singularly unimpressive going a lap down early at the 1.5-miler in Vegas, and was rarely heard from again. This is a risky pick, because Bowyer finished sixth in each of 2007's Atlanta events. But as I've said seemingly ad infinitum early in '08: The No. 07 had a whole lot of great luck last season, and that kind of thing often turns around the next year.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 24th; David Ragan, 7th)
Quietly, Elliott Sadler has been a very nice story early in '08: He finished sixth at Daytona, 24th at Fontana and 12th at Las Vegas. When Jeremy Mayfield drove the No. 19, he didn't seem to be able to learn anything from Kahne's successful setups and ride the No. 9's coattails to good finishes, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Sadler. And even with the flawed Evernham cars that rolled out of garages in '07, Sadler did finish 14th and 18th in the two Atlanta races, as well as 12th and 17th in the two Texas events.
And yes, I'm going right back to Brian Vickers. For another two races, the No. 83 will have to make the field on time, but after that I expect Vickers to be firmly ensconced within the top 35 (he's 12th in points right now, so that's hardly going out on a limb), whereupon he'll be able to turn his attention to race-day trim during practice sessions. Vickers was a favorite sleeper of mine in January, and while I don't suddenly see him making the Chase, Toyota's renewed engine program has benefited no one more than The Vick. (On second thought, maybe it's not wise to refer to someone as "Vick" when NASCAR comes to Atlanta?) Vickers finished 10th in the Atlanta fall race, fifth in the Charlotte spring race and posted a top-20 at Texas last year, too.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: David Reutimann, 37th)
I'm bummed about David Reutimann last week; he qualified 14th for the race after testing and practicing among the fastest in the field, but smacked the wall on the race's second lap, blew a tire and went down multiple laps before the event really ever got going. I'm tempted to pick him again as my deep sleeper, but instead I'm paying attention to cars that did run well in Vegas. And that sends me to (gulp) Travis Kvapil. Driving an unsponsored car, Kvapil finished eighth at the Diamond in the Desert, and that's impressive. Can he do it for a second week in a row? At least you know Yates horsepower won't be a problem. Kvapil has teased in the past, but when you're taking a shot in the dark, it might as well be an educated one. Kvapil is owned in just 8.2 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, so if you're desperate, you might give him a try.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.
You can e-mail him here.