After a week off, the Smokeless Set gets back to business at Martinsville, and since it's the season's sixth race, the current top 35 in owner points will determine which drivers automatically qualify, and which have to make the race on time. There are a few important names on that latter list, names that are owned in a lot of fantasy leagues. Jamie McMurray, for example, is owned in 99.2 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, and started in 97.3 percent of leagues, but he's currently 36th in owner points, meaning if he doesn't qualify among roughly the five best non-top-35 drivers on Friday, he won't make this race, and he'll give you a big bagel on Sunday. Dave Blaney is owned in nearly half of FSC leagues, but he's 37th in points. Rookies Dario Franchitti and Regan Smith are also halfway off the ledge, and need a couple solid efforts in the next few races to keep from slipping down the slope of fantasy irrelevance.
Who might you pick up in these guys' place? The troika of David Gilliland, David Reutimann and Scott Riggs is owned in fewer than 23 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, yet each man is safely ensconced well within the top 35 in owner points. Riggs, in particular, is a very good guy to own right now, I think. If you use him at the kinds of tracks he likes, which includes this week at Martinsville, he can give you a handsome payout for a low investment. And the guy I've been hyping all year, Brian Vickers, is still owned in only two-thirds of FSC leagues, despite standing 17th in owner points. That currently makes him easily the least-owned driver in the top 20. If he's not owned in your league, pick him up now.
Strategy Break: Let's say the Jimmie Johnson owner in your FSC league is starting to panic. Johnson was the first overall pick, but he hasn't won a race and currently sits 13th in points. Should you make a non-lowball offer? In other words, should you offer your first-round driver for J.J.? Let's get more specific. Let's say you drafted Kyle Busch toward the end of the first round. Should you be willing to buy low on Johnson and sell high on Shrub, swapping the two? Six weeks ago, you'd never have convinced me of this, but right now my answer would be: no. Busch the Younger just looks too strong at too many different kinds of tracks. I have all confidence that the No. 48 will pick it back up and easily make the Chase. But I'm a bit alarmed at how poorly he's run at the last two downforce races, in Las Vegas and Atlanta. That said, I would deal for J.J. Just not in exchange for Kyle Busch. But if I owned Greg Biffle or Kevin Harvick or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Burton or Kasey Kahne (each of whom is currently in the top six in points), and the Johnson owner in my league offered a straight-up swap? I'd do it.
Let's take a look at this week's best Martinsville fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 5th; Carl Edwards, 16th)
Today may be the last day to capitalize on Jimmie Johnson's slow start, because he just crushes the field at Martinsville. He's won three consecutive events here, including both Car of Tomorrow races ever run at this short, paper-clip-shaped track. He's also posted a top 10 here in 11 straight events, making him fantasy gold at this place. It's incredibly difficult to win four straight times at the same venue, but I give J.J. a better-than-even shot of doing just that on Sunday.
I also think Johnson's cohort, Jeff Gordon, is well worth investing in at the top end of your Stock Car Challenge team. Gordon has 10 straight top-10 finishes at Martinsville, and has won here four times since the spring of 2003. He finished second and third here in the COT in '07, and if you'll recall could've won the spring Martinsville race if he'd punted his teammate Johnson in the event's closing laps. Hendrick makes a comeback in a big way on Sunday.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Kasey Kahne, 7th; Bobby Labonte, 38th)
Ryan Newman is currently the 16th-most-expensive driver in the Stock Car Challenge, which in my mind qualifies him as an undervalued midrange guy. Newman finished second in the COT at Martinsville last fall, and overall in flat COT races last year (Martinsville, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Richmond), he had the circuit's seventh-best finishing average (and that includes a big wreck in the first Phoenix race). In the last nine Martinsville events, Newman finished inside the top 10 six times, and hasn't been worse than 18th.
I also think Martin Truex Jr. has a good run in him on Sunday. He's never been much of a Martinsville beast; his career finishing average at this place in four events is 25.8. But he runs very well at New Hampshire and pretty well at Phoenix, two tracks that should be good indicators of Martinsville success. The No. 1 car is right back where it ended 2007: inside the Chase and posting solid finishes most every week. I expect to see him inside the top 15.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Jimmie Johnson, 18th)
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. This week, I'm staying away from Greg Biffle, who currently sits second in Sprint Cup points. Now, Biffle did finish seventh here last fall, and the Roush COT program has made huge strides. But Biffle just isn't a great flat-track driver, and before that good result here in the fall of '07, he'd gone five races without finishing inside the top 19. In 10 career Sprint Cup runs here, Biffle finished 29th or worse on five occasions. I'm not going to be knocked over by a feather if the No. 16 runs well, but I think there are safer fantasy bets in other stables.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Brian Vickers, 39rd; Juan Pablo Montoya, 15th)
He disappointed a couple weeks ago at Bristol, but I'm going right back to the No. 83 of Brian Vickers. Vickers didn't even qualify for either Martinsville race last year (he was outside the top 35 in points all season, and had troubles making events), but now he's safely in this field. In this same race two years ago, Vickers finished eighth. He continues to be undervalued in fantasy games, so I'm going to continue to ride him.
I used Scott Riggs as my Hail Mary at Bristol and he rewarded me with a 22nd-place finish (not great, but for what he cost, not terrible); at Martinsville, I'm bumping him up into "merely sleeper" territory. As I noted a couple weeks ago, Riggs grew up driving mini-stocks at short tracks across the country, so when the Smokeless Set comes to a joint like Martinsville, I'm not surprised when Riggs runs well. He was eighth and 16th at this track in the COT in '07; duplicate either of those efforts for us, Riggsy, and your fantasy owners will sing your praises all week long.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: Scott Riggs, 22nd)
Aric Almirola doesn't get a lot of love in Fantasy Stock Car leagues (he's owned in 1.6 percent of those leagues), mainly because he's a part-time driver. But unlike a lot of other part-timers, you can rest assured that Almirola will be in races. That's because the guy he splits the No. 8 car with is none other than Mark Martin who, this just in, is a pretty good racecar driver. Thus DEI's second car (after Truex Jr.'s No. 1) is pretty much a lock to be inside the top 35 in owner points (it sits 16th right now). So in weeks that's scheduled to run, Almirola will be in the field, and because he's a pretty good short-track and road-course driver, that makes him intriguing. Two weeks ago at Bristol, Almirola fired off an eighth-place finish. Now, that's pretty ambitious for this week, but I'm not going to be shocked to see him finish in the top half of Sunday's field.
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.