People stop me on the street and say, "Gosh, Mr. Black Circle. You're 5-for-9 in picking races on the TV. How do you do it?"
(OK, nobody stops me on the street. But indulge my fantasies, won't you?)
And I say, "I am the luckiest idiot on the planet."
Seriously, the NASCAR gods must be crazy. Yes, after Kyle Busch won at Talladega last weekend, I'm batting .556 in 2008, which is, well, pretty much impossible. Being an expert is one thing, and I like to think I know what I'm doing when it comes to picking Sprint Cup races. But so much can happen to a good car during the course of a 500-mile event, and it's really hard to finish second. Nailing more the half the races in my "NASCAR Now" segment has been impossibly lucky. To wit:
• I had Kyle Busch at Atlanta, where Carl Edwards was driving away from the field but then had his engine explode late.
• I also had Busch last week at Dega, where he led going into the final lap, which is one of the last places you want to be, because your rivals can team up and stream past you in a heartbeat. But there was a wreck after the white flag came out, which froze the results 2.4 miles before the checkers.
• I picked up faster than most on how good Edwards looked at both the Vegas and Fontana tests this January. King Carl looked dominant to me in those sessions, which led me to select him for early-season races at each of those tracks. (This one's a little more than blind luck, I guess.)
Anyway, with a horseshoe still firmly lodged where the sun doesn't shine, let's talk about our best fantasy options for the Saturday night race in Richmond.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Kyle Busch, first; Tony Stewart, 38th)
When it comes to the first Richmond event, I like to look at the most recent Phoenix event for some parallels. The tracks aren't identical by any stretch, but some setup notes carry over, and results often have something in common. That's why I'm picking Denny Hamlin to win. He probably had the best car by the end of the Phoenix race last month, but he wound up finishing third because the first- and second-place drivers were able to cross the finish line on fumes. Hamlin also won at the flat track in Martinsville, so his Cup car short-track program is on top of it. He was third and sixth at Richmond, his home venue, last season.
It's also hard not to like Jimmie Johnson, who swept Richmond in the Cup car in '07. Johnson was the beneficiary of the fuel-mileage win in Phoenix a few weeks back; even if he didn't have the best car that day, he was solid, and having a great crew chief (and an engine that'll make gas last) is never a bad thing. It's hard to argue that the Hendrick cars don't still have something of an advantage on the shorter and flatter tracks in the Cup car.
"Rearview Mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Kasey Kahne, 23rd; Kurt Busch, 39th)
Mark Martin probably had the day's dominant overall car in Phoenix, leading 68 laps before a late round of pit stops bumped him backward a bit, and he finished fifth. That was a surprisingly stout effort from this part-time DEI driver, whose team also supports Aric Almirola when Martin's not in the No. 8. I think Martin will be very strong again on Saturday night. He's got 23 career top-10 finishes at this Richmond track.
I also like David Ragan. Ragan has been better (as have all the Roush cars) on the bigger and steeper-banked tracks in '08, but I'm remembering his stunning third-place finish at Richmond last fall, which is the event that pretty much put him on the fantasy map. Ragan has five top-20 finishes in nine starts this season and has finished worse than 27th only once all year (and that was at the Daytona 500, where he was competitive for a while before getting wrecked). Another top-10 is a real possibility.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last week: Greg Biffle, 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 Matt Kenseth. The No. 17 has been a disaster this year, and Kenseth is currently 19th in points. At Phoenix and Martinsville, the two tracks where the Smokeless Set has run in '08 that are most comparable to Richmond, Kenseth had two messes, finishing 30th and 38th. It seems clear that the DeWalt team misses Robbie Reiser badly (and having Reiser temporarily atop his pit box certainly hasn't hurt Carl Edwards), and Kenseth is probably the most disappointing driver in fantasy through two months. It could turn around any time for this team, but at the moment, I'd rather not be on the wrong end of trying to predict when that'll be.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Elliott Sadler, 29th; Brian Vickers, fifth)
Bobby Labonte has run well a few times this year, only to get wrecked near the race's end (as happened in Talladega last week), but he was a solid 12th at Phoenix, and that makes me like him pretty well for Richmond, too. When he was with Gibbs, Richmond was one of Labonte's best tracks; from Spring 2003 to Spring 2005, he posted four finishes of eighth or better. He knows how to get around this place, and just needs to stay out of trouble to be effective.
I'll also give a shout-out to Jamie McMurray. After a woeful start to '08, Jamie Mac has four straight top-20 finishes to climb off the qualifying bubble and up to 25th. He'll likely need to do more than that to save his job at the end of this season, but history shows he's got more in him. If McMurray is picking a favorite short track, it's Martinsville and not Richmond, but he was a solid 17th at Phoenix a few weeks ago and, to me, that means he can definitely pull out a top-20 Saturday.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last week: David Gilliland, 15th)
I picked David Gilliland at Talladega last week and, contrary to my instincts, will stick with him this week at a track that's about 20 percent as big. Gilliland is a much smarter and safer play at superspeedways, because that's where he naturally excels and where Yates cars are apparently most competitive. But the No. 38 finished 15th at Phoenix (part of its improbable three consecutive 15th-place finishes in the past three events) and was able to run 22nd last fall at Richmond despite what can be termed a disastrous 2007 run at most every track not labeled Daytona or Talladega. Gilliland still is owned in only 22.1 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, though he sits 18th in points. I can understand your hesitancy to go whole-hog into Gilliland-hood, but if you're in desperate need of a pickup, I'd 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.