The first event at Michigan last season was a landmark for a couple of reasons. First, when Carl Edwards won, it gave Roush Racing its 10th win at Michigan International Speedway, the most by any owner. That's important when we start thinking about predicting this weekend's race, because Jack Roush really likes to win at this venue, which is close to the team's corporate headquarters.
Second, it meant the end of The Beard.
Edwards was on a 52-race winless streak at the time, which had gotten so frustrating that his coach driver, Tom Giacchi, had long since decided not to shave until the No. 99 team got back to Victory Lane. That resulted in one heck of a mountain-man beard. Week after week, Edwards came close but couldn't close, and week after week, Giacchi's beard grew southward. Jokes during race telecasts became legion, and the pressure to end our long national nightmare of facial hair grew heavy on Edwards's shoulders.
Finally (finally!), Edwards was able to take the checkers in dominating fashion last spring, leading the most laps (63) and driving away by event's end. The cutting, then shaving of Giacchi became prime fodder for postrace broadcasts, and Edwards hasn't looked back: He has five wins in the 35 races since.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Denny Hamlin, 3rd; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 4th)
Yes indeed, I'm taking Carl Edwards to keep facial hair everywhere at bay this weekend by winning his second Michigan event. Edwards has six top-10 finishes at MIS in seven starts, and his three wins so far this season have come at aerosensitive tracks, including Fontana, whose configuration is identical to that of this wide-open 2-miler in the Irish Hills. He's a great fantasy play because he's so consistent here, but Edwards also is my pick to win the whole thing.
And if it's not Edwards, likely as not, it's Kyle Busch. Heading into last weekend's 43rd at Pocono, the Shrub had five consecutive top-3 finishes at all manner of tracks, and he's been an utter beast at the downforce venues this year. Roush's overall affinity for this track pushes me in the No. 99's direction for the win, but I expect Busch to actually be the race favorite heading into Sunday.
Did I mention I like the Roush cars at this place? I'll take David Ragan, whose fantasy value certainly is increasing in salary-cap games but who still doesn't figure among the top 15 in most of those games. Ragan currently is a surprising 13th in Sprint Cup points and is a decent threat to make his first career Chase, plus he does well on the wide-open tracks. He was 14th at Fontana and seventh at Atlanta, 13th at Texas and 12th at Charlotte. The rising Roush tide lifts all boats, including the No. 6.
For the second straight week, I'm taking Kurt Busch. I had the elder Busch winning last week at Pocono, which he might have done had he not destroyed the splitter on the front of the Blue Deuce, leading to a ton of repairs and some gnarly track position. Still, finishing eighth last week made him a nice fantasy value, and I think he's got a similar effort in him for Michigan this weekend. Busch has two career wins here, the second of which came in a twice-delayed rain race last August.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Kasey Kahne, 1st -- oops)
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 Jimmie Johnson. Now, any week you take J.J., you're likely to get a top-10 from him, so it's not like I'm guaranteeing a terrible finish. But for some reason, Michigan hasn't agreed with Johnson in the past. Incredibly, there are only five non-road-course tracks in all of NASCAR where the No. 48 hasn't won a Sprint Cup race: Bristol, Kansas, Homestead, Chicagoland and Michigan. Johnson does have five top-10s in 12 career starts here, which, for most mortals, would be pretty good, but it's one of only five non-road-course tracks where Johnson hasn't finished inside the top 10 in at least 50 percent of his events at that track (Indianapolis, Richmond, Talladega, Bristol and Michigan; by the way, is that a sick stat or what?). So again, while I'm not dooming Johnson to a terrible finish here, I have to think there are better tracks where you can use him.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: Mark Martin, 10th; Brian Vickers, 2nd)
I'll go right back to Brian Vickers this week, after riding him to a sleeper second-place finish at Pocono last weekend. Vickers has three top-10s at Michigan, finished 11th in the Car of Tomorrow at Fontana back in February and backed that up with a ninth in Atlanta just a couple of weeks later. Toyota horsepower is good at big places like this, and last August, Vickers proved he could hang with the big boys at an MIS race, leading 11 laps and staying near the front all day before finishing eighth.
I'll also take a Roushketeer for my second sleeper: Jamie McMurray. Now, McMurray clearly has been a massive disappointment; when he left Ganassi to join Roush, there's no way the Cat in the Hat could have believed Jamie Mac would have one win and 11 top-10 finishes in his first 50 events for Roush (compared with 15 finishes of 30th or worse). Rumors abound that McMurray will be fired at the end of this season, although the driver denies it. Remember, though, that Sprint Cup teams will be capped at four cars per team as of 2010; if Roush decides to get rid of McMurray at the end of this year, it might simply fold up the No. 26 and get down to four cars that way. Anyway, enough negativity: Because McMurray drives for Roush and because Roush usually has very good setups at MIS, I'd use him as a sleeper this week.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: Travis Kvapil, 23rd)
I'll try David Reutimann this weekend. Reutimann tested spectacularly well at Fontana and Vegas way back in January and ran well at both places for a while before circumstances got the better of him. I still think this Toyota team has more very good results in it than it's shown so far in '08; Reutimann has only one top-10 finish (at Charlotte) but has posted a top-20 in eight of 14 races and deserves a little fantasy love.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner.
You can e-mail him here.