I'll admit it: This just isn't my favorite part of the season. Between the first Pocono race and the Watkins Glen event, there are six tough-to-watch events in nine weeks. Pocono twice, two road courses, Indianapolis (great history, no passing) and New Hampshire are a murderers' row of viewing dullness: long, green-flag runs and precious-little passing. Fortunately, we'll get the second Daytona race next weekend, and that'll spice up our lives. But before then, we have to undergo a Sunday afternoon at the track some have dubiously dubbed the Miracle Mile.
Actually, that's not entirely fair. I regularly have more hope for Loudon than I do for Pocono or Indy because in 2002, the track's then-owners understood they had a problem, and they did try to fix it. In '02 New Hampshire Motor Speedway's corners were altered to provide progressive banking (a bit steeper nearer the wall), so that drivers could hunt down that elusive "second groove" that would allow more side-by-side racing. Has it worked? Well, not really. You still see not much passing, few multi-car wrecks, very long green-flag runs, and it can take a dozen laps for a faster car to get by a slower one. Personally, I'd prefer that NHMS's new owners, the ubiquitous Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports syndicate, blow this place up (as happened in Homestead and Las Vegas), create some banking in the turns and give us drama.
Until then, though, this is a flat track that'll encourage mid-race naps. But we can still hope our fantasy bets are there at the end. Let's take a look at my weekly favorites.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Tony Stewart, 10th; Jeff Gordon, 3rd)
Owning Denny Hamlin on your fantasy team definitely isn't for the fainthearted. Even when it appears Hamlin's going to win a race or give you a solid top-5, he's never safe until he actually passes the checkers, and the No. 11 team is never far from snatching a 40th-place finish from the jaws of a win. Nevertheless, if I'm picking a winner Sunday, it's Hamlin. There have been three flat-track events so far in 2008; Hamlin won at Martinsville, could've won at Phoenix (he finished third) and led 380 laps at Richmond before blowing a tire. He's got this flat-track thing figured out in the Car of Tomorrow. As I say, he's not the safest fantasy play out there. But asked to pick an outright winner, I'll take Hamlin.
If the idea of using Hamlin and his incredible ability to turn in awful finishes after day-long solid performances scares you to death, I'll give you two more elite drivers to try fantasy-wise this week. Clint Bowyer might be the safest pick on the board. He was 10th at Martinsville, second at Phoenix and won at Richmond, plus he dominated the second Loudon event last year on his way to his first career Sprint Cup victory. And Jeff Gordon's most recent three Loudon finishes have gone like this: second, second, third. That kind of steadiness stands in contrast to Hamlin's buzzard's luck.
"Rearview mirror" (Mid-range Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Juan Pablo Montoya, 6th; Jamie McMurray, 18th)
Martin Truex Jr. was near the front through two entire races at Loudon last year. He finished third and fifth at this track in the Car of Tomorrow; the first of those finishes put him in position to make his first Chase for the Championship, and the second actually momentarily made him a threat to win the Chase, before reality (and Jimmie Johnson's sick final two months) set in. Regardless, I believe the No. 1 has a strong run in it in the COT on Sunday.
I'll also throw a little love Bobby Labonte's way. His three flat-track finishes in the COT this season have gone like this: 25th at Martinsville, 12th at Phoenix and 13th at Richmond. I'd certainly prefer the No. 43 give us a result more like the latter two events and less like Martinsville, but that kind of top-20 potential isn't easy to find among the non-elite drivers in a place like Loudon. Last year, Labonte finished 18th and 22nd in the COT at NHMS.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Kasey Kahne, 33rd)
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. The Biff went through a nice consistent run at Loudon between the spring of '05 and the spring of '06, posting three consecutive top-five finishes, but before and after that, this hasn't been one of his best tracks, and he finished 31st and 13th here in the COT last season. Will the No. 16 finish in the top 20? Probably. This tends to be a place where the big-money drivers dominate the results board. But in my mind, several drivers are more likely to give you a smooth and consistent top-10 Sunday -- meaning I'd stay away from Biffle.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: Robby Gordon, 36th; Boris Said, 41st)
Last week's sleepers were a big ol' kick in the eye: Both Robby Gordon and Boris Said got near the front for long stretches, but each wound up having crummy luck and finished at the field's butt end. So much for the glory of outsmarting a road course. Anyway, this weekend I'll try Jamie McMurray -- who also deserved a better Sonoma finish than he received -- to turn in a respectable top-20 at Loudon. Jamie Mac was 16th and 11th in the two NHMS Loudon events last year, plus finished eighth at Martinsville and 17th at Phoenix.
Another struggling big name would be Kurt Busch, and at least we know he has fond memories of this place from his Roush days in the No. 97, when he submitted a three-race run that resulted in first-, first- and second-place finishes from the spring of '04 to the spring of '05. Things have been exceedingly rough on the elder Busch on flat tracks this season (33rd at Martinsville, 23rd at Phoenix, 42nd at Richmond), but in a lot of salary-cap fantasy games, his value has now fallen to the point where he can be a bit of a bargain if he gets his noggin dislodged from his posterior.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Race: Michael McDowell, 21st)
For those of you in Fantasy Stock Car leagues, get off the stick and go sign Travis Kvapil. Kvapil is 18th in Sprint Cup points, and while he's not a very good bet to make the Chase, he's given you three top-10s and seven top-20s in 2008; that's better than Yates could've dreamed before the season began. Kvapil is still owned in only 8.7 percent of FSC leagues, and I daresay he should be owned in just about all leagues, even if you're not necessarily starting him in the shallowest leagues. While Loudon isn't a great venue for sleepers, the fact that Kvapil finished 18th, 22nd and 16th at Martinsville, Phoenix and Richmond, respectively, gives me hope that he could pull out a top-20 on Sunday.
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.