Who'll make the Chase?
Well, the current top 5 in the standings -- Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton -- are safe as can be. But the next nine drivers are in competition for seven spots, and with only four races left until the Sprint Cup playoffs begin, it's nervous-making time.
Now, you can certainly make the argument that Nos. 6 through 8 -- Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne -- are looking pretty good. But Gordon is "only" 148 points ahead of 13th place; if he were to cough up a couple DNFs between now and Richmond well, let's just say nothing's guaranteed. But for the moment, I'll say those three guys are also pretty clearly in.
The real jitters come from among the next group: Denny Hamlin (83 points ahead of 13th place), Greg Biffle (83), Kevin Harvick (64), Matt Kenseth (22), Clint Bowyer (22 points out of the Chase) and David Ragan (89 points out). If Hamlin, Biffle and Harvick all keep it off the wall for the next month, and keep posting solid top-20s, they'll be fine. And unless Ragan goes wacky and notches three top-10s in the next four events, his impressive sophomore campaign will end up just short.
I guess what I'm trying to say is: Kenseth versus Bowyer. Fun stuff, huh?
It's a battle between two mega-teams (Roush and Childress), and two guys who made last year's Chase. Let's look at their respective Car of Tomorrow results at the next four tracks:
Wow. Close. Kenseth (and Roush) have an obvious advantage on the nearly identical two-milers at Michigan and Fontana, while Bowyer (and Childress) have been a lot better on shorter tracks. Now, in the old car, almost nobody was as consistently good at Bristol as Kenseth was, and I have to believe that'll wind up being the difference between these guys once the September 6 race at Richmond is over. At some point, that past Bristol success (including two wins and a whole mess of top-5s) will translate, and Kenseth will nose ahead of the No. 07 team. We'll revisit this in a couple weeks, but for the moment, my prediction is that the Chase will include the current top 12 drivers in the standings, and that Clint Bowyer will just miss out.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Race: Tony Stewart, 2nd; Jeff Gordon, 29th)
As I just mentioned, Roush continues to be king at the two-milers in Michigan and Fontana, which is why Kenseth is my favorite fantasy play for Sunday's race. In 18 career starts in the Irish Hills, Kenseth has finished in the top 10 on 12 occasions, and has posted eight top-5 finishes. That's just nuts, and consistency like that is fantasy gold. Despite the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season's first race here in June on fuel strategy, I thought Kenseth had the best car by day's end.
I'll also take Jimmie Johnson for my fantasy team this weekend. J.J. finished seventh at Watkins Glen; the only reason that's interesting is that it continues the No. 48 team's streak of good results: he's been seventh or better in the past four Sprint Cup events. Michigan hasn't always been Johnson's best track; he doesn't have a career win here (one of only five non-road-course tracks you can say that about), and he went through a stretch a couple years ago where he seemed to wreck here regularly. But on the higher-banked tracks, Johnson's been money lately. I think he'll be in contention all day Sunday.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Race: Juan Pablo Montoya, 4th; Robby Gordon, 27th)
I'm giving Brian Vickers another play, after the week off I gave him at a road course. If Kenseth had the day's best car the last time around in Michigan, I thought Vickers had the second-best, and it showed in his result: he finished fourth, leading 44 laps at what's turned out to be one of his best tracks. Vickers was disappointing at Pocono a couple weeks back, and of course he blew an engine at the Brickyard; those two results pretty much took him completely out of Chase contention. But I expect him to outperform his current fantasy price Sunday.
I'll also take a look at David Ragan. Did I mention Roush is really good at this track, which is relatively close to its world headquarters? Ragan finished eighth here in June, and has the 10th-best finishing average on the circuit driving the COT at this track style. A little birdie who's been around NASCAR for a lot longer than I have actually told me off the air he picked Ragan as his upset special winner this weekend.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Race: Kasey Kahne, 14th)
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 Clint Bowyer. As I detailed above, this track style hasn't been particularly kind to Bowyer in the COT through two events this season (a 26th and a 19th).
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Race: Ron Fellows, 13th; Marcos Ambrose, 3rd)
A.J. Allmendinger is finally inside the top 35 in owner points, so he doesn't have to worry about qualifying on time Friday. Instead, he can go out in race trim and make his car even better. Allmendinger has been one of the season's really good stories: he went from being replaced in the No. 84 by Mike Skinner earlier in the year to reclaiming his full-time gig and putting together a month in which he's finished no worse than 19th in four straight events. He was also 19th in the first Michigan race, and I think he'll give you an inexpensive top-20 Sunday.
Finally, I'll give Paul Menard a play. Menard was a very quiet 11th the first time around at this track, and there's no doubt that both he and his DEI team appear to be more comfortable on higher-banked tracks like Michigan: the No. 15's best results this season have come at Michigan, Texas, Atlanta and Talladega. Finishing 11th again might be something of a stretch for Menard, but I'll put in a word for him as a possible visitor to the top 25.
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.