In the Chase for the Championship's first week, a couple teams had utterly disastrous outings, and perhaps even wrecked their chances to end the Sprint Cup playoffs atop the standings.
Matt Kenseth wasn't going anywhere anyway, having fallen well into the field's back half by Lap 228, when he got caught in a five-car pileup that included big-time hits from Chad McCumbee and especially David Gilliland, who T-boned Kenseth's No. 17 in a collision Kenseth called one of the worst he has experienced. In the end, Kenseth finished 40th and is now a full 177 points behind co-leaders Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, and unless he wins three or four events in the season's final nine, he's completely cooked. The 2003 champion is probably done.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch suffered a broken hind joint, or rather, Busch's car suffered a broken hind joint. (A person really should never, ever be made to go through that.) The Gibbs camp seemed utterly perplexed by this incredibly rare auto malady, which left Busch unable to run Loudon lap times within even a few seconds of the leaders. As a result, he finished nine laps down, in 34th place. Thanks to his eight wins, Busch had a 30-point lead over Edwards heading into Loudon, so now he's "only" 74 points in back of the co-leaders. Does that make it impossible for him to win his first championship? Clearly, it does not. But I was talking to Dale Jarrett this week (that sounds like I'm really cool: It was literally the first time I ever met DJ face to face, and he was incredibly nice to me), and he said first, "You only get one" -- so if Busch craps out again, he's done -- and second, "For every one of those bad Chase finishes, I think you need two wins." That'll be a tall order for Busch, but it could begin this week at Dover, where Busch was victorious back in June.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Race for the Cup continues in earnest. My picks for this week's matchups are:
Carl Edwards over Jimmie Johnson
Kyle Busch over Greg Biffle
Jeff Burton over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Tony Stewart over Denny Hamlin
Kevin Harvick over Clint Bowyer
Matt Kenseth over Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. over Kurt Busch
Jamie McMurray over Dave Blaney
Brian Vickers over David Ragan
Juan Pablo Montoya over Travis Kvapil
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Tony Stewart, 8th; Jimmie Johnson, 2nd)
Carl Edwards is my pick to win the Dover race because, well, it's held on concrete and in the Car of Tomorrow. In three Dover races in the COT, Edwards has finished third, first and second, and in three Bristol races (also on concrete), Edwards has finished first, 16th and first. There's no doubt in my mind he's got a top-5 in him Sunday, and I think he'll win.
I'll also cast a vote for Kyle Busch as a good anchor for your fantasy team this week. Part of me wants to say that the younger Busch will be forced to play it just a tad conservative Sunday, since he can't afford another disastrous outing. But then I realize this is Kyle Busch we're talking about. He only knows one speed: fast. He's a hardheaded kid, and he will try to sweep Dover. Remember that the points lead has changed after the Dover race in all four years of the Chase's existence. Expect a big-time jumble.
"Rearview mirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Martin Truex Jr., 7th; Kurt Busch, 6th)
I'm going right back to Martin Truex Jr., who treated my own fantasy teams very well last weekend at Loudon. Dover is Truex's home track, and he won the very first COT event at this venue, back in '07. He finished sixth here in June, and in the COT he hasn't finished worse than 13th at the Monster Mile. Given what he'll cost you fantasywise, a finish of 13th or better will be much appreciated.
And continuing on the "Martin" theme (no, I'm not selecting Shanaynay), let's also take Mark Martin. The No. 8 wasn't very good here in the spring race (Martin finished 23rd in that event), but in 44 career starts at Dover, Martin has a whopping 27 top-10 finishes. This is a really difficult track to master, and Martin has his Ph.D.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Last Week: Greg Biffle, 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 Denny Hamlin. (Remember, during the season's final 10 races, I'm only allowing myself to select "Not For You" drivers who are actually in the Chase.) Now, Hamlin obviously has the equipment and talent to run well anywhere (as do all the Chasers), but his past two times out at Dover he's been bitten by bad luck, finishing 38th and 43rd. I have him rated 14th in my power rankings this week, so certainly I don't expect him to finish that poorly. But given the wealth of other expensive fantasy options, I probably wouldn't choose Hamlin.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: David Reutimann, 15th; Aric Almirola, 18th)
Does Juan Pablo Montoya qualify as a true sleeper? Well, considering he's got exactly one top-10 finish on a non-roadie in '08, I'm going to say yes. The first time around at Dover this season, Montoya finished 12th, which followed up a 10th-place effort in this event last fall. That seems a bit odd for the swashbuckling Montoya, whose overaggressive tendencies don't tend to go over well at the more difficult tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Then again, he's also got three straight top-20 finishes at Bristol, so perhaps there's simply something about racing on concrete that agrees with him. If he's inexpensive enough in your fantasy game, I say give him a shot.
And if he's not, maybe you could try Dave Blaney. Blaney finished ninth at Dover back in June, his only time racing the COT at the Monster Mile. Lest we think that was a fluke, however, Blaney managed a 12th place here in the fall of '06 in the "old car," and in his career he's got five top-20 finishes at Dover. This poor guy is burdened with some of the worst luck in the sport, but it does seem clear he knows how to get around this joint. He's not a bad bet for a top-half finish 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.