August 29, 2008

One week after the fan favorite night race at Bristol, the Sprint Cup Series heads to what could easily be considered one of the least favorite races on the schedule -- the Labor Day race, which is now at the Auto Club Speedway in California. Whether you are a fan of the schedule change or a diehard purist who can't stomach spending Labor Day watching a race at any other track than Darlington, if you're a fantasy owner, you have to put that aside and put your best team out on the track.

Just two races remain before the Chase field is set after Richmond. With only two drivers locked into the postseason, each lap will be important for those other 10 drivers still looking to stake their claim to a spot in the Chase. While those 10 drivers will certainly be putting it all on the line, there are still ones that stand out from the others and there are drivers outside the top 12 who warrant a look when making your picks this week.

So without further ado, let's take a look at the favorites, sleepers and longshots heading into Sunday night's Pepsi 500.

Kyle Busch/Carl Edwards: Heading into Sunday night's race, Busch and Edwards are the only two drivers who have already clinched their place in the 10 race Chase for the Championship. For these two drivers, whose rivalry was sparked last week at Bristol, the only thing that is on their mind is winning and earning bonus points in the next two races. Edwards won at California earlier this year and has won three of the last four races; including at California's sister track at Michigan. But don't count Busch out. He was fourth at California in February and runner-up to Edwards in Michigan. If you want to load your team with a driver going all out for the win, these are your two guys.

Matt Kenseth: One of the drivers looking to spoil the party for Busch or Edwards is Kenseth. Just 78 points on the plus side of the cutoff for the playoffs, Kenseth can't just simply go for it. He needs a strong solid finish in order to make sure he is in contention after Richmond. He couldn't have asked for a better track to show up the schedule than California. In the last six races there he has finished seventh or better and has two wins to his credit. After a tough weekend at Indy, Kenseth has rebounded well and heads to California with two straight top 10s to his credit. Look for him to be a player this weekend as he tries to end his teammate's winning streak.

Kevin Harvick: With four straight top 10s, Harvick is mirroring the fantastic start to the season he enjoyed as the playoffs approach. Currently eighth in the standings, Harvick isn't on the hot seat when it comes to making the Chase, but he doesn't have enough breathing room to take it easy. The home state boy should be able to keep the good times rolling this Labor Day weekend and edge towards clinching a spot in the Chase. In the first go around at California, Harvick finished eighth and was 12th and eighth in the two Michigan events. He may not be a frontrunner for the win; but he'll be in the mix at the front of the field.

David Ragan: After a tumultuous rookie season, who would have thought Ragan would been this year's sophomore surprise with a shot at making the Chase? He's not quite to that point yet, but he is just nine points away from making it happen. In the last four races, Ragan has two top 5-finishes, including at third place finish at Michigan, and a 10th-place finish last week at Bristol, a far cry from jokes made about him pinballing around the short tracks last year. With the strength of a strong Roush Fenway camp behind him that always performs well at the bigger tracks like California and Michigan, don't be surprised if Ragan puts up another solid number this week and don't be afraid to take a gamble on him for your fantasy lineup.

Jamie McMurray: Even as rumors and doubt about his future at Roush Fenway Racing continue to swirl, McMurray is quietly putting together a strong run towards the close of the 2008 season. In fact, his average finish over the last five races (10.6) is third highest among full-time drivers on the circuit. Statistically speaking, California is his best track; even though a loose racecar didn't let him show that in February when he finished 22nd. But the team has improved throughout the season and at Michigan he earned two tenth place finishes. Not many people are on board with McMurray so he could be a good weapon to sneak in and gain some points on your fellow fantasy competitors this Sunday.

Jeff Burton: Sunday night will mark Burton's 500th career start, and what better way to celebrate than with a victory? But after four straight races without a top 10, and after last week's disaster at Bristol that saw him finish 42nd, he probably would take a solid top 10 and leave happy. In the earlier race at Fontana and in the two races at Michigan, Burton finished just outside the Top 10 giving him some work to do this weekend. The reason that Burton is worth a longshot look, is that he rarely goes long without a good finish and he's due. Burton is a smart, tough driver and that will play to his advantage if the race comes down to strategy.

Brian Vickers: Not that many weeks ago, it seemed like Vickers' star was on the rise and it wouldn't come as a major shock if he should find his way to victory lane. But in the last five races he's lost that luster and has only finished in the top 10 once. The key is to look where that top-10 finish was -- Michigan. In the August race at MIS, he led 21 laps and finished seventh. In June, he led 44 laps and ended the day fourth and at California in February, before this team really hit its stride, he was 11th. With Toyota horsepower under the hood and those past results, Vickers should get back on track and back in the Top 10.

Last week's longshots really paid off with top-10 finishes for both Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. My sleeper pick of Jeff Burton didn't pay off, but I can find a bit of comfort in the fact that he was running near the top 10 of the field when he was caught up in an accident not of his own making. With four of six picks in the top 11, I'd say it was a pretty successful week considering it was Bristol.

"California has been one of our better tracks throughout our time in the Nationwide Series and in the Cup Series, so it's definitely a track I look forward to racing. The track is just a real big, wide track. You get a little bit of everything there. You get a lot of speed, especially now in the new cars because they have less drag, so you really go fast down the straightaways. It's got some pretty big corners where you can run around the bottom or you can run up high and you're always kind of searching for a groove, so the racing is always a lot of fun." -- Matt Kenseth

Sneak peek at next week

For the third straight week, the Cup series will run under the lights. This time it will be at Richmond International Raceway with the final slots in the Chase up for grabs.

You May Like