May 22, 2009

To a race fan, there aren't many weekends bigger than Memorial Day. From the Grand Prix of Monaco early in the morning, to the Indianapolis 500 in the afternoon and the grand finale -- the Coca-Cola 600 -- there's plenty of racing for fans to feast on. And for the drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, there aren't many races that they want to win more than the 600. Not only is it the longest race of the year but it's held in NASCAR's backyard, affording the drivers extra bragging rights if they can survive the night and end up in Victory Lane.

So what are the keys to success this weekend? Even though there are an extra 100 miles in this race to come through the field, starting position is important. Other than Casey Mears' (16th) fuel-mileage gamble that paid off with a win here in 2007, no driver has won the Coca-Cola 600 from outside the top 10 since Jimmie Johnson (37th) in '03. Every week a good crew is important, but it's especially important this week. With the race starting during the day and ending at night, you need a smart crew chief atop the pitbox that can make the necessary adjustments and 600 miles means extra pit stops, so you need a crew that's on top of their game as well.

All that being said, which drivers have the entire package and will be the ones that will make your holiday weekend a success in your fantasy league? Read on to find out this week's favorites, sleepers and longshots.

Ryan Newman: Flyin' Ryan is back. Thursday night Newman earned the first pole for Stewart-Haas Racing and claimed his eighth top starting spot at Lowe's Motor Speedway. In last weekend's All-Star event, Newman looked to be in position to grab the win before contact with Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch took him out of contention. While he may have lost out on the prize to his boss last weekend, it could be Newman taking home the goods on Sunday. Looking at his recent results at Lowe's he might not be an attractive pick, but this is a new, rejuvenated Ryan Newman who is becoming a weekly threat to get back into victory lane.

By the numbers: In the three races before the All-Star break, Newman earned finishes of third, fourth and fourth, making him one of the hottest drivers heading into the 600.

Kyle Busch: An extra 100 miles gives Kyle Busch that many more opportunities to display his dazzling driving skill that both excites the fans and drives them crazy at the same time. While he's struggled to put in good finishes this year off the short tracks, this is the type of race where Busch can flex his muscle. Starting from the second position, look for Busch to put his Toyota horsepower on display early on in the event and with Steve Addington making the calls from pit road, look for Busch to be a main contender on Sunday night.

By the numbers: In his last five starts at Lowe's, Busch has scored four top 10s and three top five finishes.

Jimmie Johnson: The stars aligned perfectly when Lowe's got the sponsorship rights at what was once called Charlotte Motor Speedway. With their name on the door, the car with their name across the hood became the ultimate dominating force at this track. In the six-race stretch from 2003 to '05, Johnson earned five wins at his "home" track including four in a row, making him likely the most popular pick in your fantasy league this week. This is where strategy comes in, do you go with the masses and use Johnson, succeeding or struggling right along with them, or is it time to step out from the pack and look elsewhere? The safe money says you can't go wrong with Johnson even though he's "struggled" in recent years as new drivers have stepped up to knock him off his throne.

By the numbers: In 15 career starts at LMS, Johnson has an average finish of 8.9, but in the last four races he has claimed just two top 10 finishes and has an average of 17.2.

Kasey Kahne: If you look at the stats for the last five races at LMS, Kahne's name will jump out at you right away. His average finish of 7.0 is the best of anyone in that span and includes two wins. So why the sleeper tag and not a favorite? We haven't seen that Kasey Kahne much, if it all, this season. You have to go back six races to Bristol to find the last time the Bud car was in the top 10 and his last three points paying races have seen finishes of 36th, 29th and 23rd. But coming back to a track where he has seen so much success could pay off well for Kahne, who will start Sunday's race in sixth place.

By the numbers: In 10 career starts at Lowe's, Kahne has three wins and has finished in the top 10 half of the time, leading 616 laps along the way.

Jeff Burton: Right behind Kahne on the stat sheet in the last five races at LMS is Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton. After a rough start to the 2009 season, Burton has climbed to sixth in the standings thanks to five top 10 finishes in the last nine races. Known as one of the most level-headed veterans in the series, that patience and experience will be a valuable asset over the 400 lap grind Sunday night. After a dismal showing in qualifying, Burton's 40th starting position may be too much to overcome to put him in victory lane without a bit of pit strategy luck; but a solid top 10 finish is certainly not out of the question.

By the numbers: In the last five races at LMS, Burton has scored four finishes of sixth or better; including his win in the fall race last season.

Sam Hornish Jr.: Last weekend's win in the Sprint Showdown might have you thinking that Hornish is a money pick for Sunday, but I wouldn't bet the farm on him just yet. Granted Hornish has seen an improvement overall this season, scoring top 10s at Phoenix and Richmond, but they don't compare to the test he will face on Sunday night. And winning a 40-lap race isn't even close to being competitive for 400 laps. Starting in the 26th position, Hornish will have quite a task ahead of him. But if you're looking for a mid to low range salary driver to give you a decent shot a top 20, you could do worse than Hornish.

By the numbers: In two career starts at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Hornish has a best finish of 13th (2008 Coca-Cola 600) and has completed all but two laps.

Next up: The Sprint Cup Series heads north to battle the Monster Mile at Dover in the Autism Speaks 400.

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