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Spinning my wheels: Hitting the road

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Michael Harmon

Mike is a fantasy contributor for FOXSports.com.MORE>>
 
   
 
NASCAR fans sat down on Sunday with great anticipation of the run at Pocono, one of the most interesting set-ups on the circuit. Alas, the weather did not cooperate, and fans and fantasy participants had to wait until Monday to see Denny Hamlin charge into victory lane. Hamlin is running white-hot as we head into the Chase. Can he pull off a huge push to upend Jimmie Johnson's quest for a fourth straight series title? Can anybody stop Tony Stewart right now? Hamlin and Stewart rank among the best in the series at Watkins Glen, a must-watch event for racing fans. Let's rate the contenders.

Track info

The track at Watkins Glen in upstate New York is a 2.45-mile road course that features 11 turns. Drivers need to balance their push for speed with the quick downshift into the corners, slamming brakes and really taxing the system. As you run through the driver logs, you'll find extensive evidence of brake system failures, engine issues and wrecks. One of the factors that changes things up is the proliferation of "hired guns," the road course specialists, who enter this week's event. Regular Sprint Cup drivers who typically struggle on road courses curse its inclusion at this point of the season when they're trying to make a charge into the Chase. The road course specialists will be sprinkled inside the top 15 in the final results, leaving some of the usual heroes on the outside.

History

Despite the long history at this track, only three drivers have found their way into Victory Lane on multiple occasions. Jeff Gordon and Stewart are tied for the lead with four wins each, while the venerable Mark Martin sits in the third position with three wins. In fact, only four other active drivers have claimed victory here. Those drivers are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Petty, specialist Robby Gordon and last year's victor, Kyle Busch. Can Denny Hamlin produce a huge follow-up to his Pocono win? Will one of the specialists rise up?

The contenders

Carl Edwards

Edwards resides in the sixth slot in the Sprint Cup point standings despite being mired in a mini-funk as the Chase looms. He's produced just one top-10 finish in his past six starts (four top-15 finishes). The pilot of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford has worked to become one of the best road drivers among the series regulars, having produced three straight top-10 finishes (19th in his first ride in 2005). He's averaged a 13.99-position running slot in four Watkins Glen starts with a 10.3-position average finish. Flip away, my friend.

Robby Gordon

Gordon isn't a threat most of the calendar year, but he rises to the elite level on road course weekends. He and his team have been salivating for this event, as Gordon has been one of the most dominant drivers at the track. He's raced to seven top-five finishes in 10 career events (one win) and has qualified inside the top 10 on four occasions. In the past four years, Gordon has averaged an 18.2-position running slot (a weak effort in 2008) with a 9.5-position finish.

Kyle Busch

With just one top-10 finish in his past nine starts, Busch finds himself on the edge of the Chase pack, as he currently owns the 13th slot in the point standings. This is a prime spot for him to return to the upper tier. Busch owns a three-race streak of top-10 runs at Watkins Glen. He's averaged a 15.72-position running slot in his four career starts here while averaging a 12.5-position finish. Busch also claimed the pole here last year and led 52 laps en route to victory.

Mark Martin

Martin has enjoyed his return to full-time racing, having claimed 11 top-10 finishes this season. He brings a three-race streak of top-tier finishes into Watkins Glen, including a win and a second-place finish. The venerable driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy is one of the legends of Watkins Glen. Martin has produced three wins and an astounding total of 16 top-10 finishes in his 19 career starts. His 20th-place finish in 2006 was his last run at Watkins Glen. Martin finished 28th in his first start back in 1988. Welcome back!

Jeff Gordon

The longtime NASCAR hero is on a roll as the Chase approaches. He's earned seven top-10 finishes in his past eight starts, including four top-five finishes. Gordon has a storied history at Watkins Glen, where he owns a share of the all-time lead in wins (four). The No. 24 Hendrick Chevy has raced to eight top 10s in his 16 career starts, although he's generated only one top-10 finish in his past seven starts (three top 15s). Gordon has averaged a strong 6.9-position qualifying effort during his Watkins Glen career, so fantasy participants might see points all weekend long. However, his recent struggles here (21.5-position finish in the past four Glen events) give me pause. Gordon has run well, but hasn't been able to finish.

Ryan Newman

Newman has been one of the surprises of the year. He joined Tony Stewart in his new enterprise and started the season slowly. Newman found his stride in mid-March and never looked back. He's raced to nine top-10 finishes and has averaged a 14th-place finish overall. He's a decent start this weekend at Watkins Glen, where he's produced three top 10s (four top 15s) in his seven career starts. Newman has qualified inside the top 16 in each of his Watkins Glen entries (four top-10 qualifying efforts) while averaging a solid 16.3-position finish. He's averaged a solid 16.4-position running slot and 19.3-position finish in his past four Watkins Glen entries.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is making a mighty charge as we roll toward the Chase. He won the rain-delayed race at Pocono, his fifth top-five appearance in his past seven starts (six top 15s). I expect to see him charge toward the top of the pack again this weekend. Hamlin has raced to top-10 finishes in each of his three Watkins Glen appearances, averaging a ninth-position running slot and 6.7-position finish.

Tony Stewart

Stewart earned his ninth straight top-10 finish with a fabulous run to 10th place in the rain-delayed race at Pocono. He's a veritable lock to extend the streak to double digits this weekend at Watkins Glen. Stewart has finished first or second in six of the past seven events here. He's claimed eight top 10s (four wins) in 10 career rides at the track. Taken further, Stewart has averaged a ridiculous 3.6-position running slot with a 1.5-position finish in the past four events. Lock him in.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick has experienced a miserable 2009 season, although he's showing signs of life as we head down the backstretch. He finished 10th at The Brickyard, following that up with a solid run to 12th at Pocono. I'm intrigued by Harvick this weekend coming out of these two strong runs. Of the series regulars, Harvick has been one of the top drivers at this venue. He's raced to five top 10s in eight career starts, including a victory in the 2006 event. Harvick has also qualified 13th or better in each entry. He's averaged a strong 11.6-position running slot and 14.5-position finish in his past four Watkins Glen rides.

Jimmie Johnson

The three-time defending series champion is making his bid for another title. Johnson has finished 13th or better in 10 of his past 11 starts, a stretch that includes seven top 10s (two wins). He's also a beast here at Watkins Glen with three top-five finishes in seven career starts (four top 10s). Johnson has also qualified seventh or better in five straight events.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth is fighting for his shot in the Chase, ranked 11th in the point standings. He's run to eighth, 10th and 11th-place finishes in three of his past four starts. Despite Kenseth's recent successes, he's a more difficult choice for fantasy participants at Watkins Glen. He's raced to three top 10s (five top 15s) in nine career starts. Kenseth has raced 18th or worse in his other four Watkins Glen starts. Kenseth has averaged a middling 19.3-position running slot in his past four Watkins Glen starts.

Quick hits

Juan Pablo Montoya

What a year for Montoya! He ran second at Pocono to extend his ridiculous run to the Chase. He's produced six top-10 finishes in his past 10 starts, a stretch that includes nine top-12 finishes. Evidently, the third time is the charm! Montoya is definitely on the radar this weekend for a start. He ran well in 2007 before an accident sent him to a disappointing 39th-place finish (14.6-position running slot). Montoya then put things together for a huge fourth-place ride in 2008. Fantasy participants should strongly consider Montoya to post a huge ride this weekend.

Jeff Burton

Burton has experienced a miserable season, having claimed only one top-10 appearance in his past 11 starts (six overall). Additionally, he's only generated two top-15 finishes during this stretch. Can he get back on track this weekend? I'm not overly optimistic. Burton has produced only three top 10s in 15 career starts at Watkins Glen. He's also only cracked the top 15 on six occasions. In the past four years, Burton has averaged a middling 20.1-position running slot and horrid 27.8-position finish. Leave him in the garage.

Kurt Busch

Busch ended a two-race mini-funk with a strong ninth-place effort on Monday at Pocono. It marked his 11th top-10 finish of the season and kept him in the fourth position in the point standings. Busch represents one of the most difficult choices for participants this weekend. Busch has averaged a tremendous 11.3-position qualifying slot in eight career Watkins Glen appearances with two top 10s (four top 12s). He ran 19th or worse in his other four starts (accident and engine woes killed two of his starts). Busch has averaged a solid 16.3-position running slot in his past four starts here.

Kasey Kahne

Kahne is riding high as we hit the final stretch before the Chase. He's raced to five top-10 finishes in his past six events (the other was a 15th-place finish). Despite this current hot streak, Kahne's a bench candidate this weekend. He's never finished better than 14th place in any of his five career Watkins Glen starts (18.6-position finish, on average) and has twice finished outside of the top 20. I'll save him for another ride.

Clint Bowyer

Bowyer hasn't been a world-beater, but the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy has run more consistently of late. He charged to a third-place finish last week at Pocono, his third top-10 finish in his past six starts. Perhaps Bowyer can make things interesting in the battle for the final Chase slot. Bowyer ran well in his first two Watkins Glen efforts, finishing 14th and 16th in 2006 and 2007, respectively, before finishing 23rd last year. I'll sit him down, but I expect to see a solid effort.

Greg Biffle

Biffle and his team have been struggling a bit of late. He's run 15th or worse in five of his past six starts. Fantasy participants considering Biffle for inclusion on their squads this weekend are at a crossroads. His lone top-10 finish in his Watkins Glen career came in 2007. He's run 21st or worse in his other five starts here, including four straight runs outside of the top 30 before 2007. Biffle has averaged a 24.5-position running slot in his past four starts here. As such, I'm leaving him on the sidelines this weekend.

Ron Fellows

I'll leave my normal Tracy Morgan joke alone this year. You remember the Brian Fellows skits, don't you? Anyway, there's no mistaking Fellows' ability to slam the brakes and take corners on road courses at high rates of speed. The key here is avoiding a car breakdown or an accident. Fellows has generated three top-five finishes in 11 career starts at the track, including a strong fourth-place run in 2007. Of course, he's also raced 25th or worse in seven of his other eight starts (13th last year). It's a high-risk, high-reward play in New York. Are you feeling lucky?

Longshots

The Specialists

I've listed a couple of the top options separately in the analysis above. Fantasy participants might also look toward Brian Simo, Max Papis or maybe a Patrick Carpentier for the fourth slot on their rosters.

Bobby Labonte

Labonte last produced a decent run for fantasy participants in late-May at the Coca-Cola 600 (12th). He's generated just one top-10 finish this year (three top-16 runs). Despite his season-long struggles, Labonte is still worthy of consideration for a fourth roster slot this weekend at Watkins Glen. The veteran driver owns six top 10s (eight top 15s) in 16 career starts here, although it must be noted that his last top-10 appearance came in 2001. My squad for this week includes Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, road hero Robby Gordon and Watkins Glen superstar Mark Martin.

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