To win at NASCAR’s elite level, drivers have to race on the ragged edge. To find where that barrier is located, occasionally they have to step over it.
There is a common misconception among some fans that running up front comes easy for Jimmie Johnson. He seems to effortlessly dominate races and every win he records is one less for their favorite driver. In final practice for the Pure Michigan 400 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Saturday, he proved that he pushes himself as hard as anyone else in the field.
With less than 30 minutes remaining, he got loose and spun into the wall hard enough to necessitate bringing out a backup car. The backup was just as strong as the primary and Johnson will almost certainly climb into the top-10 within 50 laps, but fantasy owners still need to be a little cautious. When teammate Jeff Gordon qualified 29th in June’s Quicken Loans 400, he was swept into Bobby Labonte’s accident immediately after the waving of the green flag. Players should also be aware that Johnson’s place differential will be based on his official qualification of third even though he has to drop to the back of the grid to start the race.
Austin Dillon was tapped to race the No. 14 this week in no small part because he was so strong at Michigan in June. He qualified with the leaders that afternoon, ran strong, and finished 11th. This week, his qualification effort was not nearly as impressive, but that provides an opportunity for fantasy players. He rolls off the grid 27th, but he posted the sixth fastest lap in final practice and is liable to record a positive place differential of considerable measure. His salary cap jumped up four dollars this week because he is in the best equipment of his career, but he is still a great value.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted the fastest 10 consecutive laps in final practice with a speed of 196.656 mph at the beginning of his run. By itself, that might not be enough to recommend starting him on Sunday, but he has had some of his most dramatic runs on this track by recording his first win with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and snapping a long winless streak in 2012. He was also running incredibly strong this June before expiring an engine. Qualifying seventh this week, he has room to improve and another victory is not out of the question, which would undoubtedly score maximum points.
After crashing early in the Cheez-it 355 at the Glen, Gordon has to put a perfect four-race streak together if he hopes to make the Chase. While his last seven races have been punctuated by accidents, he has been one of the top values every other week with second-place finishes at Sonoma and Pocono Raceway and top-10s everywhere else. Starting the No. 24 on Sunday requires a measure of faith because bad luck can be hard to shake, but he is abundantly more affordable than Johnson and capable of running just as well. He had the fifth-fastest lap in final practice and was third on the 10-lap average chart in the morning session.
Jamie McMurray will also have to drop to the back of the pack after blowing an engine in Friday’s practice session. His place differential will be based on a 29th-place qualification effort, but he should be able to earn significant points nonetheless. The No. 1 Chevrolet was fifth fastest in Saturday’s morning session and 14th-best in the warmer conditions of Happy Hour. With a relatively modest salary cap of $21.50 in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, he is a great mid-roster pick.