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Fantasy: Busch, Edwards, Johnson the favorites at Bristol

March 16, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Busch, Edwards, Johnson the favorites at Bristol, for what it's worth

NASCAR is witnessing one of the most dramatic starts to a season in quite some time -- from its point of view. Fantasy owners might not be quite as enthusiastic about the intense competition of the first three races of 2011, however.

Three races have featured three different winners including emotional victories for Trevor Bayne in the storied Wood Brothers ride and the ending of a 66-race skid for one of the sport's icons, Jeff Gordon. In barely three weeks, nearly half of a 43-car field has scored at least one top-10 finish and 13 drivers have cracked the top five.

While that is good news for NASCAR, it has created a problem for fantasy owners because only one driver, Kurt Busch, has swept the top 10 and that has made this season unpredictable. Multi-car accidents at Daytona and Phoenix thinned the field and allowed for some fresh faces up front. Last week, sporadic tire trouble and engine failure took favorites Gordon and Kyle Busch out of contention and the biggest Joker of all may still lurk in the deck.

Some fans decry the recent changes to Bristol Motor Speedway. Before it was reconfigured this one-groove track required the judicious use of the chrome horn to make a pass, but with the implementation of progressive banking it is now a multi-groove track that allows for side-by-side racing in the corners.

It is far too soon to take a breath and assume that Bristol has been tamed, however; 43 cars on a half-mile course does not allow drivers to rest no matter where they are running because a lap on this track takes only about 16 seconds to complete, which means that even if a driver is a quarter of a lap behind the incident, he's going to be in the middle of the carnage in a blink of an eye.

Some drivers thrive on chaos and they will be this week's favorites. However, fantasy owners need only to look as far as last year to realize how difficult handicapping a race on this track type can be. No one was able to sweep all six short-track races at Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville, although three drivers came close.

The Favorites

Kyle Busch had a right to be disappointed last week when he first cut a tire and then later blew his engine in front of the hometown crowd. Prior to the start at Vegas, he had one of the best average speeds in the combined practice sessions and that made him one of the favorites when the green flag waved. Rowdy hasn't earned his nickname by being easy on equipment and that often is a detriment on bullrings like Bristol, but last year he managed to stay out of trouble in five of the six races on tracks less than a mile in length. He turned two of those runs into victories at Richmond in the spring and Bristol in the summer. In addition, he swept all three of NASCAR's top series at Bristol this past August, which will make him feel invincible when the series rolls into town. If you needed any further incentive to make Busch a favorite, you might want to note that he has finished first or second in six of his past nine Bristol starts.

The driver with the most momentum this week might be Carl Edwards, however. He's gotten off to an extremely strong start in 2011 with a second in the Daytona 500 and his victory last week on the progressive banks of Las Vegas. He also would have challenged for the victory at Phoenix if not for an incident with Busch that left his Ford battered and bruised. On the short tracks last year, he earned only one top-five, but his worst result was 12th and that included five top-10s in six starts. Edwards also is no stranger to Bristol's Victory Lane with dominant wins in the 2007 and '08 August events.

Jimmie Johnson has not looked like a defending champion so far this year, but he can never be counted out of a NASCAR race no matter what type of track they contest. He's the third driver to nearly sweep the top 10 on short tracks last year with five such finishes in his six starts. The No. 48 also is the winner of this race last year, and that means the team has a great set of notes from which to work. Streaks can be hard to maintain in NASCAR during the age of parity, but Johnson seemed like a certainty to earn a fourth consecutive Bristol top-10 this past fall when he won the pole. Unfortunately, he sustained crash damage during the evening and limped home 35th. Don't expect his bad luck to continue, though, because lightning is not supposed to strike in the same place twice.

Bristol


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

If not for an awkward period from 2006 through '09 when he earned only one top-10 in six starts, Kurt Busch would join his brother as one of this week's favorites. After all, he has won five races on this track and four of those came in rapid succession during a span of five races in 2002 through '04. He also enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10s on this track and as the only driver to sweep the top 10 in the first three races of this season. The elder Busch can be hard to predict, however, and it would be hard to bet your life's savings on his performance during any given week. On the other hand, even when he has failed to crack the top 10 in recent seasons at Bristol, he's been consistent with a current, seven-race streak of top-15s.

Denny Hamlin had a miserable season at Bristol last year and so far he has failed to turn a lot of heads in 2011, but fantasy owners have to pay some attention to him this week. In the four races on this half-mile bullring in 2008 and '09, he earned three top-fives and had a worst finish of sixth. Last year, his best effort netted only a 19th-place finish in the spring, but he made up for that by winning back-to-back short track races at Richmond and Martinsville in the fall. He deserves a provisional spot on your roster -- and if he practices and qualifies well, he might just get the green light before the green flag waves.

Underdogs

If you roll back the tape to this past fall, you will see Kasey Kahne flash across the finish line in fifth. He also provided one of the best battles on this track that we've seen in recent years when he and Edwards took turns dominating the 2007 night race; Kahne finished second that evening, but the race truly could have gone either way. Unfortunately, despite his excellent credentials on short tracks courtesy of a background in sprint cars, he has not brought his "A" game to this track type in recent years. Along with this past fall's fifth at Bristol, he has one more top-five on this same track in spring 2009, but those are his only top-10s -- and two of only four top-15s -- in his past 15 attempts on tracks measuring less than a mile in length.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Denny Hamlin6.86 17.Jamie McMurray19.76 32.Regan Smith31.74
3.Jeff Gordon7.43 18.Greg Biffle19.83 33.Robby Gordon32.84
4.Tony Stewart9.85 19.Kasey Kahne20.70  34.Travis Kvapil33.58
5.Kyle Busch10.10 20.Joey Logano21.64 35.David Gilliland33.82
6.Mark Martin10.68 21.A.J. Allmendinger21.67 36.J.J. Yeley35.00
7.Clint Bowyer11.89 22.Brian Vickers21.70 37.Bill Elliott35.69
8.Jeff Burton12.42 23.Marcos Ambrose21.77 38.Michael McDowell36.03
9.Carl Edwards12.45 24.Matt Kenseth22.05 39.Dave Blaney36.15
10.Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.50 25Brad Kesleowski22.54 40.Andy Lally36.42
11.Kevin Harvick12.56 26.Casey Mears23.12 41.Tony Raines38.17
12.Ryan Newman13.75 27.Trevor Bayne24.24 42.Joe Nemechek38.32
13.Kurt Busch13.81 28.David Ragan27.25 43.Brian Keselowski38.67
14.Juan Montoya16.36 29.Bobby Labonte29.58 44.Landon Cassill38.82
15.Martin Truex Jr.16.49 30.Ken Schrader29.67

Brad Keselowski is an underdog of a different sort and in the right circumstances, he could find his way onto your roster. Last year, he earned only one top-10 on NASCAR's short tracks, but he was perhaps the most consistent driver in the field. In six starts, he finished every race in a narrow band of 10th through 19th with an average finish of 13.8. Fill the rest of your roster first, but if Keselowski fits your budget in that critical final slot, it will be worth rolling the dice on someone with a personality and driving style that is quite similar to Rowdy Busch.