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Fantasy Preview: Busch, Keselowski arrive on a mission at Bristol

August 24, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

No one has more momentum than two drivers with top-fives in past three races

The Race to the Chase is coming down to a sprint, and with just three races remaining, Kyle Busch is the only driver guaranteed a spot. While seven drivers have a margin of more than 43 points over the 11th-place position and are practically locked in, the exact makeup of the Chase field is still very much in question. NASCAR's addition of two wild card spots has done precisely what the sanctioning body intended.

NASCAR likes dramatic scenarios. And this year, a driver in only his second full season is providing just that. Brad Keselowski wasn't even mentioned among the Chase contenders for most of the year -- and when he broke his ankle in a practice crash at Road Atlanta prior to Pocono, he was virtually written off despite one victory to his credit. Keselowski went on to win at Pocono and during the next two races, marched his way into the top wild card berth. It seems unlikely that he can make up 52 points on the driver currently 10th in the standings, but if he does, that will alter the wild card picture completely.

Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard, and David Ragan already have one victory to their credit and another would practically write their ticket to the playoffs, but the margin between Hamlin in 14th and Ragan in 20th is only 31 points. That means anyone who wins during the next three races has a chance to make up the ground needed to put their team into contention -- including any of the currently winless drivers inside the top 20. Winning one of the next three races won't automatically place a driver in the Chase, but it has rarely been more important.

Unique opportunities

During the next three weeks, drivers will be faced with unique opportunities to make the Chase. There are two short track races and cookie-cutter events on the calendar. But while this week's venue at Bristol and the final regular-season race will be run on short tracks of less than a mile in length, the two courses race entirely differently. Bristol is a bullring and even with the addition of progressive banking, it is easy to get into trouble. Richmond races like an unrestricted, intermediate speedway where drivers are never out of traffic.

Some fans decry the reconfiguration of Bristol. They believe that adding progressive banking has created too many passing opportunities since drivers are not limited to the bottom groove. The bump-and-run is no longer the key component to getting around the competition and there are fewer accidents. Fantasy owners have a different agenda than most fans, though. Fewer accidents mean a lineup is less likely to be wiped out by minor mistakes, and this should be greeted with positivity.

Head2Head: Will Busch eclipse Waltrip's win mark at Bristol?

Despite fewer accidents, Bristol is still a bullring where drivers are never out of traffic for more than a lap or two. To succeed, drivers need the perfect balance of aggression and patience. Angry drivers get spun; timid drivers get lapped.

Everyone has to survive this weekend, however, and three drivers are in a precarious position regarding their Chase berth. An early-race accident at Bristol for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, or Clint Bowyer could seal their fate and change the complexion of the Chase, but that is not the only thing on these drivers' minds. If Earnhardt loses 10 positions per race during the next three races to Bowyer, and two per race to Stewart and doesn't win -- he won't be in the playoffs. If Stewart loses eight positions to the No. 33 and doesn't win one of the next three races, he will also get locked out. On the other hand, a win for any of those three gives them a little breathing room.

Earnhardt is great at Atlanta. Bowyer is great at Richmond, and Stewart has proven he can win anywhere. It's not out of the question that each of them will win once before the playoffs begin.

Briston


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

The Favorites

Kyle Busch is not getting nearly enough press for his accomplishments in the past 10 weeks, but if this span of events defined the Chase, he would probably be the champion. His average finish of 7.5 is slightly worse than Jeff Gordon's 7.4, but he's won twice and led more laps. His only hiccup was a blown tire at New Hampshire -- an event in which he finished 36th -- but every other race since the first 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono has ended in 11th or better. Last week, Busch showed patience. Gordon dominated the middle stages of the Pure Michigan 400, but Busch was best when it counted the most. His victory locked him into the Chase, but this week he could guarantee at least a tie for the top seeding in the playoffs with a fifth victory of the season. That is well within reach because he has won four of the past five at Bristol and has an average finish of 2.5 in the past six.

Keselowski is on a mission and appears determined to overcome a 52-point deficit over 10th in the standings in order to earn bonus points during the playoffs for his two regular-season wins. Wild-card contenders don't get the same consideration. Bristol is going to be hard on his fractured ankle, but Keselowski is tougher. He ties Busch for the most momentum during the past three races. Both of them have one win, a second-place finish and a third. They are both aggressive enough to clear a passing lane in traffic without getting themselves in trouble. A win Sunday may come down to these two drivers.

Jeff Gordon hasn't earned a top-five at Bristol in more than two years, but he owned this track in the mid- to late-1990s with five wins and a near perfect sweep of the top 10 from 1995 through 2002. In recent weeks, he has been looking more like the championship-contending Gordon of old and several pundits are floating his name as Jimmie Johnson's biggest competitor this season. While his recent efforts on this bullring have not been stellar, he has been consistent and all but one of his past dozen races there ended in lead-lap finishes. His latest three efforts were top-15s and his level of confidence is higher this week than what it was in the March Jeff Byrd 500 where he finished 14th.

Dark Horses

The crew chief change for the No. 16 team seemed to finally pay dividends last week. Greg Biffle was almost perfect at the start, jumped out to a sizeable lead from the pole and led the most laps. He faded at the end and finished 20th, but if the team learned the right lesson at Michigan, he could be one of this week's top contenders. Before Watkins Glen, he had back-to-back top-10s for the first time since Talladega in the spring, which started to swing momentum in his favor. He enters Bristol with four consecutive top-10s including a pair of fourths in fall 2009 and spring 2010. He's unlikely to threaten for the win, but a finish in the mid-teens will make him worth starting.

Short tracks are not normally associated with Roush-Fenway Racing, but Biffle's teammate, Matt Kenseth, is liable to run with the leaders. He has won at Bristol in the past. In fact, he won back-to-back August night races in 2005 and 2006. When he stays out of trouble, he's been almost as strong since. He crashed out of the 2007 Sharpie 500 and experienced trouble in the 2009 Food City 500. Every other result has been 11th or better. In fact, except when he's experienced problems during a race, he has never finished worse than 16th in 23 career races on this bullring.


To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bristol, we want you to upload your photos with captions of your stories from the days and nights at the World's Fastest Half-Mile.

Underdogs

In the next three weeks, Stewart's biggest obstacle may be Bristol. Despite winning the 2001 Sharpie 500, this track ranks as the worst of his career. An average finish of 17.0 in 25 starts places it just behind both restrictor-plate superspeedways, which has to make him cringe every time someone talks about a wild-card track. Stewart has been the Joker in the deck all too often, and becoming an owner/driver didn't help matters any. His past five efforts at Bristol dropped his average even more, to 19.6 in those events. Stewart is also proof of how difficult handicapping NASCAR races can be; his only top-15 on this track since starting his own team was a second in the March 2010 Food City 500.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon7.65 18.Martin Truex Jr.18.64 34.David Gilliland32.82
3.Denny Hamlin8.39 19.Greg Biffle19.09 35.Scott Speed33.07
4.Jimmie Johnson8.56 20.Brian Vickers20.53 36.Robby Gordon34.24
5.Mark Martin11.48 21.Joey Logano20.74 37.Travis Kvapil34.43
6.Ryan Newman11.89 22.Marcos Ambrose20.79 38.David Starr35.00
7.Clint Bowyer12.56 23.Kasey Kahne20.94 39.Dave Blaney35.95
8.Carl Edwards12.60 24.Brad Keselowski21.63 40.Jeff Green36.58
9.Kevin Harvick12.79 25.A.J. Allmendinger23.98 41.Andy Lally36.61
10.Jeff Burton14.72 26.David Ragan25.61 42.Michael McDowell36.95
11.Tony Stewart14.99 27.Paul Menard27.00 43.Mike Skinner37.79
12.Kurt Busch15.22 28.Casey Mears27.71 44.Landon Cassill38.19
13.Juan Montoya15.32 29.Regan Smith29.15 45.J.J. Yeley39.63
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.40 30.Trevor Bayne29.23 46.Terry Labonte39.89
15.Jamie McMurray16.93 31.David Stremme30.53 47.Joe Nemechek40.07
16.David Reutimann16.94 32.Bobby Labonte31.37 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another driver who is not looking forward to this race, although he will probably out-perform Stewart. He also has one victory on this track, which came back in 2004. His last Bristol top-five came in 2008. He hasn't been terrible since then with a worst finish of 18th, but two top-10s is not much incentive to start him unless you have a gut feeling about Sunday. He does come with one recommendation if you are looking for a positive spin, however. Earnhardt will probably improve positions during the race. He has finished better than he started in his past 15 consecutive attempts at Bristol, and his career average improvement of more than 10 positions is second only to Kyle Busch (with an improvement of 11.5 spots on average).

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