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Fantasy Preview: Busch favored at Bristol, but make room for Biffle

March 14, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

There are several periods during the season in which the diversity of NASCAR's schedule is showcased; the beginning of the year is one of those times. In the first four weeks of the season, the Cup series visits a restrictor-plate superspeedway; a flat, 1-mile oval; a doglegged, 1.5-mile progressively banked track; and a short course. After Bristol, the series rolls into Fontana for a visit to a 2-mile unrestricted, intermediate speedway and this means drivers need to adjust quickly to new conditions. That is part of what makes this brand of stock-car racing the best in the world.

Bristol holds a unique place in the hearts of both drivers and fans. It is the first short-track race of the season and jamming 43 cars on a track that is only a little longer than two city blocks is a recipe for excitement. But the short tracks also are where most of the drivers in the field and a sizable number of the fans in the grandstands got their first taste of action. Bristol is old school; it is the root of racing.


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Enter the whirlwind

To be successful at Bristol, a driver has to have the perfect balance of aggression and patience. Every corner must be attacked with everything in a driver's arsenal and the slightest hesitation will allow a competitor to pounce and get past. Too many hesitations will equate to a lost lap and if the track stays green for long, the consequences can be insurmountable.

Drivers also need to be able to navigate traffic. There won't be much discussion about clean air this week because even the leader will constantly have the tail of the field in view through his windshield. With lightning-fast laps of 15 seconds-and-change for the quickest cars and slower traffic that might be circling up to 1 second per lap under that pace, danger lurks around every corner. When trouble erupts, even a driver half a lap behind the melee is only a few heartbeats from getting fender damage.

Luckily for the teams, NASCAR's new car is extremely durable. Scraping along the wall or even slapping it won't necessarily slow the cars so long as the tires are pointing in the right direction. Last year, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne each scored top-10s with crash-damaged cars. That durability is particularly good news for Kahne, who has had the misfortune of crashing in every Cup race so far this season. These cars are so tough, in fact, that in this race last year 14 of the 36 running at the end had some damage and even the slowest of these completed more than 85 percent of the distance. Robby Gordon was the only driver to retire last March because of crash damage although Clint Bowyer called it a day with engine failure that may have been precipitated by an earlier accident.

The cream rises to the top at Bristol. Top-10 streaks of four or five races and even greater are commonplace even in the age of parity and when a driver finds his groove he can win seemingly at will. Among active drivers, Kurt and Kyle Busch along with Jeff Gordon have five wins apiece to confirm that statement.

The Favorites

Bristol fits Kyle Busch's driving style perfectly. He wants to attack every corner and that often gets him into trouble on unrestricted, intermediate speedways where wrinkled fenders are catastrophically damaging to aerodynamics. Because Busch is constantly on full kill, he cuts a wide swath through traffic and spends a lot of time at the head of the pack. Three of his five victories have come after he led 150 or more laps and a second-place finish in the August night race in 2008 was earned after he ruled most of the event to lead 415 circuits. In the history of NASCAR, only eight Bristol races have showcased a more dominant performance, which puts Busch in the same rarified air as Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen and Rusty Wallace. Busch is dangerous when he feels that he has something to prove and after last week's disappointing run at Vegas, he is going to be focused on winning.

Greg Biffle has an interesting streak going. In the first three races of the season, he has finished third each time on three highly dissimilar track types. He could keep that going at Bristol because he has been consistently strong on this track in the past two and half years. He was biding his time in the early laps of the night race this past August when he was forced into the pits for an unscheduled stop on about Lap 115. He never recovered from that calamity. That snapped a four-race top-10 streak that included back-to-back fourth-place finishes in 2009 and '10. For all his success, he has not yet graced Victory Lane, but fantasy owners would start him without question if he could guarantee another top-five.

Teammate Matt Kenseth was well on his way to earning a top-five last week at Vegas, but the collective ambition of the Roushketeers got the better of him. On the final restart, Kenseth, Biffle and Carl Edwards battled three-wide and there wasn't quite enough space on the track for them. Kenseth slapped the wall and fell to the back of the pack, crossing the finish line 22nd, which kept him from regaining the momentum he lost at Phoenix. He will shake off that quickly and threaten for a top-10 finish this week. Kenseth also has dominated on this track; like Busch, he led 415 laps in August 2005, but he made the most of his performance and won that evening.

Bristol


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Dark Horses

Bristol is a rhythm course much the same as the short, flat tracks, but instead of braking before the corner drivers have to roll through the apex after charging in aggressively and then also manage to mash the throttle on exit. Brad Keselowski has an in-car personality that is similar to the Busch brothers and that will eventually pay huge dividends and long streaks of top-fives. Most drivers have to work their way up the standings at Bristol. After they score a couple of top-10s, they challenge for a top-five, and then eventually get their first win. Keselowski leapfrogged those steps and won his first race this past August after scoring a previous best of only 13th. His lack of experience and any notable previous streaks on this track keep him from being a favorite, but it should not keep him from being on a majority of fantasy owners' rosters.

Last week, it was noted that the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates wouldn't be kept out of the top 10 for long and that prediction was accurate. Tony Stewart dominated at Vegas and easily won while Ryan Newman had a slightly more adventurous afternoon that saw him fall outside the top 10 for about half the race. When Kenseth and Kahne got into trouble in the closing laps, Newman was the big winner. As others checked up to keep from wrecking, he sliced through the middle of the pack and finished fourth, which gives him momentum at an opportune time. It has been seven years since Newman scored a top-five at Bristol, but that does not mean he has been a poor value. In his past seven attempts on this track, he has scored six top-10s and has a worst result of only 16th. With a little luck, he will contend for the win, but there is practically no downside to starting him.

Underdogs

It is difficult to call a five-time track winner an underdog, but Jeff Gordon is going to be difficult to activate this weekend. When he finds the handle at Bristol, he is hard to beat. Six of his past 15 races on this track have ended in results of sixth or better, but he is not favored to repeat this week because his other nine efforts in that span of time have been worse than 10th. Since the beginning of the 2003 season, his best result of third is outweighed by an average finish of nearly 12th, which would be acceptable if he could be had for a bargain-basement salary cap. As it stands this week, he is going to be a great value if the team guesses right on the setup, but it is not worth the stress of finding out that they deduced wrong.

Brian Vickers waited for the right opportunity to get into a car this season and it came together very quickly when Elliott Sadler decided he could not race in relief for Mark Martin. Vickers is hungry and Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 car is strong, which will encourage fantasy owners to take a risk on starting him. However, Bristol is not the place to gamble on this driver. In 14 previous starts on the concrete half-mile, he has never cracked the top 10 and has less than a handful of top-15s. If Vickers practices and qualifies well, he might fit into the final slot on a few rosters, but he is going to be a race-day decision, at best.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon7.39 18.Brad Keselowski18.61 33.Ken Schrader 31.97
3.Jimmie Johnson 7.59 19.Greg Biffle 19.15 34.David Gilliland32.58
4.Denny Hamlin9.22 20.Joey Logano 20.48 35.Josh Wise 32.67
5.Ryan Newman 10.82 21.Kasey Kahne20.92 36.Timmy Hill33.40
6.Carl Edwards 12.78 22.A.J. Allmendinger 21.12 37.Robby Gordon 34.13
7.Juan Montoya 13.05 23.Marcos Ambrose 21.23 38.Travis Kvapil 34.82
8.Kurt Busch13.49 24.Brian Vickers 21.77 39.Dave Blaney 36.41
9.Kevin Harvick13.66 25.Brendan Gaughan 23.50 40.Hermie Sadler 37.96
10.Clint Bowyer14.14 26.David Ragan 25.64 41.Landon Cassill 38.04
11.Jeff Burton 15.09 27.Paul Menard 26.73 42.Michael McDowell 38.66
12.Matt Kenseth 16.55 28.Casey Mears28.55 43.Tony Raines 39.18
13.Jamie McMurray 16.62 29.Regan Smith29.14 44.Joe Nemechek 39.24
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.88 30.Bobby Labonte 31.36 45.Scott Riggs 39.73
15.Tony Stewart 17.42 31.Aric Almirola 31.66 46.J.J. Yeley 40.32
16.David Reutimann 18.08

* Power Rankings: Bristol