There is rarely a time in Sprint Cup racing where one or two organizations don’t seem to be a on a different playing field than the competition. Over the last 15 years or so, it has primarily been Hendrick Motorsports (Hendrick has won 10 of the last 16 series titles) and Roush Fenway Racing (two titles).
In 2011, it seems like the playing field has evened. Old dependables like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick have been quite the opposite this year. They are great one week and off the next. Meanwhile, names like Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Juan Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger are all ahead of the aforementioned drivers in the standings.
The gap between 1st and 25th has tightened, and as a fan it is thrilling, but as a fantasy owner it is frustrating not knowing who to depend on from week to week. To further illustrate my point, in 2008 three drivers (Carl Edwards, Johnson and Kyle Busch) combined to win 24 of the 36 races. The racing could put you to sleep, but picking drivers each week was cake. So far in 2011, we have seen a 20-year-old win in his second career start, a veteran break the longest losing streak of his career at a track he had little success at, and one of the sport’s most popular names return to championship form after a couple of less than stellar years. On that note, we head to a half-mile bullring where things can only get crazier.
Don’t be afraid to get a little Rowdy this weekend. Kyle Busch has won three of the last four Sprint Cup races at Bristol, including a win in the series’ last visit to Thunder Valley. He has proven that he not only has a knack for Bristol, but for other short tracks as well. Busch and Johnson were the only drivers to finish in the top-10 in five of six short track (Bristol, Richmond, Martinsville) races in 2010. Busch was the most impressive with two wins and four top-5 finishes. Rowdy has thrived at NASCAR’s short tracks and so has his team. Joe Gibbs Racing (either Busch or Denny Hamlin) has won the last five short track races.
The last non-Gibbs car to go to victory lane was Jimmie Johnson in March of last year at Bristol. The 5-time champion’s consistency on tracks under a mile in length make him a good second option. If it wasn’t for an accident in the fall Bristol race, he probably would have been the only driver to record top-10 finishes in all six short track races in 2010.
Now, bare with me here. Other than Busch, David Reutimann might be the next best fantasy pick. He certainly has earned the right to start over other mid-tier drivers this weekend. While Reutimann hasn’t exactly set the world on fire at short tracks in his career, and is regarded primarily as a strong intermediate track driver, he has been impressive at Bristol. The Aaron’s Dream Machine was all over the rear bumper of Busch at the finish of last fall’s race and it was no fluke. He was equally as good in the spring, qualifying 10th and driving into the top-5 before encountering engine problems. Don’t sleep on Reutimann.
In a mid-tier category, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good pick at Thunder Valley. Earnhardt Jr. didn’t perform particularly well on short tracks last season (two top-10s), but has always raced well at Bristol. His average finish of 10.75 ranks fifth among active drivers. His confidence also appears to have increased after back-to-back top-10 finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Earnhardt Jr. and new crew chief Steve Letarte are gelling well.
Paul Menard has been the class of the field in bottom-tier groups this season. Once again this year, he has provided more for his fantasy value than almost any other driver. He is currently sixth in Sprint Cup points and has been the strongest Richard Childress Racing car by a wide margin. I don’t expect him to contend for the win this weekend, but won’t be surprised if he is in top-15 or even top-10 when the race is over.
It would be difficult to pick a top-tier driver who hasn’t run well recently at Bristol. However, being that so many big names have run well, I would stay away from Kevin Harvick this weekend. Harvick finished just outside the top-10 in both races last year. He is also coming off of a disappointing 17th-place finish at Las Vegas.
In a mid-level category, Mark Martin has been a popular choice for fantasy owners this weekend, but I’m not sure he should be. Martin had only one top-10 (2nd at Martinsville) in the six short track races last season. His best finish at Bristol was 23rd.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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