After four weeks of high speed racing, beating and banging will be the name of the game this week as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol for the Food City 500. At a track where people are often taken out through no fault of their own, this is definitely a wild-card weekend for fantasy owners. But just like at any track, there are drivers who are among the favorites and ones that are among the forgettable. So which drivers will help your fantasy team survive at week at the fastest half-mile in racing? Read on to see what the Frontstretch experts have to say in this week’s edition of Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Last year’s Food City 500 marked the beginning of a new era in NASCAR history with the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow. Coming into the weekend, drivers, teams and fans alike didn’t know what to expect with the new car; but 15 cautions later and a race down to the wire it seemed like any other Bristol race. Kyle Busch etched his name in the record books, claiming the first CoT victory by outrunning Jeff Burton in a green-white-checkered finish. Their duel was similar to the show they put on in the Las Vegas Nationwide race just weeks prior when Busch didn’t force the issue in trying to pass Burton for the win. After Kasey Kahne spun to bring out the final caution of the day, Busch led the field to the three-lap shootout with teammate Jeff Gordon between he and Burton. Burton quickly dispensed of Gordon and set his sights on Busch, but was unable to make a clean pass in time. What turned out to be a good day for Hendrick Motorsports, could have been a better day for Joe Gibbs Racing had it not been for a pair of fuel pickup problems. Tony Stewart led a race-high 257 laps and Denny Hamlin led 177 laps before finishing 35th and 14th respectively. Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Bristol is a great unknown when it comes to fantasy racing. Turning laps in 15 seconds on the highest banking in the sport means that it is incredibly easy for a driver to get caught up in someone else’s accident through no fault of their own. When choosing your line up, consider what teams ran well in 2007, the first year with the new car configuration, and those drivers who consistently run well at the coliseum known as Bristol. Hendrick, Childress, Roush and DEI all ran well during the first race last year, while GEM, Gibbs and Penske joined Roush near the front during the second race. What does that tell us? Anyone can have a strong race at Bristol at any time. Historically, the best drivers at Bristol have been Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Biffle, Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch. That covers four of the five manufacturers and five different organizations. Expect at least four of those six drivers to be in the top 10 by the end of the day.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Harvick is very strong when it comes to racing at Bristol. He has an average finish of 10.5 in 14 races at the bullring in the Cup series. He’s also won four times there in the Nationwide Series. Add to that the fact that he finished fourth in this race last year and is the highest-ranking Chevrolet in the points at this time, and you can expect Harvick to have another strong showing this weekend.
Kyle Busch is the defending winner of this race. He is also is the current points leader, which means he’s got a pretty good handle on the current car configuration. Busch has an average finish of 13.5 at Bristol in the Cup series, and that includes his first two races where he finished 28th and 33rd. His last four finishes are eighth, second, first and ninth respectively. While Busch’s brother Kurt is usually viewed as the current king of Bristol, Kyle has a far better average finish in the last four races with each of them having one win. Look for Busch, Kyle that is, to continue his strong start to the season this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray appears to be back to his old form this year in the Cup series. His best finish in the first four races of the season is 22nd and his average finish is 28.25. That poor start is compounded when you take into account that McMurray isn’t totally fond of Bristol. While his average finish is 17.8, that includes his first four races where his worst finish was 11th and he had three top-eight finishes. Since then, he’s competed in six races with five finishes of 25th or worse. On top of the statistics, McMurray just seems to be cursed when it comes to racing luck since he’s climbed into the No. 26. Don’t expect anything special from MAC again this weekend.
Martin Truex Jr. is truly hit or miss when it comes to Bristol and his misses have all come in the spring race. Truex has run four races at Bristol and his two spring finishes have been 38th and 37th. Truex is certainly running well this year sitting 11th in points, but the team does not seem to have a handle on what it takes to run well in the heat of the day at Bristol. It’s best to leave Truex on the bench this weekend and wait until the series comes back in the fall before you think about running him at Bristol.
Roll the Dice:
Earnhardt Jr. is seldom given the credit he should for being an outstanding short-track racer. While he is known as the best restrictor-plate racer in the series, he’s also very accomplished at getting around the shortest tracks on the circuit. Earnhardt is fourth among active drivers in average finish at Bristol with an 11.7 average. He’s won at the track and his last three finishes, including both races last year with the current car configuration, were seventh place or better. Outside of his first three finishes at the track, which were 21st or worse, he has not finished lower than 16th and nine of those 13 races have been top-10 finishes. Expect Junior to continue his strong early season run and have a very good chance of garnering his first win for HMS.
Crank ‘Em Up:
After a roller coaster start to the season, Gordon needs to get in a rhythm and build some momentum. Following his fifth-place finish last weekend at Atlanta, Bristol is just the place where he can finally score two strong finishes in a row this season. In the two Bristol events last year, Gordon finished third in the spring and ninth in the fall, which adds to his already impressive record at Bristol that includes five career wins and poles.
Carl Edwards hasn’t had trouble putting in back to back good finishes this season. In fact, his 42nd-place finish after mechanical problems last week at Atlanta is his only poor finish of the year and he was up front when things went south at Atlanta. Bristol wasn’t a track that treated Edwards well early in his career, but in the last two years his stats have improved, culminating with a win in the fall event last year.
Sit ‘Em Down:
HMS hasn’t been the powerhouse team we are accustomed to seeing so far this year and Casey Mears‘s performance is no exception. In the first four races of the year, his best finish was a 13th-place run at Vegas. That isn’t bad, but when it’s coupled with finishes of 35th and 42nd, you can see where he is struggling. This weekend at Bristol isn’t a place where he should be expected to snap out of it either. In 10 career starts, he has just one top-10 finish and a meager average finish of 27th. Not exactly the type of performance that inspires confidence to put him on your team.
Following a sixth-place finish at Daytona, things looked up for Elliott Sadler; but the good feelings have been short lived. Coming off a finish of dead last at Atlanta last week, Sadler looks ahead to this weekend and a track that has given him the highest highs and the lowest lows. He scored a win there in 2001 and has a handful of top-10 finishes; but that does little to mask the poor finishes he’s endured too. In fact, his three most recent finishes haven’t found him inside the top 25. 2008 might not be turning into the disaster that 2007 was quite yet, but why take the risk?
Roll the Dice:
Last year Biffle came into Bristol looking for his top-10 finish of the season. This year, Biffle enters this Sunday’s race second in the point standings with three top-10 finishes on the stat line. Look for that trend to continue this weekend at Bristol where Biffle has an average finish of 10.3. He hasn’t found his way to victory lane there yet, but that could very well change this weekend as Biffle hopes to continue his strong start to the season.
Cami: Sorry about your luck last week with Edwards.
Mike: It happens. He had that race owned, but I guess that happens when you’re used to having your lid off of your oil tank and now you have to have it secured. Plus, I like to give you a little lead so I can get a better run to blow past you at the end of the season. You made a nice call with Harvick last week.
Cami: Yeah, that one kinda came back to bite me in the rear didn’t it? Who knew Harvick was going to go against form and actually run well at Atlanta again? I’ll give you credit though, I wasn’t sure how well that Bobby Labonte pick would work out. I was glad to see you were right about that one.
Mike: Me too. He is doing an amazing job in Petty equipment. Imagine what he’ll do in Childress stuff next year? As far as this week goes, do you think Edwards is going to continue his strong efforts at Bristol?
Cami: Well duh… I picked him didn’t I? Even with the penalties you can’t deny this team is running well to start the season. He’s really turned things around in his performances at Bristol, so I think he can run up in the top 10 again without a problem. I see you’re riding the Busch Bandwagon this week. I wonder if he repeats this year if he’ll say the car sucks again.
Mike: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say the car sucks. I’m assuming they won’t all jump all over Goodyear again this week, but you never know. That seems to be the whine du jour. I do think Kyle is going to have another good run this weekend though. He’s been an automatic top 10 the last four times he’s run there. Speaking of automatic, JG isn’t exactly automatic at Bristol anymore. You still think he’s got the magic huh?
Cami: I think he really needs to start putting together good back-to-back finishes. You don’t always have to pick a driver that you will think will hit it out of the park. But I think Gordon is good for a solid top 10. I’m surprised neither one of us bit on the other Busch brother or one of the other Gibbs’ drivers. Stewart and Hamlin dominated this race last year.
Mike: Yeah, Kurt had a top 10 last fall and Gibbs did run well until they had mechanical issues, but I just think Harvick is going to win and Kyle is going to be hot on his heels. I wasn’t going to load up on two Gibbs drivers to crank. I’m surprised you’re continuing to ride the ESad mule. He has won at this track before.
Cami: That was a long time ago though. He hasn’t found the top 10 in the last three years there. Plus he’s just not really knocking my socks off this year. Kahne is alot better, but I’m not sold on Sadler yet. But you have no room to talk about me riding the same drivers. I see your pal Jamie made your bad list again this week.
Mike: Well yeah, speaking of not knocking your socks off. He hasn’t sniffed the top 20 this year, and besides this race last year, he hasn’t exactly owned this track since 2004. I have to think his job is about to be in serious jeopardy if it isn’t already. And Bristol is not the place to be worrying about your job. Speaking of worrying about your job, do you think Casey is starting to feel a little heat considering he’s 30th in points?
Cami: I don’t know if he’s worried about job security, but it sure looks like Hendrick picked the wrong driver to drop. I will admit Casey has been better the last two weeks and some of his troubles haven’t been his own fault; but you’re right he’s gotta be feeling some pressure. And Bristol is a pressure cooker of it’s own. I’ll guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
Crank – 11.9
Sit – 18.4
Roll – 17.0
Crank – 15.8
Sit – 20.3
Roll – 25.8