The toughest ticket in NASCAR. Jet fighters in a gymnasium. Bristol has been nicknamed many things; but when it comes your fantasy team, it’s likely been called something we can’t print on this page in front of you. Indeed, Saturday night’s 500-lapper is the one race left you’re cursing out on your schedule, almost as much of a crapshoot for fantasy players as Talladega or Daytona. With cars lapping the track in just over 15 seconds, it is very easy for a driver to get caught up in someone else’s problem; and the danger is even greater now that the track has been resurfaced and there are multiple racing grooves.
With so many drivers’ success or failure dependent on luck, this speedway is bound to offer you more questions than answers heading into the weekend. Will Kyle Busch continue his winning ways? Can Carl Edwards win the night race at Bristol again? Is Tony Stewart finally going to break the winless streak? Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. avoid another pit road issue? Will Jamie McMurray continue his run of strong finishes? Only this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans will tell you which guys you should keep on your roster and which ones should be riding the bench after spending half the night with crumpled sheet metal in the garage.
Bryan’s Race Rewind:
One year ago — as the Sprint Cup Series tackled the newly repaved Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time — it was a tale of two drivers and of two distinct racing grooves. And while Kasey Kahne backed up his pole-winning run by leading 305 of the 500 laps run, it was Edwards who scored the victory, leading 182 laps en route to his first Cup win on the half-mile bullring. Only two teams, Penske Racing and Roush Fenway, had multiple drivers finish in the top 10 on a night where parity simply reigned supreme. Chase longshots did perform well, with 13th-place Earnhardt Jr. finishing fifth and 14th-place Ryan Newman coming home seventh. Short-track ace Denny Hamlin blew an engine 209 laps in and finished 43rd.
Mike’s Keys to the Race:
Bristol is a track that throws a huge amount of variables at the teams, as fantasy players look at this week’s options for their rosters. The track was repaved and reconfigured last year, and the new car configuration was also brought to the track for the very first time. Drivers now have two legitimate racing grooves and very well may have the option to run all of the way to the top of the track if the need arises. When looking at driver options for this week, gamers have to consider just the last three races — because everything that held true before that no longer applies. The one exception to that is, like most every week, there are horses for courses, and some drivers will run well at Bristol no matter what they are driving. Fantasy owners should consider putting a RCR driver in their lineup this week after they finished 1-2-3 in the spring race, but also keep an eye on Hendrick and Joe Gibbs’ drivers because they have successful histories at Bristol — and ran well at the racetrack back in March.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kevin Harvick has had a very successful career at Bristol no matter what he drives or who he’s driving for. He’s won in Cup and Nationwide, and should have in trucks were it not for a flat tire at the end of the race back in 2003. Harvick has an average finish of 9.9 at Bristol in 15 career starts with only five finishes outside the top 10 — and one of those was 11th. Back in March, Harvick also had a great chance to win the Spring race until he and Stewart got together at the very end. With both history and recent momentum on his side, look for the No. 29 to have a real shot at Victory Lane this weekend.
Kyle Busch won the very first race held with the new car configuration at Bristol. He also led 117 laps in the spring race before a steering issue caused him to finish the event a disappointing two laps down. On top of that, Busch is having an incredible season, and he’s coming off of a second-place run at Michigan with a car that he thought was running horribly. Busch’s previous four races at Bristol before this year led to finishes in the top 10. It may be an obvious pick right now, but there is no reason to think that the point leader won’t continue his strong run this season.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Brian Vickers is coming off of another great run at an intermediate track, cashing in on a seventh-place finish at Michigan. Unfortunately for Vickers, though, Bristol is not an intermediate track. While Vickers has made some strong gains this year and even still has a longshot chance at making the Chase, Bristol has not been kind to him. The veteran has run at the track eight times, and he only has two finishes higher than 20th throughout his career there. Vickers also only has one top 10 at Dover and one top 10 at Martinsville listed on his “short” track resume… yikes! As you can see, short tracks are not a forte for Vickers — so keep him on the sidelines this weekend.
David Ragan had another fantastic run this past weekend but, as with Vickers, it was on an intermediate track. In the last 10 races at tracks of one mile or less, Ragan has just one top-five finish, and that was a third at Richmond in 2007 — which is more of an intermediate style track than a short track. Ragan’s average finish at Bristol is just 29.3 in three races, with a highest finish of 21st. Adding to the forces against him at Bristol is the pressure of running out of time to make the Chase, as there are only three races left in the regular season — including this weekend. Ragan may surprise and have a good finish here, but the odds are certainly stacked against him.
Roll the Dice:
Ken Schrader is back in a Cup Series car for this weekend, driving the No. 96 Toyota for Hall of Fame Racing. Schrader may not have that high of an average finish at Bristol — he’s sitting at 21.2 — but he did run in the top 10 with a car from BAM Racing in the past. And due to the fact that he isn’t in Cup full-time these days, any time we get a chance to give a shoutout to one of the elder statesmen of the sport, we’re going to do it. You can pick up Schrader for a song, and he will give you an added bonus this weekend: a top-15 finish.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t been scoring great finishes of late, but that’s not an indication of how well the No. 88 car has been running in recent weeks. Despite finishing 22nd and 23rd the last two events, Earnhardt has led significant laps in both races, becoming more of a victim to poor pit strategy than of poor performance. Enter Bristol Motor Speedway, which is not a track that lends itself to strategy — and you can see how Junior might be in a position to get himself back on track. The problem? Junior scored a fifth-place finish at the track in the spring race, and has not finished outside the top 20 at Bristol since 2001. Jr. has scored four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, and that streak will continue this weekend.
Matt Kenseth struggled at Thunder Valley through the first years of his Sprint Cup career, but since 2002 has been a fixture near the front of the Bristol field. In his last 13 races at the track, Kenseth has finished outside the top 15 only three times, with 13 top 10s and two wins to his credit. This consistency is remarkable given the unpredictable nature of racing at the lightning-fast half-mile speedway. Kenseth is coming off a strong run at Michigan which largely cemented his No. 17 team’s place in the Chase, and there’s no reason to think that Chip Bolin and company won’t unload well once again with a Chase berth on the line. Kenseth and Bolin have finally clicked as a 1-2 punch; and it will show this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
It has never failed since McMurray joined Roush Fenway Racing. McMurray every season will struggle long enough to leave critics wondering why he has a Cup ride, and then he’ll hit a hot streak of sorts, doing just enough to ensure he keeps the job he’s in. McMurray has run considerably better in recent weeks, with three top 10s in the last four races; but this streak, like all of McMurray’s hot stretches with RFR, will likely come to a premature end this weekend. Since leaving Chip Ganassi Racing, McMurray has scored only one top 10 at Bristol with his No. 26 team. In that car, McMurray has an average finish of 28.4 at the track, and posted a 43rd-place finish earlier this season. Clearly, there are much better Ford options to start on Saturday night.
Casey Mears’ entire 2008 season has been a struggle, but his inability to perform on the high banks of Bristol has been a career-long problem. In his 11 career starts, Mears has only an average finish of 28.4 down in eastern Tennessee; more distressingly, he has finished on the lead lap only twice in his Bristol career. Mears’ posted a 42nd-place finish in this season’s spring race, and while he should perform better than that this weekend, Mears and crew will likely be shooting for a top 30 — not the top 10 fantasy racers are looking for. Stay far away from the No. 5 team this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
It has been a dismal season for former Cup champion Kurt Busch, but Bristol may well be the track for him to show his title-winning talent. Busch has won five times at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and wasn’t too far off the mark at BMS earlier this season, scoring a 12th-place result. Kurt Busch is one of the best drivers at Bristol, bar none, and if his No. 2 team can put a decent Dodge under him this weekend, he’ll show fans and competitors just that.
Mike: Well Bryan, its my week to congratulate you for picking the winner. It was a good choice selecting Edwards on an intermediate track, but too bad Kahne killed your average by finishing 40th. I guess we can’t always pick the best.
Bryan: That’s what I get for trusting Dodge’s engine program, but you didnt fare too badly, either, with Kenseth and Vickers.
Mike: No, I can’t complain. I thought Vickers might sneak in and get a top five, but that was definitely a good run for them. I see you think Kenseth is going to continue to solidify his position in the Chase this weekend. What makes you think he’s going to be the top Roush driver?
Bryan: Past history and momentum. Kenseth has 13 top 10s in his last 16 Bristol starts, and with his top five at MIS, the No. 17 team has firmly inserted itself into Chase contention. Being Mr. Consistency and on a hot streak is the way to go. Speaking of hot drivers, you’re pegging Harvick. Why will Happy be smiling after Bristol?
Mike: Like you, I feel he’s going to continue riding this recent wave of success. Three top-10 finishes in a row and four out of five. Plus he has always been very strong at Bristol on top of the fact that RCR had the top three cars in the spring race. I see you’ve finally come around to dissing McMurray in Picks ‘n’ Pans. What made you finally come over to the dark side?
Bryan: McMurray’s 43rd-place finish in Thunder Valley during the spring didn’t help his case, but I can’t see McMurray continuing his current streak of success. I just don’t trust him as a driver to somehow string five consecutive solid finishes together. Plus, starting a driver who has had a career-long problem with track presence at Bristol isn’t smart. Hmph. You’re benching a Roush driver, too… when will my boy Ragan earn a start from you?
Mike: It will happen on an intermediate track someday soon, but it’s not going to happen on a short track. Not only has Mears not had success at Bristol as of late, he’s not had success at short tracks in general. What makes you think that Mears can’t pick up on the success of his teammates at Bristol and come home with a decent finish this weekend?
Bryan: Because while Mears has underachieved during his entire career in NASCAR, his lack of achievement on short tracks, and specifically Bristol, is most glaring. Having Hendrick equipment has not helped Mears at any point this season, and Bristol isn’t the place that Mears or the No. 5 team can likely turn it around. Speaking of underachieving teams, you’re rolling the dice on Hall of Fame Racing. Schrader’s the man at Bristol, but do you think he can make the No. 96 go fast again?
Mike: In all honesty, probably not. But remember that Schrader scored a top 10 in a BAM machine, so if anyone can take a subpar car and make something out of it at Bristol, (it’s home!). I just had to take the chance to give another shout out to one of my favorite drivers as well. I see you think Kurt Busch is going to shake off some of his recent misfortune at his favorite track and actually finish well. What makes you think he can actually do that this time around?
Bryan: If Kurt Busch can’t put a good run together at Bristol, the No. 2 team is in serious trouble. Busch has five wins at Bristol, including one with his current team, and Bristol is a big departure from the intermediates that Penske Racing has struggled with. The Penske fan in me has me hoping they can at least throw a decent short track car together.
Mike: Well, we may be in trouble for not picking Stewart or Hamlin this week. Hamlin is in dire need of a good run and Stewart is knocking on the door to say the least. Is there anyone else you thought about but decided against?
Bryan: We’ve got Kyle Busch covered; who else needs mentioning?
Mike: The way this season has gone, not many other people. I guess we’ll just see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 15.2
Sit – 19.5
Roll – 22.9
Crank – 11.4
Sit – 21.8
Roll – 17.90