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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Insider: Escaping Disaster at Thunder Valley

Editor’s Note: Mike Ravesi could not submit this week due to internet issues. Look for our site’s Fantasy Insider to return next Thursday for Martinsville!

There’s no race more nerve-wracking to set your fantasy team for than Bristol. It’s tough enough to pick at short tracks as it is, but the unpredictability of 500 laps at this half-mile puts so much outside your control that you’re spending most of your three hours Sunday simply trying to avoid a heart attack. Lightning can strike at Thunder Valley anytime, any place, causing unavoidable wrecks that can take a successful day down the wrong road in an instant. And with the SAFER barriers narrowing up the groove, we’re bound to see a race resembling the Bristol of old, with bumping and grinding making survival the name of the game on Sunday.

So how do you plow through the wreckage and wind up with a solid fantasy weekend? The honest truth is these tips will only take you so far. But if you keep a lucky penny and this article by your side, you just might make it through with your roster in one piece.

With that in mind, here’s an Inside Look at the best and the worst at Bristol:

Studs

Kyle Busch – During a disastrous 2009 Sprint Cup season, Bristol was the lone shining light for Busch and the No. 18. Replacing brother Kurt atop the Thunder Valley throne, he’s led an astounding 861 of the last 1,503 laps here in finishing second, first and first in his last three starts. Yes, Busch doesn’t have a top-10 finish in his first four races of 2010. But that just makes him more determined to keep from deepening his hole in the standings – and there’s no better track than to start the long process of digging himself out.

Fun fact: Busch was the first driver to win with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, charging to victory at Bristol in 2007. Isn’t it a storybook ending for him to win in the winged car’s grand finale?

Jeff Burton – The veteran has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Bristol, posting four top-five finishes in his last 13 starts to go with five of 31st or worse. But the spring race in particular has been kind to Burton as of late, finishing first, second and eighth the last three years, respectively. RCR’s short-track program, usually their biggest strength, hit a snag last season and they’re eager to prove things have turned around in 2010. And with the momentum the No. 31’s been carrying over the past six months (they haven’t finished outside the top 20 since October), would you really want to bet against them?

Fun fact: Burton has never posted top-10 finishes in both Bristol races since 2000. So if he does well this weekend, chances are you want to take him off your roster in August.

Honorable mention: Mark Martin. He was one of two drivers to post top-10 finishes in all six short track races last season. To me, that means he’s due for a date with the outside wall… but if you think he’s put years of bad mojo behind him, it’s a near-automatic top-10 selection for Sunday.

Who Will Carry You

Ryan Newman – This stat might surprise you, but the other driver to achieve that “6-for-6” top-10 stat was Newman. Not really known as a short-track racer, it was his success on the bullrings that singlehandedly carried him to a Chase bid last season. Posting an average finish of 6.5 at Bristol last season, he also led 25 laps in the spring during what became one of his most competitive races of 2009. Newman enters the 2010 race in much the same way he stumbled into last year, without a top-10 finish and over 100 points behind the Chase cutoff already. The pressure is on to stop the bleeding, and I’d be shocked if the U.S. Army team wasn’t disciplined enough to get it together for Sunday.

Marcos Ambrose – Another driver with a lot on the line, Ambrose’s two DNFs in four races have left him simply struggling to stay inside the Top 35 in owner points. A bad wreck at Bristol could put that in jeopardy, but the Aussie isn’t the type of driver to get in trouble: in 51 career starts, he’s never failed to finish due to a wreck. Add in a 6.5 average finish at this track (he was 10th in the spring and third in the fall), and it’s the perfect “value” driver to round out your roster for this week.

Sleeper – This pick might surprise you, but I’m going to go with David Gilliland. Driving the underfunded Front Row Motorsports Chevrolet, he hung on the lead lap all day in the No. 38 car at Atlanta before a chaotic finish dropped him to 26th. And while he’s wrecked the last two times at Thunder Valley, he’s also qualified in the top 15 three straight starts and has an eighth-place finish in the spring race (2008). At some point, the bad luck’s got to stop – and when it does, he’ll be sitting pretty well inside the top 20 at a bargain price.

Who Will Bury You

A lot of people think Elliott Sadler is a Bristol steal, one of the few tracks the fading Cup veteran still performs well at. But despite picking up his first Cup win at the track in 2001, he’s gone five years there without a top-10 finish, running 26th or worse in 50% of his starts during that stretch. Teammate Kasey Kahne is just as inconsistent, posting nearly as many DNFs (three) as top-10 finishes (four) throughout his Cup career.

Finally, ‘09 Chaser Brian Vickers is a “no brainer” most weeks, but he’s yet to find an intelligent way to circle around in Tennessee. Eleven career starts at Bristol have yet to earn him a top-10 finish, and in the last two spring races his average finish is a paltry 34th. Stay away! Stay away!

Recap and Advice

Like I said up top, all the knowledge in the world won’t keep an A-level roster from having a disastrous day at Bristol. Especially with a groove that’s been narrowed considerably over the offseason, wrecks aplenty threaten to turn your day into a walking disaster at any time. So don’t overthink it, and keep in mind low-value picks may be more valuable than ever this weekend: even a severely underfunded team could sneak away with a top 20 as long as they plan on running the distance. So if you’re itching to take a guy like Mike Bliss just once over the course of 36 races… now’s your chance to put on that Cinderella slipper and hope it doesn’t break into a million pieces.

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