Sprint Cup Series at Bristol preview

Rotowire previews theSprint Cup Series race at Bristol.

Carl Edwards walked away from Bristol Motor Speedway as the winner of March’s Food City 500. The win came slightly earlier than expected due to an odd set of circumstances that saw the circuit’s caution lights come on through a mistake, shortly after which the skies opened and dumped rain on the surface. That weather ended the festivities and confirmed victory for the No. 99 team.

The spring Bristol race was largely one of attrition. Some of the race’s strongest contenders were sidelined by mechanical failures or contact. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and others all finished outside of the top 10 despite leading laps. It was also one of the many races that were affected by weather as the 2014 season got underway, the start having been delayed by more than an hour, and another shower ending the race before an expected green-white-checkered finish.

Winners at Bristol have typically started toward the front of the field. Almost 80% of the races at the track have been won by a driver starting inside the top 10, and only five times has a winner come from worse than the 20th starting position. In fact, Edwards was the first driver since March of 2011 to win after not starting inside the top 10. Qualifying is important here, so fantasy players should note a driver’s past qualifying success prior to settling on a lineup.

Jeff Gordon – With Gordon now packing in the wins, it is difficult not to see him as a top contender this week at Bristol. The former champion boasts five wins at the small Tennessee track, though the last came way back in 2002. However, of the four most recent Bristol races Gordon failed to finish inside the top 10 just once. He finished seventh here earlier this year. Additionally, his average starting spot at the track is 7.4, which is the best in the field. Gordon’s driver rating through the last nine years of racing here is stout at 100.6, and he is riding a wave of momentum following his third win of the season last week in Michigan.

Matt Kenseth – Though Kenseth is coming off of a disappointing weekend at Michigan, he returns this week to a track where he led much of the race in March. Kenseth led 165 of the 503 laps earlier this spring, and has now scored three top-10s in the last five races. The biggest question this week is whether or not the No. 20 can overcome the disappointment of Michigan’s 38th-place finish. Of the drivers who have started each of the races at Bristol in the last nine years Kenseth has the best driver rating at 102.7. His three wins, 11 top-5s, and 18 top-10s in his 29-race career at the track amount to an average finish of 12.5. Kenseth should be a driver to keep an eye on this week.

Kyle Larson – Though he only has one Sprint Cup start at Bristol, Larson proved that he can mix things up with the veterans in Bristol’s tight confines. He qualified 20th for March’s visit to the track, but raced his way to a 10th-place finish. Expectations of the rookie weren’t terribly high back then, but now the pressure to secure a spot in the Chase is ratcheting up. Larson encountered two bad luck moments last week in Michigan, which delivered a setback for his Chase hopes. Larson must bounce back this weekend, and March’s results show he is capable. The only question is how the young driver will cope with the growing pressure to put his team into the season-ending playoff format.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Like teammate Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt is having a fantastic 2014 season. Earnhardt’s last visit to Bristol saw him still glowing from his Daytona victory, but he struggled to a 24th-place finish. Lately results have been coming more consistently, though. He hasn’t finished worse than 11th in any race since July’s return trip to Daytona. Earnhardt’s Bristol driver rating is 88.9, and he brings an average finish at the track of 12th, which is among the best. The No. 88 team sees 2014 as a year they can claim a championship to add to Hendrick Motorsports’ legacy and are working to build confidence to maintain that consistency right into the playoff format. Earnhardt has two top-10s in his last three Bristol races, and could pose a serious threat this weekend.

Kyle Busch – Though Busch can usually be considered a favorite when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol this visit comes with some challenges. The five-time winner at the track hit trouble and finished 29th here in March, and is currently on a run of three consecutive finishes outside of the top 30. Busch’s Chase hopes remain secure; however, he will need to piece together some confidence before the playoffs get underway. Busch has a golden opportunity to swing the pendulum in his direction this week. His driver rating at the track is among the best at 101.7. Fantasy players should definitely give strong consideration to Busch this week, but a top performance will have to come against the current run of play.

Aric Almirola – Almirola’s third-place Bristol finish in March was a solid result ahead of his unlikely run at the Chase, but fantasy players shouldn’t expect that result again this week. March’s result was just Almirola’s second top-10 finish at the track in 10 career tries. He has never led a lap at Bristol, and only carries a driver rating of 66.7. To make matters even worse for Almirola, his best effort since winning at Daytona International Speedway in July has been an 18th-place run at Watkins Glen. Things are not going well for this team at the moment, and if the situation doesn’t change Almirola could be one of the first Chase contenders eliminated from the playoffs.

Martin Truex Jr. – With just two top-5 Bristol finishes from 17 career starts, Truex does not present a convincing option for Saturday’s fantasy lineups. Due to personal circumstances Truex sat out both practice and qualifying at Michigan last week, and finished 36th in the race. Understandably, his priorities currently lie away from the racetrack. Truex’s driver rating at Bristol is only 81.3, but his upside this week should be considered to be at a minimum. The current situation is unfortunate for the driver in that his results with his new team looked to be rounding a corner and on an upward swing. The completion of that climb back to the top will just have to be paused for the time being.

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Jamie McMurray – McMurray is among the drivers with the worst career finishing average at Bristol. His 23 starts at the track have only produced nine top-10s, and his average result is 17.8. Similarly, his driver rating covering the last nine years at the track is 76.3. In total, McMurray has only led 31 laps at Bristol, and he finished 38th in a disappointing outing earlier this season. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is carrying a pair of 14th-place finishes forward to this weekend’s race, and is in desperate need of a win to help secure a spot in the Chase. With a gap of more than 60 points between him and the Chase cut-off, a win is necessary, which is a tall order at a tough track this week.

Austin Dillon – After feeling fairly confident of securing a spot in the Chase due to his points tally, Dillon has taken a few steps backward in recent weeks. The rookie driver has fallen below the cutoff for a Chase berth, and recorded just one top-10 finish in the last four races. Earlier this year the Richard Childress Racing driver raced to an 11th-place Bristol finish, but hasn’t taken many steps forward in the second half of the season. By most accounts this season would be considered a success for Dillon, but missing the Chase would come as a disappointment. Dillon’s driver rating from March’s race is 67.4, and is in real danger of slipping permanently behind Kyle Larson in the rookie standings.

Greg Biffle – The driver making the biggest strides forward at Roush Fenway Racing is Biffle. Since struggling for much of the season to date, Biffle has seriously turned his trajectory around. He hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 for three consecutive races, and now pulls into Bristol where he finished 12th earlier this year. The No. 16 car is racing better now than it has all season, and its driver is hungry to earn himself a spot in the Chase. Given Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s top-5 at Bristol earlier this season, there has to be some knowledge sharing that can move Biffle a bit further forward this week. Biffle’s Bristol driver rating is 93.7, which is not too shabby.

Follow @cjradune on Twitter.

Radune was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

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