Fantasy NASCAR track analysis: Short tracks
Bristol Motor Speedway
Location: Bristol, Tenn.
Drivers have had a few years to handle the changes to the track layout at Bristol, and the top groove has officially become the preferred line. In many ways, the former one-groove bullring has become a mini version of Dover, thanks to the progressive banking. While the new layout may lack the bumping and banging that fans loved, the tamer attitude of the track is a benefit to fantasy owners. Less contact means fewer wrecks, a good thing from a fantasy perspective.
Last March, Bristol master Kyle Busch flexed his muscles once again. He out-dueled Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson to pick up the win, leading 153 laps in the process. Johnson actually led a race-high 164 laps, but Busch was out front when it mattered. Roush Fenway Racing didn't put a car in Victory Lane, but the organization did have three drivers finish eighth or better.
In the August event, pit strategy played a surprising role in deciding the outcome. Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. were among the drivers that opted not to pit with almost 100 laps remaining. Grabbing track position proved to be the winning move: Keselowski and Truex went on to finish first and second, respectively. Meanwhile, the dominant car of Jeff Gordon settled for third despite leading a race-high 206 laps.
Busch only added to his impressive resume at the track with another victory last season. His 9.1 average finish is second best in the series, and he has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are all among the favorite options, as well. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski have value as potential sleeper options.
Brian Vickers headlines the list of drivers to avoid at Bristol. In 14 career starts, he has a 24.6 average finish and has never finished in the top 10. A.J. Allmendinger is another driver that has struggled, and even though he is an up-and-coming fantasy option, he has a dismal 28.1 average finish at Bristol.
Dover International Speedway
Location: Dover, Del.
Most people like things to be self-cleaning, but race tracks aren't on that list. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Dover fits that description. The concrete oval nicknamed the "Monster Mile" has walls on both the inside and outside of the racing surface, which usually means heavy damage for any driver that goes for a spin. In fact, the walls on either side often create a ping-pong ball effect as drivers bounce off one wall, then go across track into the other wall. Along the way, it isn't uncommon to collect a few other drivers.
Last May, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards went back and forth most of the afternoon, combining to lead 324 of the 400 laps. However, pit strategy shuffled the running order at the finish leaving both drivers in the back half of the top 10. Matt Kenseth was among the drivers that picked the right strategy, and he was able to hold off Mark Martin in the final laps to secure the win.
Johnson and Edwards were back at in the fall event, leading 273 of the 400 laps. Once again, neither driver made it to Victory Lane, as Kurt Busch came on strong late in the race to grab the win. Edwards actually rallied to finish third after a speeding penalty that dropped him a lap down, and at the time, it appeared to make him the frontrunner to win the championship.
Obviously, Johnson should be high on the list of potential fantasy options. His six wins at the track are the most in the series, and his 14 top-10s are tied with Matt Kenseth for the most since the start of the 2002 season. Carl Edwards is a reliable option, too. His 7.3 average finish is the best in the series at Dover.
Kevin Harvick is among several big names that have had their issues at Dover over the years. He has just two top-five finishes in 22 starts. Bad luck has plagued Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya at the track. Hamlin has a 20.7 average finish in 12 starts, and Montoya has a 22.9 average finish in 10 starts.
Location: Martinsville, Va.
Martinsville may be the shortest and slowest track in NASCAR, but the half-mile, paperclip-shaped track still provides plenty of action. The addition of double-file restarts has only added to the bumping and banging that the track has become famous for. In order to win at Martinsville, drivers need to make sure to keep their brakes cool, and crew chiefs need to make sure their drivers keep their cool.
The April race last year featured yet another memorable Martinsville finish. After perennial contenders Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin fell out of contention as a result of poor pit strategy, Kyle Busch appeared to have a stranglehold on the top spot. Kevin Harvick had other ideas - he bumped his way by Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final laps - picking up his first career win at the track.
The fall event brought similar fireworks. Tony Stewart rallied from a lap down and passed Johnson on the outside coming to the white flag to pick up the win. The victory launched a hot streak for Stewart that propelled him to his third career Cup Series championship.
With four wins and counting, Hamlin is as good as anyone at Martinsville. However, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon are also elite options. The three drivers have combined to win 14 of the 20 races at the track in the last 10 years. Johnson has an incredible 18 top-10 finishes in 20 starts during that stretch, while Gordon leads all drivers with 15 top-five finishes. All three drivers have an average finish of 7.4 or better.
Despite being a former winner, Kurt Busch is a risky fantasy play. He has just four top-10 finishes in his last 20 starts at Martinsville, compiling an 18.7 average finish. Kasey Kahne has just two top-10s in 16 starts at the track, and the same goes for Greg Biffle in 16 career starts. David Reutimann's numbers have been even worse. He has yet to score a top-10 in eight starts while compiling a 23.9 average finish.
Phoenix International Raceway
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
While PIR can be bunched in with short tracks as well as flat tracks it's actually a pretty unique venue that should be viewed all by its lonesome. Last year, the racing surface was repaved and modified at the conclusion of the February event in time for the fall race. With the hopes of allowing side-by-side racing on a track that had previously been very difficult to pass on, parts of the track were widened and the corners were given the ever popular variable banking treatment. The changes were met with generally favorable reviews from drivers, although a lack of grip was noted - a common issue after a repave. As the track begins to wear the slicker conditions should be alleviated.
Despite a focus on opening up the action, the fall race saw seven of the drivers that qualified 11th or better finish inside the top 10. Even though qualifying had proven to be very important in most races under the old configuration, the top 10 of the February race featured six drivers that started 20th or worse. Still, it's wise to assume track position will continue to be paramount to succeed at PIR for the time being.
After finishing 39th and 30th, respectively, at Phoenix in 2010, Kasey Kahne won the first race held on the new surface with an average running position of 10th. In February, he finished sixth while running eighth, on the average. You have to go back to 2006 to find the only other season in which Kahne finished a top-10 at PIR. Given last year's performances and the hyped move to Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne could see a lot more success in the desert.
While seeing an end to an impressive streak of 10 top-five finishes, including four wins, at PIR in the fall race, Jimmie Johnson finished 14th and off the lead lap for the first time ever at PIR. While finishing sixth in the final points standings is considered a down year for Johnson there's no reason to think he'll be unable to get back to his winning ways at Phoenix given the amazing body of work.
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman have improved drastically at PIR in the last two seasons. Over those four races, Smoke has seen race by race improvements in his finish, average running position and laps in the top 15. In the fall race, Stewart led a race high 160 laps and never fell outside of the top 15 while to finishing third.
Newman finished as the winner and runner-up at PIR in 2010 and fifth in both races a year ago. Perhaps most impressive is the fact Newman did all that never qualifying better than 14th.
Carl Edwards has been a beast in the last two fall races at Phoenix. He has finished first and second while never running worse than ninth during any of those 624 combined laps.
Richmond International Raceway
Location: Richmond, Va.
In many ways, Richmond has become the premier short track in NASCAR. The track's 0.75-mile layout creates enough speed to provide excitement, and despite two racing grooves, there is still plenty of bumping of banging. Richmond is more than worthy of being called the "Action Track" of NASCAR.
RIR also has the honor of hosting the regular season finale, and there is no better track to host such a pressure-packed event. When the difference between making the Chase and missing out is just a couple of spots, drivers are more than willing to get physical to keep their title hopes alive. Richmond is one track that provides drivers with the opportunity to get physical on a lap-by-lap basis.
Last May, nobody was physical with Kyle Busch because nobody could catch him. Busch led 235 of the 400 laps on his way to the win and was unchallenged down the stretch. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin finished second, completing a strong night for the organization.
In the regular-season finale, it was Kevin Harvick's turn to dominate. He led 202 of the 400 laps, outlasting Carl Edwards down the stretch. The victory was Harvick's fourth of the year, tying for the most during the regular season and putting him atop the standings for the start of the Chase.
As last year's races suggest, the JGR drivers are all excellent fantasy picks, especially Kyle Busch. His 5.0 average finish is the best in the series at RIR, and he has notched an incredible 12 top-five finishes in 14 career starts. Looking outside of the JGR guys, Bowyer and Harvick both average top-10 finishes at the track. With a 15.2 average finish at the track in six career starts, Marcos Ambrose deserves consideration as a sleeper option.
Martin Truex Jr. remains a risky pick. He has just two top-10s in 12 starts at RIR, along with a 24.3 average finish. Jamie McMurray has been just as bad, compiling a 23.8 average finish and recording just three top-10s compared to four DNFs in 18 starts. Brian Vickers has been even worse, compiling a 24.9 average finish.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.Follow @kffl_racing
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