Spin the Black Circle: Sharpie 500
OK, don't forget Daytona. But for all its breathtaking speed and worst-to-first drafting, races on the Florida superspeedway aren't the most exciting in Nextel Cup. No, to my way of thinking, the best race of the season is the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
What could be better? Forty-three drivers in a half-mile bull ring that's banked "above freezing" (it's at 36 degrees), with 165,000 of their closest friends looming directly on top of them. Tempers flare more at Bristol events than they do at "St. Elmo's Fire" reunions, and big wrecks might take out upward of 10 cars, but there's very little risk of anyone getting seriously hurt (knock on silicon). Plus, it's Saturday night, it's under the lights, the paint schemes shimmer, and even getting onto and off of pit row is an adventure. It is, in short, super-fun.
Matt Kenseth won here last summer, in the final Bristol event featuring the "old" car. Unfortunately for Milwaukee Matt, you have to downgrade the importance of his Bristol excellence from 2002 to 2006 (check this out: sixth, fifth, second, fourth, fifth, ninth, 16th, first, third and first) because none of those good results took place in the Car of Tomorrow. Kyle Busch won the COT race here in March, back when Hendrick Motorsports had a clear advantage with the new car; the gap between Hendrick, Gibbs and everyone else has narrowed, but there's no question the COT does handle differently and requires a different skill set to get around any track quickly. Can Kenseth and Roush Fenway return to glory? Let's take a look at this week's best fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last week: Carl Edwards, 7th; Tony Stewart, 10th.)
I'm afraid I have to go right back to the Stewart well again this week. Smoke was by far the dominant car here in March, and would've won the race had he not broken a cable on his fuel pump, something that almost never happens. Stewart hasn't won at Bristol since 2001, but his performance in the spring race, in which he led 257 laps, verged on dominance. He doesn't have a great record at Thunder Valley the past few years, and he's not one of the guys who has a sterling record so far with the COT. But the track owes him a little something, and Gibbs has the COT by the horns. Smoke wins Saturday night.
And if it's not Stewart, it might have to be Kurt Busch, who has taken two of the past three Cup events. The irony here is Busch won at Pocono and Michigan, two places absolutely unlike tiny Bristol, but it's Bristol that is like a second home for Kurt, who has won at this track five times in his career. He had mechanical and traffic troubles all day here in March and finished just 27th, but no team other than perhaps the No. 20 has more momentum, and if Penske gives Busch a competitive car Saturday night, he'll know what to do with it. Actually, Busch's performance in this race will be something of a referendum on the COT; if he can compete for the win, we'll know that past excellence at a track (in the old car) translates well to the COT. If he struggles for the second straight time, we'll really have to rethink the way we analyze old track-by-track data.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last week: Casey Mears, 11th; Jamie McMurray, 30th)
Frankly, Bristol isn't a great venue for midrange or sleeper drivers, and right now, the COT plainly favors the multicar, multimillionaire teams. For my first midrange guy, I'm rolling the dice with Flyin' Ryan Newman, who definitely has had success at the Black Diamond in the past; he's finished ninth or better in five of the past eight races here. The problem is that in those other three events, he was 30th or worse. Eesh. So it'll be white-knuckle time watching Newman, hoping he doesn't wreck Saturday night. The good news is he's been solid at non-roadie COT events so far; he has the 12th-best finishing average so far in those races.
By the letter of my power rankings, I'd have to go back to McMurray, but I can't do it. Since his win at Daytona, he's failed to top 30th in five straight events, and he was doomed from the start in last week's race when his team had to change his transmission right before the event, sending him to the back of the field. So instead, I'm trying Elliott Sadler. Evernham has been a disaster this year, and Jeremy Mayfield can take some solace in the knowledge that his struggles in the No. 19 last year weren't because of him, as Sadler has been just as bad. The only good news this week is Bristol isn't aero-sensitive, and it's been the Evernham teams' performance around other cars on bigger tracks that has doomed them in '07. Sadler finished only 27th here in March, but he had four straight finishes of 15th or better from '04 to '06.
"Not For You" (Beware of These Drivers)
(Last week: Ryan Newman, 16th)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'll stay away from Jimmie Johnson. Now, the Hendrick COT program is still the best around, so it's absolutely possible JJ will turn in a fine points day. But Bristol's a place he never has won, and he rarely has even threatened to win here in the past couple of seasons. He's in the COT, has his crew chief back and ran great at Michigan but I still believe you can find about 20 other tracks where Johnson runs better. So pick one of the short-track demigods, such as Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin et al., and leave Johnson alone.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last week: Reed Sorenson, 38th; Boris Said, 18th)
Yuk. There aren't many sleepers worth consistent attention in a COT Bristol event. But you have to have at least one inexpensive driver on your fantasy team this week, so my first shot will be with Dave Blaney. At least you know the No. 22 Toyota will be in the event because he's in the top 35 in points, and when Blaney has made Bristol races in the recent past, the veteran driver has at least given you consistent finishes in that 14th to 23rd range. It's worth noting that two Toyotas finished in the top 10 last week, indicating that the underpowered engines that characterized their early efforts this season might be a thing of the past.
Lastly, I nominate Jeff Green, who was excellent in two of the first three COT events this season, finishing sixth at Bristol in March and following it up with a sixth at Phoenix. Put that together with a COT sixth at Loudon this summer, and you get a sense that the Haas No. 66 team at least can field a competitive car Saturday night. Of course, it's not likely Green will qualify all that well, and being near the back at Bristol can be a recipe for trouble when they start wrecking in front of you. But three sixth-places in seven COT races is something to at least take notice of.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.