Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2004 [Print without images]

Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Advance Auto Parts 500 Fantasy Preview

By Bryan Van Stippen

By Bryan Van Stippen

The Cup series resumes after a week off with a difficult race at Martinsville Speedway. At just a half-mile the track is the shortest - and the tightest - on the circuit. There is barely enough room for one groove let alone two, making track position an important issue. Drivers will also be heavy on the brakes on every lap; keeping them cool will be vital to a top finish. Being smooth around the track is also key. Getting out of the groove could lead to a trip to the garage, or at the very least to the back of the pack.

Last season Jeff Gordon won four pole positions and three races. Two of the poles as well as two of the wins came at this track. It should be no surprise then that he is one of the favorites to take the checkered flag once again in this race. Gordon finally posted his first top 5 of the season at Texas. He had gone six races without a top 5, which tied his longest streak without a top 5 in the last two years. He has just one finish outside the top 15 this season (the accident involving Andy Hillenburg at Darlington) to go with five top 10s. Gordon is looking to move up a few more spots to solidify himself in the top 10 in the point standings and should have no problem doing so here.

There are a few drivers that gave Gordon a run for his money last season and one of those drivers is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps in this race last season but fell to a fourth place finish after getting pushed up the track by Ricky Craven with just 60 laps to go, losing valuable track position. He has been stellar here in the last four races after a rough start to his career. He did not have a top 10 run in his first four races here before posting four consecutive top 5s. Expect a solid run for Earnhardt Jr. again this weekend.

A second driver that has given Gordon all he can handle is his teammate Jimmie Johnson. In four races here Johnson has three top 10s, including a runner up finish to his boss last season in the fall race. Johnson has been fairly inconsistent this season with three top 5s and three finishes outside the top 15, including a 41st place finish in the second race of the season. He does have a victory this year and would like to build on his ninth place finish at Texas.

There have been rumors of Roush Racing shutting down the #99 team at the end of next month if a sponsor is not found. Jeff Burton, the driver of the #99 Ford, has not helped his cause this season much either with zero top 10s and five finishes of 20th place or worse. He is 30th in the point standings and is in desperate need of a solid run. Martinsville is a track where he has run well at in the past. Burton leads all drivers on the circuit with an average finish of eighth place here over the last 12 races, which is even more impressive. He has just two finishes outside the top 10 in that span with seven top 5s. He posted the best finish at this point of the season here a year ago (fourth) and is looking to turn his season around once again.

Sterling Marlin has posted two top 5s this season after going the entire 2003 without one. He did struggle in the fall race here last season after getting caught up in a wreck that punctured his radiator and eventually lost his engine to finish in last place. Prior to that poor finish Marlin had not finished outside the top 12 in the last three years. The entire Chip Ganassi Racing team has been solid this season and Marlin would make a great addition to anyone's fantasy race team this weekend.

There are some top drivers that have had their troubles here including Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler and Ryan Newman. Busch has a win at Martinsville (2002) but has just one other top 10 finish (10th place - 2002). In the other five events he has run Busch has not finished in the top 25 and has an average finish of 26th place. Sadler posted his best ever finish at Martinsville in this race last season when he crossed the finish line in fifth place. He had never finished in the top 15 to that point in his career and regressed in the fall race with a 28th place finish. He has eight finishes outside the top 20 in 10 career races while averaging a 25th place finish. Newman posted his best finish in the fall race last season when he came home in fifth place. In the three races prior to that finish Newman had a top finish of 15th place to go with two finishes outside the top 35. He averages a 25th place finish here as well and may be a driver you will want to avoid.

Bryan Van Stippen is ESPN's fantasy racing correspondent and the senior staff writer for Fantasy GMs (www.fantasygms.com). Email any questions or comments to bvs@fantasygms.com.

All statistics are provided by Fantasy Racing Advisor.