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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Stock Car Challenge preview: Food City 500

By Mark Garrow
Jayski.com

When they get back to business after a weekend off, the Sprint Cup Series drivers are going to have a lot less room to work with. Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway is the first of six short-track events in 2009. It's going to be tight-quarters racing, but not the kind of "rock 'em, sock 'em" races we used to have on the half-mile track before it was widened and reconfigured in time for the 2007 summer event.

In the spring of that year, the yellow flag flew 15 times, chewing up 90 of the 500 laps. In the three races since then, on the more forgiving layout, we've averaged nine cautions and 62 laps under yellow. There are fewer crashes taking out fewer cars. That's of big benefit to a fantasy player because there was a time when the races at Bristol were like the ones held at Talladega, where a driver's destiny wasn't always in his own hands and innocents commonly got swept into wrecks they had nothing to do with starting.

So, who are the best since the track was tamed? Well, Carl Edwards has won the past two summer races, but was 16th in last year's edition of the Food City 500. Then there's Kevin Harvick, who was 16th in the first race after the track was reconfigured followed by a runner-up finish last spring and fourth place in August. It could be argued teammate Clint Bowyer has been a little more consistent with two third-place runs and a seventh. Other drivers with two top-10s in these first three races include Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.

There are also a few guys who had a number of strong runs on the old track layout, but haven't exactly set the world on fire on the new one. Fitting into that category is a pair of five-time Bristol winners, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Busch has finished in the top 10 only once in three tries on the new surface. The same can be said of Gordon though his finishes -- 19th, 11th and fifth -- show he's steadily improving and beginning to figure it out. Considering the way these guys started the year count on them to be, at least, top-10 material in the Food City 500.

In case you were wondering who wound up being the top-performing short-track drivers in 2008, Denny Hamlin was tops on the list. He scored 936 points in the six races on tracks less than a mile long with four top-5s and five top-10s, including a win at Martinsville. The only time Hamlin didn't finish in the top 10 was at Richmond and he dominated that race, leading 384 laps, before cutting a tire near the end and finishing 24th. Two other drivers who scored more than 900 points were Jeff Gordon and Richmond winner Clint Bowyer. Those scoring better than 800 points were led by Kevin Harvick followed by Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, who won the second races at Richmond and Martinsville. Ranked ninth and 10th in short-track performance last year were defending Food City 500 champ Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle.

Big bucks

In this group I think Carl Edwards (SCC price: 23.9), Jeff Gordon (23.8) and Kevin Harvick (22.8) have top-5 potential. I see Jimmie Johnson (23.3) and Kyle Busch (23.3) more as top-10 options and I don't see anything earthshaking coming from Greg Biffle (22.8).

Serious coin

In the 19 to 22 value range, Denny Hamlin (21.8) is my easy top choice. He's got a chance to win, with Clint Bowyer (20.5) and Kurt Busch (19.8) borderline top-5 contenders. A couple of potential top-10s in this group are defending winner Jeff Burton (20.3) and Matt Kenseth (20.7).

Budget boys

It's going to be pretty tough this week to figure out the best drivers with values from 13 to 19. No one really leaps off the page. Ryan Newman (16.8) has top-10s in two of the three races run on Bristol's new layout so you have to give him some consideration. Juan Pablo Montoya ran pretty well in the 2008 Food City 500. If he could duplicate that performance it would be a nice payoff for a driver valued at 16.7. His value is a little high for my taste, but Martin Truex Jr. (18.2) might not be a bad play. Thirteenth in this race a year ago, he was 12th in 2008 short-track points. Another possible answer here is Mark Martin (18.3). If you need to go lower, David Gilliland (15.4) was ninth in this race a year ago, and Aric Almirola (14.2) is a possibility. He finished eighth and 13th in the two Bristol races in 2008. Keep in mind, however, the crew chief who helped him do that is now calling the shots for Newman. Someone else who might deserve a thought or two is Casey Mears (17.7). RCR has a tremendous short-track program with Burton, Harvick and Bowyer finishing 1-2-3 in this race last spring and Mears should benefit from that. Plus, they all tested together this past Tuesday at "Little Rock," the half-mile track that was built outside Rockingham Speedway.

Debit … not credit

Up near the top, I think Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch aren't great plays this week. Johnson and Bristol have never really gotten along. Since the track was reconfigured Busch hasn't done much and Kevin Harvick is less expensive and a better pick. In the middle, I'd stay away from Tony Stewart because we still don't know what to expect from his new team on a week-to-week basis. Plus, Denny Hamlin should be bad to the bone and is just .5 more expensive, with Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch probably outrunning Tony at a much cheaper price. Just thinking about my good buddy Mark Martin gives me a rash. He's had terrible luck so far this year and didn't run either Bristol race last year.

Garrow's gang

At this point, I'm going to hold on to four of the five drivers I had in Atlanta: Carl Edwards (23.5), Denny Hamlin (21.8), Kurt Busch (19.3) and Ryan Newman (16.6). Edwards is one of the "concrete kings," having won the past two Bristol summer races. Hamlin should have won this race last year, but a fuel pickup issue cost him the victory during the green, white, checkered flag finish. Busch is banging on all eight cylinders right now and knows how to get it done at Bristol. To be honest, I'm a little concerned about Newman. I think he'll run up near the front, but can he finish up there? He was in position to do it at Atlanta until bad luck found him again. I dropped Brian Vickers in favor of Juan Pablo Montoya (16.7). The Colombian driver finished 15th in the Food City 500 a year ago and was 16th in points scored on the short tracks last season. I will be potentially looking at a different lineup, though, following my crew chief chat on Sunday morning if I start to get a bad vibe about either Newman or Montoya.

Mark Garrow covers fantasy racing for ESPN.com.