Special to Yahoo Sports
By Dan Beaver
Take a deep breath: It’s short track season.
The STP 500 is the first of three short track races in the next four weeks. Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway are three distinct courses, but they share an important commonality. With 38 to 40 cars on an oval less than a mile in length, drivers are constantly in heave traffic.
Fantasy players will hear the phrase patient aggression a lot in the coming weeks and anyone in the field who leans too far to one side of that equation is going to get lapped in short order.
These tracks are prone to streaks. Last year, some top drivers struggled in the spring and rebounded in the fall. As a result, that opened the door for a couple of dark horses in the STP 500, so fantasy players want to keep an eye out for the surging rookies and sophomores. A little risk this week will allow them to relax slightly when the series rolls on to the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Yahoo Group A)
Last week, Johnson was also among the favorites just as he is at Martinsville. He did not come through for players and crossed under the checkers with a disappointing 21st-place finish. The 50 points he earned made him the second-least productive driver in Group A. But this is Martinsville and even in his sleep, he should be able to contend for a top-10. After all, he enters the weekend with six victories to stand head and shoulders above the competition.
Kyle Busch: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Yahoo Group A)
Busch won last year’s edition of the STP 500. He finished fifth in his last two fall outings. It is hard to argue with three consecutive top-fives on any course, but he is even more attractive when one considers his recent record. On the similarly-flat Phoenix International Raceway, he finished third and challenged for the victory late. If not for the turn-four spin by Joey Logano at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he would have a three-race top-10 streak going for the season.
Jamie McMurray: No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (Yahoo Group B)
McMurray is probably not overly excited about driving in the shadow of his younger teammate, but so long as he keeps recording top-15s none of his fantasy owners will complain. An average finish of 9.75 over the past four races would not provide enough points in Group A, but he has been a consistent top-four producer in Yahoo Group B. Just like in NASCAR, the win does not always go to the strongest, but rather the one who is best over time.
Clint Bowyer: No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group B)
It is time to trust Bowyer again. His disappointing 2016 is rapidly becoming distant memory as he contends for top-10s on a regular basis this year. In three races from Atlanta Motor Speedway through Phoenix, he challenged the lead pack and was a good value with three consecutive results of 10th through 13th. It was his third-place finish in the Auto Club 400 that really solidified his reputation as a frontrunner this year. That was his first top-five in 53 races.
AJ Allmendinger: No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet (Yahoo Group B)
Allmendinger’s second-place finish in last year’s edition of the STP 500 was a bit of a surprise, but fans with long memories point to another runner-up result in 2012. That season, he slipped to 28th in the fall and failed to get the sweep. He missed the race in 2013 and then almost swept the top-10 in 2014 with an 11th and ninth. He added another 11th in fall 2015, so he really should have been on most players’ radar screens last year. Allmendinger was finally able to double-down with a pair of top-10s. He finished 10th in the fall Goody’s 500.
Paul Menard: No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Yahoo Group B)
Short tracks are wild cards. They are not nearly as unpredictable as restrictor-plate, superspeedways, but players really don’t want to risk an allocation on marquee racers who threaten to finish in the top 10 every week. This is a good time to rest Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in Group B in favor of consistent top-15 finishers. That is where Menard comes in. He finished 15th or better in four of five races on this week’s venue entering last fall’s Goody’s 500. He fell to 25th in that event, but should rebound nicely.
Ty Dillon: No. 13 Germain Bros. Chevrolet (Yahoo Group C)
Martinsville is a tough track. Both Dillon Bros. cut their teeth on dirt bullrings driving modifieds and that taught them how to manage traffic. The stakes are higher at the Cup level. These drivers are harder to pass and less easily intimidated, but the personality needed to run well is the same as at the grassroots level. Without a killer instinct, back markers get lapped early and often. Dillon will stay on the lead lap for most of the afternoon and even if he slips off the pace, he should finish the race within sight of the top-15.
Matt DiBenedetto: No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group C)
No one was paying attention to DiBenedetto last spring at Bristol. He qualified 30th and lost a lap during the afternoon, but kept his composure. After regaining his lap, he showed why short tracks are often considered drivers’ courses. His No. 83 BK Racing ride did not have the same horsepower as the superteams, so he made up the difference with a heavy right foot. In a race with limited attrition, he nevertheless landed in the top 10 and was easily the most pleasant surprise of the afternoon.