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Special to Yahoo Sports
By Dan Beaver
Last year, only three drivers finished in the top 10 in both Bristol Motor Speedway races with three more sweeping the top 15. That ranked this track between Daytona International Speedway and Talladega SuperSpeedway as the least predictable courses on which NASCAR competes.
Short courses are typically rhythm tracks. They should be prone to streaks and once upon a time, Bristol was. It has also been characterized as a wild card because of the potential for damage to the cars. It seems as if the pendulum is swinging that direction again.
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This week could be more chaotic than ever. Scheduled caution flag periods at the end of the quarter- and halfway-mark of the race will increase the sense of urgency that drivers feel. That leads to mistakes and heightened aggression. Look back to the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway for an example of what might happen in the closing laps of each stage and the race. Bonus points available to the leader at those three periods could make or break a driver’s playoff hopes. When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumped Kyle Busch out of the lead, he set the tone for what is to be expected in that scenario.
Kevin Harvick: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group A)
NASCAR is about what a driver has done recently, but there are always at least two factors in play. Harvick has not exactly burned up the track in recent weeks of 2017, but he has been stout at Bristol in the past year and a half. He finished second in summer 2015 and won that same race last year. He was seventh in the 2016 Food City 500. There is a caveat, however. Prior to this three-race streak, he had an eight-race period of results outside the top 10, so players will want to watch him closely in practice.
Matt Kenseth: No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Yahoo Group A)
Kenseth has only three top-15s to his credit in the first seven races of this season. Like Harvick, his modest performance has caused fantasy players to look elsewhere for their favorites—and that might hide good news. From 2013 through 2015 Kenseth scored two wins, recorded a third-place finish, and swept the top 15 in four races. From 2009 through 2012, he logged six consecutive top-10s. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he can finish with the leaders, but he will have to avoid trouble. That has been difficult in his last three Bristol starts.
Clint Bowyer: No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group B)
At the beginning of the season, fantasy players penciled Bowyer in on drivers’ tracks. He was expected to score top-10 finishes on courses that reward skill as a greater percentage of the equation than horsepower — and on these tracks, one believed he could earn top-10s. He has been better than anticipated and his strong runs on unrestricted, intermediate speedways altered the perception. Fantasy owners can now expect him to finish with the leaders almost any week and he should be regarded as a threat to win on drivers’ tracks. Last year, while he struggled elsewhere, he earned an eighth in the Food City 500.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: No. 42 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford (Yahoo Group B)
If Stenhouse had not gotten aggressive at Martinsville two weeks ago to regain the lead lap at the end of segment two, he might not have been able to score a top-10 in the STP 500. Bristol requires that same attitude. Drivers have to fight for every inch of real estate in order to get in a position where they can advance in the final stages. Stenhouse does not have a reputation as a rough driver, but he might deserve more respect. He finished runner-up last summer and has four top-10s. He has finished in the front half of the pack in more than half his starts on this bullring.
Kurt Busch: No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group B)
Busch is liable to fly under the radar this week. He has been great at Bristol in the past, but four of his last 10 efforts there ended outside the top 25. Statistically speaking, his three top-10s in that same span do not offset the detriment. Each of those strong runs actually landed in the top five, however, including a third in last year’s edition of the Food City 500. Busch can win on short tracks. Last year, he clinched a spot in the playoffs with a Richmond International Raceway victory and that should sway a few intrepid Yahoo players.
Chris Buescher: No. 34 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet (Yahoo Group B)
Last year might have been atypical in a number of ways. Dark horses roamed this half-mile oval freely and Buescher was able to get in on the action with a fifth-place finish two weeks after he scored a rain-aided win at Pocono. He has not earned a top-10 since, but that is not necessary in order to make him a good value in Group B. The marquee drivers are going to be exhausted before the end of the year, so rolling the dice on a longshot capable of earning a top-15 is worthwhile. Buescher finished 11th two weeks ago at Martinsville.
Ty Dillon: No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet (Yahoo Group C)
Rookies are not supposed to perform well at Bristol, but there are exceptions to every rule. Last year, Chase Elliott scored a top-five in his first start. Dillon is unlikely to perform to that level, but he is more than capable of scoring a top-15. One often speaks of aggression at Bristol, but perhaps the better characterization might be determination. Certain racers can be hard to pass in a way that does not draw the ire of their fellow competitors.
Matt DiBenedetto: No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford (Yahoo Group C)
When one talks about Bristol being a good dark horse showcase, that is true down the line. DiBenedetto finished sixth in this race last year and while he was not one of the drivers who swept the top 15, he came close with a 17th in the summer. If he only had those two solid runs, that could easily be dismissed as a fluke, but he ended the year with seven results in the mid-20s in his final eight races. That puts him on the cusp of being a good Group C value—especially on a track that is prone to carnage among the leaders.