NASCAR '09: Bristol preview

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After a week off, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series gets back into action this weekend at the popular Bristol Motor Speedway. Sunday's Food City 500 is a race fan's dream, but a fantasy player's nightmare. The "World's Fastest Half Mile" provides fans with close racing all around the track, plenty of bumping and grinding and door-to-door excitement. But that excitement also keeps fantasy owners on the edge of their seats, hoping that it's not their driver who innocently gets caught up in someone else's mess.

Selecting your team for Bristol is like purchasing a home; it's all about location, location, location. Since 1972, only 14 race winners at Bristol have come from a starting position outside the top 10, the last driver to do it was Kyle Busch in the Spring of 2007. Plus a good qualifying run will give teams a chance to make a better pit selection, something that could determine the outcome of the race as drivers try to maneuver the close confines of pit road.

Add to the mix that Bristol is the fifth and final race where the 2008 owner points will be used to guarantee positions. That means there will be plenty of drivers hovering just above and below the top 35 cutoff that will be doing all they can to make sure they are on the right side of the bubble when they arrive at Martinsville next week. Plus we can't forget there are several big name drivers looking to break either long running winless streaks or to right the ship after a tough start to '09.

Put all of that together and Sunday can be either a recipe for a success or disaster. To help you navigate the risky waters, we've put together a list of favorites, sleepers and longshots.

Jeff Gordon: Gordon comes into this weekend first in the Sprint Cup standings, but you can bet there is one number he is looking to avoid hearing about next weekend at Martinsville: 46. That would be the number of races since his last win if he fails to get the job done this weekend at Bristol. Gordon is tied with Kurt Busch for most wins at Bristol (five) among active drivers and getting number six would go a long way to catapult Gordon's already strong start to the 2009 season. With three straight top 10s -- including two runner-up finishes -- in the last three races, it's harder to find a driver hotter than Gordon right now to put on your team.

By the numbers: Gordon has finished 11th or better in the last five races run at Bristol and has a career average finish of 11.5.

Clint Bowyer: When Bowyer was sent to the No. 33 in the off-season to make room for Casey Mears, there was a cloud of doubt about how well Bowyer would perform with his new team in 2009. If the first four races are any indication, he will be just fine. With top 10s in three of the first four races of the year he currently sits just 46 points behind Jeff Gordon in the point standings; leading his nearest RCR teammate by six places (Kevin Harvick). When thinking of drivers to play at Bristol, Bowyer could easily fall under the radar so he would be a good play if you're looking to make up ground early in the season.

By the numbers: Bowyer has four straight top 10 finishes at Bristol and led 81 laps in this race last year before finishing third.

Greg Biffle: Biffle is another driver that could likely fall between the cracks when owners are making up their rosters this week. Despite poor finishes at Daytona and Las Vegas, his pair of fifth place finishes has been strong enough to keep Biffle 8th in the overall standings heading into week five. So far this year he hasn't been able to string together back to back good finishes, but looking at his record at Bristol he should be able to buck that trend on Sunday. In 12 starts, Biffle is one of only two active drivers (Harvick) to have an average finish better than tenth (9.8) and he has never finished lower than 22nd -- an amazing feat considering how easy it is to get tangled up in someone else's mess on the tight half-mile track.

By the numbers: Biffle has completed all but two of the 6,010 laps run at Bristol since his debut there in 2003.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The doubters and haters have come out early this year to criticize Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 Hendrick team, and that's not without merit. Sitting 24th in the standings little has gone right for Junior this year but that could change this weekend. You may not equate Jr. with short-track racing, but maybe it's time you should. While everyone will likely be saving Junior for the faster, plate tracks using him at Bristol could bring big rewards for your team. Earnhardt Jr. is a former Bristol winner (2004) and in the eight races since; he has finished outside the top 10 only twice and never lower than 18th. Hopefully the off-weekend gave Junior a chance to regroup and refocus, because if he brings his 'A' game on Sunday and doesn't make the silly mistakes he has at times this year; he will be a serious threat for a top 10 finish for your fantasy team.

By the numbers: Earnhardt Jr. has just one DNF at Bristol, which came in his first start at the track, and has finished in the top 10 in 10 of his 18 starts.

Aric Almirola: The 2009 season hasn't been very kind to Almirola, a promising start in the Daytona 500 ended with a 30th place finish and things haven't gotten any better. So why am I making a recommendation to think about putting him on your fantasy team? Consider Almirola a sale at your favorite store that's good for a limited time only. Due to lack of sponsorship, the team's future after Texas early next month is in doubt; which can play into your hands if you are playing in a league that limits the number of times you can choose a particular driver. Plus, his limited results at Bristol merit a look in his direction anyway. In three races, he has a pair of top 15s, including an 8th place run in this race last year; and considering the type of salary cap range or group you're likely to find him in- that's the type of performance you're looking for week to week from that slot.

By the numbers: Almirola has an average finish of 19th in his three Bristol starts and has been running at the end of every one.

Jimmie Johnson: Speaking of knowing when is the right time to use a driver or when to save them -- this isn't the time to pull the trigger on Johnson. Of course Johnson will be hungry to grab his first win of the year, but Bristol hasn't been kind to Johnson in the past. Despite starting in the top 10 in four of the last six races, including a start from the top spot last year due to rain, he's parlayed that into a top 10 finish just once. Yes he knows short tracks and he's due a win sooner rather than later, here's a hint... save him for Martinsville next week.

By the numbers: Johnson has a meager 17.4 average finish at Bristol. There are only four tracks he has a worse average at.

Martin Truex Jr.: Truex is another driver who hasn't seen '09 start out like he had hoped. Yes, he's the highest ranked driver at EGR; but that's not saying much these days. He got a big boost up to 18th in the standings thanks to his tenth place finish the last time the cars were on the track; but that momentum will likely stall this Sunday at Bristol. In his three year career in the Cup Series, short tracks are the one area that he has been lacking in. In six starts at Bristol, his best finish is an 11th in 2007's night race; which isn't terrible until you couple that with three finishes of 35th or worse. He may drive for the team founded by the Intimidator, but there is nothing about Truex's past runs at Bristol that will intimidate anyone. He's another one to keep on the shelf until a later date.

By the numbers: Truex has finished on the lead lap in just two of his Bristol starts and has an average finish of 25.3.

Next up: It's back to back short-track runs for the Cup boys with Martinsville on deck for next week.