Spin the Black Circle: Food City 500
This is a huge race. As the fifth of the season, Sunday's event will produce standings that will become the law. Drivers in the top 35 in owner points will make the Martinsville race in two weeks without having to qualify. Those outside the top 35 will have to scramble to make events on time until they can get back in. The recent history of drivers who haven't been inside the top 35 after Race No. 5 isn't good. They clamber, they scratch, they spend most of their time on qualifying setups, and not as much as they need on race trim. Failing to have that automatic qualification is a snowball that rolls downhill.
Here are a few of the scariest possible omissions from the top 35 after Bristol:
Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. If the fifth race had taken place last week, the leaders of the much-hyped open-wheel class of 2008 would have had to qualify this week on time. Hornish is currently 36th in owner points, while Franchitti is 38th. That's terrible news for these two purported rookie of the year candidates, especially because your first Cup race at Bristol is not where you want to be if you have to give a smooth, excellent performance.
Dave Blaney. After being Toyota's leading light in 2007, Blaney hasn't run well at all this year, and I'm surprised. I believed Blaney and Brian Vickers would benefit most from Joe Gibbs Racing joining the Toyota fold. Vickers has been better than I believed possible, and sits ninth in points. Blaney is 37th, and teetering on the brink of irrelevancy.
Casey Mears. Mears is currently 30th in owner points, which simply won't do for a Hendrick Motorsports driver. After two crashes you couldn't really blame on the No. 5 team, Mears produced a fine 13th place at Vegas and an OK 17th at Atlanta, so I think it's a stretch to say Mears is running terribly. Still, if he gets irredeemably wrecked on Lap 10 in Bristol, there's a small chance he could find himself outside the top 35.
Regan Smith. If any rookie gets inside the top 35, he'll become the obvious front-runner for rookie of the year. Don't count on it being Smith, though. This DEI driver is 39th in points, and hasn't cracked the top 31 in any race yet this year. We'll have to see how Aric Almirola drives for DEI in Mark Martin's ride over the next couple races. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Almirola (or maybe a past champion?) could bump Smith from this seat if things don't get better.
Jamie McMurray. This Roush-Fenway team hasn't run nearly as well as Casey Mears, the other major-team car who's in jeopardy, and right now McMurray sits 31st in owner points. Like Mears, he'll be safe if he finishes this race, but one more DNF early in the race, and the No. 26 could get stuck on the outside looking in. Jamie Mac's deal with Roush extends to the end of 2009, but it's possible he could get canned if things don't get better.
From the chaff to the wheat: Let's take a look at this week's best Bristol fantasy bets.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Kyle Busch, 1st; Carl Edwards, 42nd)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth and seventh in the two Car of Tomorrow races at Bristol last season, and it's been 12 Bristol events since Junior has finished outside the top 11. He loves this track. He's also won here before, in the fall of '04. Little-E is sixth in points, with two top-five finishes and three top-10s, and if he hadn't gotten wrecked at Fontana, he might be 4-for-4 in good results. Truly, his Hendrick career has gotten started with a bang, and I think that will include a second career win at Thunder Valley. Look for the No. 88 to head to Victory Lane Sunday.
I'm also sending another vote Carl Edwards' way. He won the fall COT race at Bristol in '07 and he had the best finishing average (by a wide margin) of any driver at the high-banked tracks that ran the COT last year (Bristol, Dover and Darlington, where his finishing average was 4.4). Let's add to these mathematical postulates the fact that King Carl should almost certainly be riding a three-race winning streak heading into Bristol; he was driving away from the field in Atlanta a week ago when his transmission blew up.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: David Ragan, 23rd; Mark Martin, 22nd)
Kasey Kahne's 28th-place finish in Atlanta caused his value to take a hit in most salary-cap games, which means for at least a week he's outside the top 15 in a lot of games (at least he is in our own Stock Car Challenge), so I'm giving him the nod as a midrange driver in Week 5. Kahne led the most laps at Bristol last fall (305), before being vanquished by Edwards and finishing second. That was Kahne's best finish in what was an otherwise miserable 2007, and while it was only his second career top-10 here in eight tries, it means the No. 9 team can get around this joint in the COT.
Bobby Labonte is the kind of smooth veteran hand who makes a relatively safe bet. (But is anything in Sprint Cup racing ever safe, especially at the world's fastest half-mile?) He's a very quiet 14th in points in '08 despite failing to notch a single top-10 this season, which belies Labonte's inclination toward mellow racing. B-Lab also gave you his best finish of 2007 at this track, in the COT, when he finished eighth in the Bristol fall race.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Clint Bowyer, 6th)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. I know it's heresy, but this week I'm telling you to stay away from Jimmie Johnson. Let's forget for a moment that the two-time defending champs have completely missed on their setups in two straight events, at Vegas and Atlanta. And let's also forget that the No. 48 currently sits an unheard-of 13th in points. JJ just isn't all that good at Bristol. He's been better than 16th only once in his past five races here, and Bristol is one of only five current non-road-course tracks where Johnson has never won in his young Cup career. (That stat, by the way, is just nuts; he has 33 wins in 223 career Cup races!) I'm not ruling out the possibility that Chad Knaus & Co. get their act together Sunday. I just think there are a lot safer places to put your fantasy money.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Elliott Sadler, 43rd; Brian Vickers, 9th)
Yes, for the fourth time in five weeks, I'm continuing on the Brian Vickers bandwagon, as he's still undervalued in fantasy games. As I mentioned earlier, he's ninth in points, having logged finishes of 12th, 11th, 24th and ninth in the early stages of '08. Vickers has posted a top-20 finish at Bristol in three of the past five races he's run here, and I think he'll at least be inside the top 20 on Sunday. Note also that Vickers is still owned in fewer than 70 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues, despite the fact that he's inside the top 10 in points.
This is exactly the kind of track where I wouldn't have used Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007, when he drove precisely as if his hair were on fire. But I do see a somewhat calmer, more in-control No. 42 here in 2008, and given a dearth of more experienced hands who qualify as "sleepers," I'm going to give a vote of confidence Montoya's way. He finished 17th here in the fall '07 COT event, and averaged right around a top 20 in all COT races last year. If Montoya's aggressiveness and temper can stay in check for the race's first 400 laps or so, he can stay clean enough to give you a top-20 finish Sunday.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: Travis Kvapil, 29th)
Scott Riggs began his racing career in mini-stocks at short tracks around the country, which is why he always has the potential to reel off a decent finish at a place like Bristol. In fact, in the fall of '06 (the last "old car" Bristol event) Riggs finished an impressive fourth, the best result of his Cup career. Driving the No. 66 for Haas-CNC, Riggs is currently 26th in points, which makes him an excellent bet to be inside the top 35 on Monday morning. With that pressure all but removed, here's a guess that Riggs, who's owned in only 10.8 percent of Stock Car Challenge leagues, turns in a top-20 result Sunday. If you're in need of a deep sleeper, I think he's your man.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.