Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 was the season's first 1.5-mile oval race of the season. As expected, the top teams looked competitive. Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing made their presences felt. Those names could be indicative of who will be charging hard for the championship since so much of the schedule is made up of these types of tracks.
Kasey Kahne appeared to have the best car throughout much of the afternoon. He led the most laps on the day, but fell behind in the final pit stops. The track position he lost ultimately was the key to victory for Matt Kenseth. The birthday boy was not as quick as Kahne, but the track position Kenseth picked up on the final stop put him in position to defend the lead. The tires on his machine gave him just enough grip to keep the hard-charging Kahne behind him for the victory.
Excitement will grow even more for this week. The tiny bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway is in store. Tempers typically flare at the tight track, and rarely does a car come home without damage. Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin split the last five victories at the track, making them top choices this week.
Matt Kenseth - Last Sunday was Kenseth's day. It was his birthday, and he did everything he could to keep the competition behind him from the final pit stop to the checkered flag. The No. 20 wasn't the best car on the track last week, but shrewd calls in the pits and tenacious driving on the track enabled Kenseth to hold off a charging Kasey Kahne for the win. Kenseth's past five Bristol races have been superb as well. He took four top-10s and two top-5s from those races, earning a 9.4 average finish. Coming off of his first win for Joe Gibbs Racing last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he is the driver to beat this week.
Brad Keselowski - With two wins in the last five Bristol races, Keselowski should certainly be at the top of fantasy rosters this week. His average finish in those five efforts is 13.8 with an average start of 10.6, and recorded no DNFs despite the tough track. The team bounced back from some early trouble Sunday in the Kobalt Tools 400 to scrape back a top-5 in a somewhat heroic performance. The result was his third top-5 of the season, and Keselowski looks intent on defending his title. Given the team's resourcefulness, and Keselowski's skill in the tight confines of Bristol Motor Speedway, fantasy owners should definitely consider him for a starting role this week.
Denny Hamlin - While Hamlin is a driver anyone would automatically put in the Upgrade list at Bristol, a few things stack up against his favor this week. First, he was fined for saying that the new generation 6 cars don't race as well as the last version, and controversy is a distraction. Second, his recent Bristol statistics, despite a win and another top-10, push his finish average down to 19.0 in the last five efforts. Despite these factors, Hamlin cannot be counted out at Bristol. He races well at the track, and the aerodynamics he complained about won't be as big a factor on the tight track. He finished 15th Sunday after struggling in Las Vegas and will be hungry to turn things around quickly.
Martin Truex Jr. - Michael Waltrip Racing is knocking on the door of big things. Truex could burst through that door this weekend at Bristol. His average finish in the last five races there is 10.0, and includes two top-5 finishes. Sunday he drove home to a solid top-10 finish, nearly picking off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final run to the line. Truex now has his first top-10 of the year under his belt and will be hungry for more as the series heads for one of his better tracks. Truex could carry the banner for MWR this season and should be a very valuable play this week at Bristol.
Jamie McMurray - If there was a week fantasy owners could feel confident selecting McMurray, this would be it. His average finish in the last five bullring starts is 10.6, with two top-5s and another top-10. Only once in those starts did he finish off the lead lap. Making things even brighter, McMurray had a solid afternoon Sunday in Las Vegas where he finished 13th, running in the top 15 all afternoon. It wasn't a day that will stand out in anyone's mind for the No. 1 team, but it was a respectable result and the kind of outing that builds confidence. This team has suffered more than many the last few seasons, and it could be time to earn something to smile about.
Kyle Busch - You can't mention racing at Bristol without mentioning Kyle Busch. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car claimed four of the last eight wins at the track and claims an average result of 10.8 in his last five tries. Busch drove to a top-5 finish Sunday in Las Vegas, which was his best of the season. After two disappointing races, the team will be relieved to have a top-5 in the bag and some momentum on their side. Despite the challenges he has had so far this season, Busch is still a driver who can accomplish great things, especially at Bristol.
Tony Stewart - Stewart looks like a serious contender so far this season, but he slipped a bit in Las Vegas, and Bristol could be yet another challenge. He hasn't scored any top finishes in the last five races there, and has only managed a 23.0 average finish with just two lead-lap finishes. Stewart was one of the many drivers whose car started presenting a very loose condition right from the start. He nearly fell off of the lead lap when a caution saved him, but ultimately was doing all he could to stay there, never moving forward. Still, perseverance netted him an 11th-place finish from what would otherwise have been a very disappointing day. A breakthrough this week likely is not in the cards.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Despite having a respectable average finish of 13.4 from the last five Bristol races, Earnhardt didn't score any top-10 finishes to earn it. While his consistency at the track could be attractive, his only win there came in 2004. Additionally, he hasn't scored a top-5 there since 2008. There is no reason you couldn't choose Earnhardt this weekend, but his edge for a top finish hasn't been seen at this track for a few seasons. He turned in a good top-10 performance last week, and more performances like that will put him into contention for the Chase. Earnhardt, while a decent option this week, doesn't jump out as a top contender.
Joey Logano - Logano scored his best finish to date for his new team Sunday in Las Vegas, a 12th-place run and his second finish in the top 15 this season. Logano has looked competitive at times in his new ride, and certainly some of the promise is back in this young driver's future. Despite having a new lease on life at Penske Racing, Logano must clear this week's Bristol hurdle. In the last five races at the track his average finish is 15.6, and included just two lead-lap finishes and a lone top-10. Things are certainly looking up for the young driver, but until that promise turns to results, owners should take caution.
Ryan Newman - Newman was already running a lap down to the leaders as Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 moved into the final segment. He wrecked in Phoenix after a front-tire issue, and Sunday's race was no turnaround. To make the difficult day worse, Newman missed a shift on a late restart and the engine gave way, causing a DNF. The last five Bristol races produced three top-10 finishes for the No. 39, however his average finish in that time is 14.4. He failed to finish once, and hasn't been a driver who has shown he can consistently run in the top 5 at the track. Newman is in somewhat of a sluggish patch at the moment, making him a driver fantasy owners should think twice about.
Clint Bowyer - Two DNFs in the last five Bristol races help make Bowyer's average finish at the track low at 15.2. The three other finishes in that time have all been top-10s, but he struggled Sunday in Las Vegas and will have to show improvement this week. Bowyer was barely hanging on to the top 30 with less than 50 laps remaining Sunday while battling a loose car. His sole top-10 so far this season came two weeks ago in Phoenix, which is not mirroring the strong 2012 season the team put together. Bowyer and team should turn things around before the year is out, but the season is off to a sluggish start, and Bristol is projected to offer more of the same.