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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Bristol in last three years

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There are a lot of wild card races on the calendar each year. All four races on the restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), as well as the three road courses come immediately to mind. But what happens when a race on one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks goes so horribly awry as it did last week?

Fantasy players simply have to pick themselves up and wash the dust from their feet – just like all the drivers involved in last week’s carnage.

An unfortunate pairing on the schedule puts Bristol Motor Speedway next in line, however. This half-mile bullring where cars circle in 15 seconds is often a chaotic mess. Little mistakes are compounded by how quickly drivers can lose laps and accidents can clog up the straightaways to create multi-car pileups.

As a result, streaks are hard to come by and only two of this week’s 10-best drivers over the past three years have average finishes better than 10th. They are the ones to watch closely in practice and qualification, but be prepared to make last minute adjustments on race day.

Players who have not already joined the NASCAR America Fantasy league can still do so at nascar.com/nbcsportsfantasy, and then share their team using #NASCARAmericaFantasy.

1. Jimmie Johnson, (three-year average: 8.00)
Is this the week Johnson finally breaks his career-worst winless streak? Probably not, given how many things can go wrong at Bristol, but he won last spring’s Food City 500 and finished second in the 2015 edition.

2. Erik Jones (9.50 in two starts)
Jones has only two starts at Bristol so it is much too soon to make any sweeping judgements. His near-miss and second-place finish last fall makes him a great garage pick in the NASCAR America Fantasy Live league, however.

3. Kevin Harvick (9.83)
Entering the fall 2015 race, Harvick had not earned a top 10 at Bristol in eight races. He was second in that event and has not finished worse than eighth in five races since.

4. Denny Hamlin (10.83)
With three consecutive third-place finishes, Hamlin is much better in the fall at Bristol than the spring. In his last three Food City 500 efforts, he has only one top 10 and an average of 18.7.

5. Chase Elliott (11.00 in four starts; tied with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.)
After getting penalized 20 points for an infraction at Texas, Elliott is going to want to make it up this week. Bristol is not the track one wants to come with something to prove.

6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (11.00; tied with Elliott)
In fantasy racing, predictability makes a driver’s stats more meaningful. Stenhouse has finished worse than 16th only twice in his 10-race career at Bristol and came close to winning twice with runner-up finishes.

7. Jamie McMurray (11.67)
Several drivers had season-best results last week at Texas, but McMurray may have had the most dramatic run with his third-place finish. At Bristol, he has a seven-race streak of top 15s.

8. Ryan Newman (12.00)
With the exception of crash damage that caused him to finish more than 20 laps off the pace in fall 2016, Newman has finished in the top 15 at Bristol in the past three years.

9. Clint Bowyer (12.83)
Bowyer has been getting progressively better in the spring race with a 12th in 2015, an eighth in 2016 and his runner-up finish to Johnson last year.

10. Trevor Bayne (13.00)
Like his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Stenhouse, Bayne has been one of the best dark horses in the field whenever NASCAR comes to Bristol. In six career starts there, he has five top 15s and a best of fifth in the 2016 Food City 500.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Denny Hamlin has four front row starts at Bristol. Three of these were poles with the most recent coming in 2015. That makes him a front runner for the top spot.

Segment Winners: Bristol is hard to handicap. That is not only true at the end of the race, but during the segments as well. Last year, four different drivers won the four segments, but going back two years, Kyle Busch has been at the front most often at those critical junctures. He should be the pick for segment two. For segment one, pick a front row starter after qualification is in the books.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.