Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.
Kasey Kahne grabs first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of 2013
Kasey Kahne in Bristol's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After leading the most laps last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only to run second to Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne felt he had something to prove on Sunday. And with Bristol Motor Speedway being the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, all the better, as Kahne had yet to win on the tough half-mile racetrack in East Tennessee.
And prove it he did. Kahne got the jump on Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin during the final restart of the Food City 500 and cruised, leading the final 40 laps to notch his first Cup victory on Bristol’s high banks.
“This is a big race (win) for me,” Kahne said. “I just feel like when you’re racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver you really feel like you need to win at, you want to win at. There's so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place.
“We've been trying (to win at Bristol for) a long time. So to pull it off, I felt like it was a big accomplishment for our guys and myself. Just feel really good about it.”
Kahne, who led 109 laps, dueled with Hamlin at the front of the field throughout the afternoon. Keselowski joined the fray with less than 100 laps remaining and the trio swapped the point until Jimmie Johnson blew a tire to bring out the caution with 46 laps to go.
The nine cars at the front of the pack — led by Keselowski and Kahne — elected not to pit. When the green flag waved, Keselowski was bumped from behind by Hamlin, causing his No. 2 Ford to bobble. That momentary loss of traction was all Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy needed.
Kahne held off the aggressive trio of Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer for five laps, then pulled away to a 1.7-second victory. Busch, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart zone,” Keselowski said of the deciding restart. “Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal. That was the deal. Never had another chance.”
The win was Kahne’s first of 2013 after stumbling out of the gate to 36th- and 19th-place finishes. Keselowski’s third-place run was his fourth top 5 in four races this year. He leads in the point standings by nine over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who logged a sixth at Bristol.
As is typical in Bristol’s tight confines, it was a physical 500-mile affair. The race was slowed 10 times for cautions. The most notable came on lap 391, when Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire while leading. He collected second-place Kenseth in the process, ending each driver’s day.
Post-race fireworks erupted when Joey Logano had to be restrained from Hamlin’s parked No. 11 Toyota. Logano had been spun by his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate while the former ran second on lap 349.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car — probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now,” Logano said. “He decided to run into the back of me … I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that. What goes around comes around.”
“He said he was comin’ for me,” Hamlin stated, when asked what Logano said upon confronting him. “I usually don’t see him (on the track), so it’s usually not a factor.
“It’s Bristol racing and everyone is fighting for the top. He knew he had to get to the top (groove) as soon as he could, but I was up there. I did mean to (hit him), but I didn’t mean to wreck him. That was a mistake.”
Logano wasn’t buying it.
“Oh, OK, sure,” Logano said. “If he didn’t mean to wreck me he would have said he was sorry, but he didn’t say that. It’s just frustrating.”
The two drivers engaged in a war of words on Twitter following the Daytona 500, when Hamlin tweeted to Logano's Penske Racing teammate, Keselowski, that he was “sorry I couldn’t get close to you (to draft) cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside lane 1 move at a time.”
The events at Bristol spilled over to the popular social media site once again.
Logano started the string of tweets, saying about their confrontation: “Hey @dennyhamlin great job of protecting that genius brain of yours by keeping your helmet on.”
“Why’s that … what would you do?” replied Hamlin.
“Show you some love and appreciation.”
“Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he’s got a problem,” Hamlin concluded. “Otherwise, hush little child.”
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Bristol so you don't have to.
Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit rolls on to one of its most anticipated stops of spring for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Bristol, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Hottest driver on the circuit. Johnson has an average running position of 4.2, best in the season’s first three races, and has the best average finishing position (3.0) in the series. Also, he has four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, most among active drivers.
2. Brad Keselowski
Not too far behind Johnson in the fast start category (average finish of 3.7) and heads to a track in Bristol where he’s won two of the last three races.
3. Matt Kenseth
Has led a series-high 128 laps this season with 86 of those coming in the Daytona 500. His 25th-place finish in the Bristol night race in August broke a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes there. He’s led in each of the last three Bristol races.
4. Denny Hamlin
Won the Bristol night race in August, leading 70 laps. Has two top-10 finishes in his last three starts there.
5. Kasey Kahne
Has best average start this season (4.0) on the circuit. Has three top-10 finishes in last five races at Bristol and led 42 laps there in the night race.
6. Clint Bowyer
Scored a pair of top-10 finishes last year at Bristol. Best finish so far this season is a sixth at Phoenix.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has been passed 44 more times under green than he’s passed this season and has an average start of 5.7 but average finish of 18.0 in 2013. Has not a had a top-10 finish in the spring Bristol race in the past three years.
8. Tony Stewart
Has not finished better than 14th in his last five Bristol races. Seems to be typical Tony where he starts the season slow (his best finish so far is an eighth at Phoenix).
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has an average running position of 16.6 in the first three races of this season. Has one top-10 finish in last eight races at Bristol.
Kyle Busch (ASP, Inc.)
List-B 1. Kyle Busch
Has highest driver rating in the last 16 races at Bristol and has led the most laps among active drivers during that time. Busch has seven top-10 finishes, including four wins, in his last nine Bristol starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Off to the best start of his career with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Has the best average finish (9.9) of any active driver in the last 16 races at Bristol. However, he’s finished between 11th and 16th in his last five Bristol starts.
3. Brian Vickers
Making season debut in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 car. Finished in the top 5 in both Bristol races in this ride last year, leading 126 laps.
4. Carl Edwards
Last year marked the first time since 2009 that he did not have a top-10 finish in either Bristol race.
5. Greg Biffle
Has been hot and cold at Bristol. Biffle has not had a top-10 finish in his last three starts there. Before that, though, he had four consecutive top-10 results. He has started in the first two rows in three of the last four Bristol races.
6. Paul Menard
He’s among nine drivers to have completed every lap so far this season. Has three top-10 finishes in last four Bristol starts. Also ranks 10th in average running position through three races this year.
7. Martin Truex Jr.
Has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better at Bristol.
8. Ryan Newman
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that Newman did not score at least one top 10 at Bristol. Team could use a rebound after the tough start it has had with two consecutive DNFs (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas).
9. Jamie McMurray
Has four top-10 finishes in his last six Bristol starts. He’s also led laps in two of those races.
10. Joey Logano
Finished eight in last August’s night race and led 139 laps. It was his first top 10 there in eight Cup races. Coming off a 12th-place finish at Las Vegas, his best since joining Penske Racing.
11. Kurt Busch
Still knows his way around Bristol but has not finished better than 17th in his last three trips there.
12. Aric Almirola
Has finished between 13th and 16th in the first three races of the season.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has one top-10 finish in his last four Bristol starts.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished fifth in night race last August and led a lap. Has run in the top 15 in only 11.2 percent of the laps run this season.
15. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last five Bristol races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has not finished better than 13th in his last 10 Bristol starts.
List-C 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Running his first Cup race at Bristol. Finished second in Nationwide race there last August and sixth in the spring. This season, he’s made more green-flag passes in Cup (359) than any other driver, but he’s been passed 358 times under green as well.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Finished in top 20 in last two Bristol starts.
3. Travis Kvapil
Placed 18th in most recent Bristol race, his best finish there in last six starts.
4. David Gilliland
Placed 20th in August race, his best Bristol finish in last nine starts there.
5. Michael McDowell
Finished 23rd in night race last August for best Bristol finish in five starts.
6. Casey Mears
Has an average finish of 24.0 in first three races of the season. His average finish in his last three Bristol races is 23.0.
7. Landon Cassill
Finished in top 30 in both Bristol starts last year (24th and 29th).
8. Danica Patrick
Finished 29th in lone Cup start at Bristol in her career but did finish ninth in August Nationwide race there.
9. David Ragan
Has finished no better than 16th in last six Bristol starts.
10. Dave Blaney
Has failed to finish six of the last eight Bristol races with his best finish during that time 25th.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished no better than 21st in last three Bristol races since placing second there in August 2010.
12. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, placed 28th at Phoenix and 36th at Las Vegas.
13. Scott Speed
Has failed to finish the last two races, placing 41st at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
14. Terry Labonte
This would mark only his second Bristol start since 2009. Last ran there in 2011 night race, finishing 33rd.
15. Josh Wise
Finished 38th and 43rd in Bristol races last year.
16. David Stremme
Has yet to run a lap in the top 15 in a race this season.
17. Scott Riggs
Has finished 41st or worse in each of his last three Bristol starts.
18. Mike Bliss
Finished 43rd in August race, only Bristol start he made last year. Has failed to qualify for two of the first three races of the season.
19. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish last seven Bristol races, placing no better than 39th.
The defending winner of the Food City 500, Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
Brian Vickers will race MWR's No. 55 Toyota at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
4.000 Through eight races in 2012, Brian Vickers, who makes his 2013 Cup Series debut Sunday, earned a series-best 4.000 PEER, which measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. Two of those races were at Bristol.
Surface schmurface, Vickers was good on both Bristol iterations last season, finishing fifth in the spring race (he led 125 laps) and fourth in August. Considering this specific facility comprised 25 percent of his schedule last season, it’s no wonder that the Hendrick castoff produced at a rate far beyond his average.
Bristol might also be a haven for Vickers in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race; after two finishes of 17th or worse have relegated him to seventh in the series standings, a kind track could alleviate the relatively underwhelming results for the former series champ driving in stellar equipment.
+40 August 2012 Bristol victor Denny Hamlin was an adept passer in his race-winning effort, recording a pass differential of plus-40.
A good-passing race car can go a long way at any track. Bristol is no different. In last August’s race, the first on the re-worked surface, Hamlin scored the win after totaling 57 green-flag passes, 40 more than the amount of times he was passed. Similarly, Jimmie Johnson finished second thanks in large part to his +28 pass differential.
139 Joey Logano, in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, led a race-high 139 laps (that’s over a quarter of the race) in last August’s 500-lap event at Bristol.
Logano started fourth, took his initial lead on lap 27 and led on three more occasions during the race. His average running position of 7.24 ranked second that evening, but led to an eighth-place finish. This nugget presents an interesting dynamic. Logano now drives for Penske Racing, an organization that fielded a winning entry for Brad Keselowski last season and a front-row effort for AJ Allmendinger. The No. 20 JGR car is now driven by Matt Kenseth, the winner of last week’s race at Las Vegas, who led 25 laps in last August’s race. Both Logano, the driver and No. 20, the car should be key players in Sunday’s race.
9 for 25+ Nine different drivers led 25 laps or more in last August’s race at Bristol.
Want some competition that includes different names in the lead? I can’t guarantee it, but if last August’s race was any indication, there could be a flurry of activity at the front of the field. The high laps-led total for each driver is a result of there being a large number of laps in the race (500 to be exact), but the wide array of names is a fascinating occurrence. Leading isn’t everything, though. Of the nine drivers that led — Logano (139), Hamlin (70), Jimmie Johnson (52), Carl Edwards (45), Martin Truex Jr. (44), Kasey Kahne (42), Greg Biffle (41), Casey Mears (26) and Kenseth (25) — only Hamlin and Johnson finished inside the top 5.