Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell