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