After a weekend off during the heart of the Olympics, NASCAR hopes America takes a break from Rio Saturday night to sneak a peek at one of their sport’s marquee events: the Bristol Night Race. The half-mile coliseum of speed used to be one of the hardest tickets to get in the country: 160,000 seats, sold out, with a waiting list rivaling the Green Bay Packers.
Thunder Valley’s lack of thunderous crowds is perhaps the most worrisome statistic in NASCAR’s latest chapter of declining interest. The spring event at Bristol featured some of the better racing we’ve seen all season, 16 lead changes along with plenty of close competition. There was contact (15 caution flags) but not the kind that brings a safety red flag along with it. Established stars, like winner Carl Edwards shared the limelight with surprising underdogs like Landon Cassill, who led a small portion of the race, and sixth-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto. Sparks flew, emotions ran high and unpredictability ruled the day.
What more could you want?
That’s a question Bristol has been trying to answer for years. Ever since a repaving changed the configuration of the track, making it slightly easier to pass instead of the bump and run, some fans feel a portion of the speedway’s allure has been lost. Winning them back over has been a futile effort; so has cutting back some of the prices on nearby hotels. The end result has been a sellout for this fall’s college football event here but ho-hum interest in what the track was actually built for: racing.
Saturday night is a crucial marker for teams hoping to sneak into the postseason Chase. But perhaps the bigger question is whether NASCAR can convince fans to buy into all the excitement.
2016 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Saturday)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Brad Keselowski
In a summer where we’ve seen a variety of faces up front it’s Keselowski, a four-time winner this season, who ekes out front in terms of consistency. His No. 2 car hasn’t finished outside the top 20 since Phoenix, the fourth race of the season, while Texas in April was the last time he fell off the lead lap. Two of his four wins have come on intermediates; the others came at the dangerous plate tracks that wipe out championship dreams in an instant. Those are the type of stats you need to work through NASCAR’s multi-round postseason format and wind up at Homestead.
One caveat for Keselowski could come in the form of Kyle Busch, though. The two drivers tangled Friday night in the XFINITY race and there’s no love lost between the two of them. As teammate Joey Logano found out the hard way last fall, tangling with on-track enemies at the wrong time on the calendar comes back to bite you.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
NASCAR’s reigning six-time champ is suffering through a six-pack of bad races. Watkins Glen offered up a last-place finish, simply unheard of for Johnson who’s now scored two – count ‘em, two – top-10 finishes since Memorial Day weekend. A team that typically starts peaking heading toward the Chase has instead posted runs of 35th, 32nd, 12th, 3rd, 16th and 40th over a stretch where they’ve led just one lap. Add in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion woes and Hendrick Motorsports finds itself in the weakest position we’ve seen them in NASCAR to win a title this century.
The aforementioned Hendrick team tried to shore up their future this week by signing Toyota’s phenom William Byron away from Kyle Busch Motorsports. Byron, who will run a full-time XFINITY schedule next season, has five victories as a rookie in Camping World Truck Series competition. More importantly, he’s still a teenager, a freshman in college who joins an organization fielding two drivers on the Cup level over 40.
Young Matt Tifft was at Bristol this weekend, meeting with reporters and updating his recovery from brain surgery. Tifft, who hopes to return to competition by 2017, has a late-model stock car test planned in Hickory, N.C., this fall. His brain is not at risk for seizures, according to doctors and has been pronounced cancer free after the removal of his tumor.
Ben Kennedy’s Truck Series win at Bristol this week produced a weird bullet point in NASCAR history. Kennedy, the son of NASCAR’s Lesa France Kennedy, is the first member of the France family to win any NASCAR-sanctioned national series event. He’s now a participant in the Truck’s postseason Chase and will have an opportunity to compete for the family’s first-ever championship.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Danica Patrick in 2016. Patrick has had at least one in each of her previous three seasons driving on the Cup level.
Top-10 finishes for Patrick’s teammate, Kevin Harvick. That leads all drivers.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The pattern for Matt Kenseth at Bristol has been erratic as of late but it’s also predictable. Win, 13th, 3rd, win, 42nd, 36th. ?? Anyone who’s taken fifth-grade math knows how to fill in that blank. Kenseth, who’s led more than 800 laps at Bristol since 2011 is due at a track his team, Joe Gibbs Racing, mastered in the spring with Carl Edwards.
Kurt Busch has continued his trek toward NASCAR history by completing every lap in the season’s first 22 events. Busch, who hasn’t won at Bristol since 2006, does have four straight top-15 finishes there and has shown a knack all season to recover from adversity. At Bristol, that’s a crucial fantasy attribute as wrecks can develop here in the blink of an eye.
Ryan Newman, looking to shore up a Chase bid as well as a long-term contract with Richard Childress Racing, has had middling Bristol success. But with six straight top-20 runs at the track, including a ninth this spring, he’s a safe bet to stay out of trouble. A riskier pick would be teammate Austin Dillon, 26th in the spring race this season but a driver who’s flashed some speed at Thunder Valley. He was the winner of Friday night’s XFINITY event after Keselowski and Busch tangled down the stretch.
Chase Elliott, who has little experience at Bristol in a Cup car, did post a top-5 finish here in the spring. Hendrick’s struggles have been well-documented in this article but the No. 24 team is worth a flier if you think this track can turn them around.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn’t typically a “go to” on any fantasy roster. But in seven career Bristol starts? A driver known for maddening inconsistency hasn’t run lower than 21st. He’s a pretty safe bet to do well again here.
Another “outside the box” pick might be Landon Cassill of Front Row Motorsports. Cassill led part of the race this spring, ran 22nd despite late-race contact and drives for an organization still riding momentum from their shocking Pocono victory, courtesy teammate Chris Buescher. FRM has nothing to lose and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them try strategy in a bid to thrust Cassill out front once again.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Kyle Busch leading the way with 5/1 odds to take the Bristol trophy home. Kevin Harvick is right behind him at 15/2.
What I Think
Matt Kenseth continues his roller-coaster pattern at Bristol. During a wild race, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota will stay out of trouble, breeze past pole-sitter Edwards and cruise to Victory Lane at Thunder Valley.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)