Just three regular season races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Only three playoff spots are left open for drivers yet to win a race.
Looks like Thunder Valley is about to get some thunderous competition.
Six of the top 12 drivers on the grid for Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, including rookie pole sitter Erik Jones, are winless this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Jones, sophomore Chase Elliott (4th) and fellow freshman Daniel Suarez (12th) will be looking to make their mark with a surprise victory that would sew up a postseason bid. Their names would be a refreshing change from the Martin Truex Jr. summer sizzle, dominance that has left everyone else running on seven cylinders by comparison.
Each driver in that young trio can also lay claim to momentum as of late. Jones ran third at Michigan, Elliott was eighth while Suarez finished runner-up to Kyle Busch in the Friday night XFINITY Series preliminary event at Bristol. Looks like the sport’s “young gun” movement remains alive and well.
Those youngsters will go toe-to-toe with veterans seeking a breakthrough. Matt Kenseth, a former Bristol winner, qualified fifth and currently holds a 31-point advantage over Clint Bowyer for the final playoff spot. Jamie McMurray, starting 11th, is looking to prove he’s more than just an occasional winner on plate tracks. Even Joey Logano (eighth) will be trying to put an encumbered victory at Richmond behind him to earn an upset win.
In the midst of it all will be Kyle Busch, two-for-two so far at Bristol this weekend and looking for a rare triple sweep. He’ll start 18th and need to climb through traffic in a race that should be aggressive from the start.
Sure, NASCAR has had its share of yawners during the course of the summer. But a Saturday night at this short track? With this type of setup? Anything less than one of the season’s best races would have to be considered a disappointment.
Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, TN)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
After struggling late in the race at Michigan, it looked like rival Martin Truex Jr. would get the best of Larson. But the final restart, a green-white-checkered finish, saw this Chip Ganassi Racing driver look as if he was shot out of a cannon. One of the year’s best moves put the No. 42 through traffic and sitting out front by the exit of turn 2. Larson coasted from there, earning his third straight Michigan victory and ending a slump of three straight races outside the top 20.
Who’s at the Back: Joey Logano
Team Penske had high hopes to push Logano into the postseason at Michigan. A 1-2 qualifying effort for him and Brad Keselowski brought back memories of an impressive win there in June 2016.
But Logano never led a lap this time around. Slowly fading back through the pack, outside the top 10 by the end of stage two, a blown tire late added insult to injury. Logano wound up 28th, his third straight run outside the top 20 at three of his best tracks on the circuit. One of the preseason favorites for the title now looks almost certain to miss the playoffs entirely.
A one-year loan has turned into a permanent ride for Chris Buescher. The former Roush Fenway Racing prospect sent to JTG-Daugherty Racing when there wasn’t a spot for him in 2017 there has now signed a multi-year contract with that team. Buescher, who has driven the No. 37 Chevrolet to three top-10 finishes this season, will remain teammates with AJ Allmendinger as the middle-class NASCAR outfit looks to build their operation into a contender. “We built our team from the ground up this season,” the driver said of his new ride. “I’m really thankful to be able to continue in 2018 and beyond.”
Brad Keselowski Racing announced their two-car Truck Series operation would shut down at the end of the 2017 season. BKR, who has fielded a team for a decade, employs full-time drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Keselowski claims he’s making the change as part of a long-term plan to reposition him to be a Cup Series team owner down the road. “I want to start to prepare for that possibility now,” he explained. “Part of that preparation is seeking to develop an advanced engineering and manufacturing company that would be housed out of our 78,000-square foot facility in Statesville and ultimately help to support this vision.”
Keselowski will help to place employees with other jobs for 2018. His team is the second major truck operation to shut down after Red Horse Racing closed its doors unexpectedly earlier in 2017.
Denny Hamlin and longtime girlfriend Jordan Fish welcomed their second child into the world on Tuesday. Molly Gold Hamlin is doing well along with the rest of the family.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead-lap finishes for Jeffrey Earnhardt this season in 21 starts. He’s the only full-time driver on the Cup Series circuit without one.
Lead-lap finishes for Kevin Harvick this season in 23 starts to lead all Cup drivers. Only three wrecks, two of which occurred at Daytona have kept him from completing every lap of every race thus far.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr., the two best drivers all season in the Cup Series, led 318 of 500 laps at Bristol in the spring. Both will likely be contenders again. But in a race where others are far more desperate, take a look at Matt Kenseth. He was fourth in the spring, has won twice in Thunder Valley in the last four years and earned 21 career top-10 finishes at the track. The No. 20 Toyota will be at its best Saturday night and could benefit from the strong setup offered by teammate Kyle Busch.
Fellow playoff contender Clint Bowyer was runner-up in the spring at Bristol, his best effort this season driving the No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. Bowyer has never won at this track but has 11 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts, earning an average finish of 15.1. He even ran eighth in the spring of 2016 running for underfunded HScott Motorsports. Put him on your roster.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t won at Bristol either but in nine career starts, he’s never finished worse than 21st. The Roush Fenway Racing driver is five-for-nine on top-10 finishes at Thunder Valley and is second and ninth in his last two races there. Add in a credible 11th for Trevor Bayne at Bristol this spring and anyone from Roush Fenway Racing seems like a sure bet.
Matt DiBenedetto, recently re-signed for 2018 by Go FAS Racing, heads to one of his best tracks feeling good. Bristol typically keeps his spirits high, producing three top-20 finishes in a row for a guy who struggles virtually everywhere else. DiBenedetto will likely come at a bargain price but trust me; he’s a gamble worth taking.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is eking out the best Bristol odds, holding at 9/2 over Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. Matt Kenseth is fourth on the list at 9/1.
What I Think
A winless driver makes a long-awaited breakthrough. Matt Kenseth, 45 and still seeking a ride for 2018, puts his playoff bubble status to rest by breaking through under the lights at Bristol.
(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)