NASCAR Silly Season finally takes off at a time short track racing is heating up
Bristol Motor Speedway's August night race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is known for frayed tempers, wild wrecks and sparks flying on the racetrack. Reports of a narrower racing groove this year could bring the bump-and-runs and grinding fenders back to previous highs. (After all, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of one of Bristol's most memorable finishes: Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s spin-to-win "rattle his cage" move that dumped Terry Labonte and led to a chorus of boos in Victory Lane).
But this week, thus far all the sparks have been flying off the racetrack. NASCAR Silly Season, after spending the summer parked on a beach somewhere has finally started to hit high gear. It all started Thursday when Matt DiBenedetto revealed he won’t return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 in 2020. That ride will go to either Christopher Bell in a promotion from NASCAR's Xfinity Series or Erik Jones if Bell moves into Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20. It’s clear the JGR alliance had a hand in forcing this move.
But the dominoes didn't stop falling there. David Ragan announced he's retiring from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of the 2019 season. Ragan, once one of the sport's hotly pursued young talents, has been stuck in second-tier rides the past eight years after full-time primary sponsor UPS left the sport. Only 33 years old, he's choosing to sit on the sidelines recognizing his window of opportunity may have passed.
Then, rookie Daniel Hemric raised eyebrows yesterday when he said his situation is "iffy" for the 2020 Cup season. Hemric leads this year's Rookie of the Year race and has slowly developed despite the disadvantage of Richard Childress Racing equipment. No RCR-aligned car is in position to make the playoffs and no driver has more than a single top-5 finish. But their Xfinity Series phenom, Tyler Reddick, is lighting up the sport's second-tier division and could win a second straight title. His success may force their hand if sponsorship keeps RCR from expanding from two to three teams.
It all adds up to a lot of extra pressure cooked inside a Bristol melting pot where tempers typically boil over already. The weekend has already produced two outstanding minor league races with bizarre outcomes. Brett Moffitt won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series affair marked by 12 cautions and a tow truck wrecking fellow competitor Natalie Decker. Then, Reddick prevailed in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race where Kyle Busch blew an engine after winning a stage and likely winner Justin Allgaier blew a tire with less than 10 laps left.
It’s a full moon type of week, it seems where anything can happen and likely will with just three races left until NASCAR's playoffs. Remember, last year was a wild one with Kyle Busch involved in multiple wrecks, a late spin by Brad Keselowski changing the trajectory and Kurt Busch surging to take the win over Clint Bowyer. This one has the potential to be even wilder. Two of the top-5 qualifiers (Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola) have yet to win this year while DiBenedetto starts seventh with his career on the line. Further back, Jimmie Johnson rolls off 30th with his bid to make the playoffs getting more desperate by the day.
Get ready for one crazy night. If you watch only a handful of NASCAR races per year, the August Bristol night race is absolutely one you shouldn't miss.
Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup for Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin was the runner-up finisher at Michigan International Speedway last weekend but he's been flying under the radar lately as a championship contender. Hamlin has three wins on the year, tied for his most since 2012, and is riding a streak of four straight top-3 finishes. Now, the short track specialist starts from the pole in Bristol and has two solid racetracks up ahead to close the regular season in Darlington (6.2 average finish) and Indianapolis (a race he should have won in 2018).
Who’s at the Back: Aric Almirola
Last year's surprise title contender, meanwhile, appears out of sync heading into the playoffs. A driver who's prided himself on consistency since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola's posted five straight races without a top-10 finish. That streak is paired with outstanding qualifying efforts, too; Almirola's lost an average of nine positions from where he started each race.
While SHR as a whole seems to be getting itself together (see: Kevin Harvick's two wins the past month) they need to do some work for their No. 10 team to join in the fun.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family are thankful to be OK after a terrifying plane crash at Elizabethton Airport in Tennessee. Earnhardt, his wife Amy, daughter Isla, their dog, and two pilots escaped a terrifying landing in which the NTSB explained the plane bounced twice, skidded off the runway and caught fire. Horrifying first-person video of the wreck showed how the plane actually ended up on a highway outside the airport encapsulated by the catch fencing it plowed through. Earnhardt, understandably, has taken the weekend off NBCSN broadcasting to be with his family.
Rick Ware Racing and rock band Slayer have parted ways before even partnering up. The rock band was scheduled to be the primary sponsor for a new fourth team debuting this weekend with JJ Yeley driving. Instead? They’re off the car after other RWR sponsors complained about the partnership. Slayer, a heavy metal band, is known for pushing the envelope with songs like "Raining Blood" and "Angel of Death."
"After 40 years," the band said in a statement. "Slayer apparently remains as terrifying to some as ever."
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Ryan Preece at Michigan, the best of his Cup career for the rookie outside of superspeedways Daytona and Talladega.
DNFs this season for Clint Bowyer after wrecking out a Michigan, tying a career high. Five of them have been for wrecks.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
After getting over the hump and earning his first short-track victory in the Cup Series, Martin Truex Jr. is poised to get on a roll. He starts third and was in position to earn a top-5 finish in the August night race last year until Kyle Busch's bumper got in the way. So don't let his recent history here fool you; two DNFs for wrecks the last three times out mean luck is due to finally turn his way.
We've extolled the virtues of Denny Hamlin at Bristol already. But think about the bonus points you'll get from starting Kyle Busch (who rolls off 30th) instead. Busch has three wins in the past four times out at Bristol and is frustrated over last night's engine failure in the Xfinity Series. The risk is he crashes out on the way to the front but make no mistake – the No. 18 Toyota is headed there.
A postseason bid and perhaps Clint Bowyer's NASCAR future could be on the line this weekend at Bristol. Bowyer has three straight top-10 finishes at the track and was in position to win last August before a series of late restarts. Inconsistent as of late, the pressure is on to put together a top-tier performance and I have a sneaking suspicion Bowyer will come through.
Kyle Larson starts second and has four top-10 Bristol finishes in the past five races held here. Larson's teammate, Kurt Busch, won the Bristol night race last August and is also flashing top-5 speed. You certainly can't go wrong with either Chip Ganassi Racing pick.
It's a broken record to put Matt DiBenedetto in this space. I don't like leaving drivers there this many weeks in a row but the news about his contract puts him in a must-impress situation at the No. 95. And Bristol is the perfect place to put together a top-tier audition; he was sixth in a severely underfunded car here years ago and ran 12th in this ride back in the spring.
Ross Chastain has never run better than 26th in his career at Bristol. But he starts last in his Premium Motorsports ride and could be in position to earn some positive differential points. Sometimes, survival is all you need here to ride out of town with a top-20 finish.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the way with 5/2 odds on the weekend. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano are next with 7/1 odds. Looking for a longshot? The retiring David Ragan sits at 2000/1.
What I Think
I'll go with a bit of a surprise on a wild weekend. Let's say Clint Bowyer finds a way to the front and cashes in with his first victory of 2019.