Sorting through the short track drama to find NASCAR's best at Thunder Valley
The DraftKings daily fantasy NASCAR game heads to the midwest this weekend for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will make its second stop at Bristol Motor Speedway this Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m.
Cars were on-track on Friday morning for first practice, led by Denny Hamlin. Erik Jones then won the Coors Light Pole Award later that afternoon. The series now waits for the green flag to wave on 500 laps of competition.
ELITE TIER: $9,500 and up
Kyle Busch ($10,800)
Bristol: 24 starts, five wins, eight top fives (33.3 percent), 13 top 10s (54.2 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 15.1
Busch is one of the best drivers to ever hit the high banks of Bristol. After dominating the Camping World Truck Series contest Wednesday evening, he went two-for-two and took the XFINITY Series checkered flag Friday night.
Since a win at Pocono Raceway, Busch is riding high on momentum, earning three straight top 10s in the Cup Series. Additionally, he's led 14 or more laps in six straight races, including leading the most circuits at Pocono and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though he hasn't won at Bristol in Cup competition since 2011 and has three straight finishes of 35th or worse, Busch is quite confident entering the weekend. After leading 256 laps in last year's event, there's no reason he can't go out and win on Saturday.
Kyle Larson ($10,500)
Bristol: Seven starts, zero wins, zero top fives, three top 10s (42.9 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 19.3
Larson's stock is incredibly high after winning at Michigan last weekend, and rightfully so. However, he hasn't performed as well as his price tag makes it seem. Prior to an unbelievable restart to pass the Furniture Row Racing cars at Michigan, he clearly did not have a winning car.
With three straight mediocre finishes of 23rd or worse at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Watkins Glen, the No. 42 team clearly was missing a four-leaf clover. But the Michigan win brings momentum to Larson's side, and Bristol is a place where he could use it. He finished sixth at Bristol in March, a disappointing end after leading the first 202 markers.
Expect Larson to do better this weekend. Saturday night will show us whether that sizzling Michigan finish was enough to put his summer slump behind him.
Kevin Harvick ($9,800)
Bristol: 33 starts, two wins, 12 top fives (36.4 percent), 16 top 10s (48.5 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 13.6
Harvick hasn't been a contender for the win in each of the past two races, finishing outside of the top 10 in both contests. However, his No. 4 machine is almost always hot at Bristol.
Over the past four races at Thunder Valley, the former Cup champion has been near the front when the checkered flag flew. Besides leading 128 laps en route to a win at Bristol last August, he also led 14 laps in March's race before finishing third.
ALL-STAR TIER: $8,000 – $9,400
Matt Kenseth ($9,400)
Bristol: 35 starts, four wins, 14 top fives (40 percent), 21 top 10s (60 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 13.9
Bristol hasn't been all too kind to this aging veteran since 2015. With only one top five (2017) at Bristol since his 2015 triumph, Kenseth is looking to pick up where he left off in March.
But as pressure continues in Kenseth's attempt to qualify for the playoffs, his No. 20 team is closing in on Victory Lane. Since New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month, he's run quite well, earning three top fives over the past five races. After a disappointing finish at Michigan International Speedway due to a faulty final restart, Bristol could be the turnaround Kenseth needs as he seeks a new gig for 2018.
Chase Elliott ($9,200)
Bristol: Three starts, zero wins, one top five, two top 10s
Average finish at Bristol: 8.7
The No. 24 team is still winless in 2017. But Bristol is known to be one of Elliott's best tracks of his young career. Sitting 14th on the playoff grid, he's in a very tenuous position entering this weekend. Earning his first Cup trophy could be the ultimate reward - and relief - Hendrick Motorsports is looking for before the playoffs begin.
In Elliott's limited Cup experience at Bristol, he has a pair of top 10s, including a fourth-place finish in his Bristol debut. And one cannot forget this sophomore has four XFINITY Series starts at Thunder Valley, featuring a third-place result in 2014.
As Elliott gets ready for the playoffs, he needs to turn the momentum around. Finishing eighth at Michigan could be the start of a shift in results, but Bristol will prove whether or not this team is ready to compete for wins.
Clint Bowyer ($8,800)
Bristol: 23 starts, zero wins, seven top fives (30.4 percent), 11 top 10s (47.8 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 15.1
Bowyer is another driver who most win in order to lock himself into the playoffs. What better way to do it than earning his first Bristol triumph? After earning his first runner-up finish with Stewart-Haas Racing at Thunder Valley earlier this year, the Kansas native yearns to walk the yellow brick road to Victory Lane at this half-mile oval.
With three top-eight finishes in the past four races at Bristol, Bowyer is consistently up front here. While Michigan didn't end the way he wanted to (23rd) the driver of the No. 14 car could still earn win No. 1 of 2017 Saturday night.
BARGAIN TIER: $4,500 – $7,900
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($7,700)
Bristol: Nine starts, zero wins, three top fives (33.33 percent), five top 10s (55.6 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 10.4
Stenhouse is quite the short track racer, and he's very underrated at Bristol. For just $7,700, this multi-time winner in 2017 is an optimal choice at the half-mile speedway.
Stenhouse finished ninth at Bristol in March, and he's consistently running up front no matter how the track surface has been. While Stenhouse is struggling as of late, running no better than 14th (twice) since his Daytona International Speedway win, Bristol could be the turnaround the No. 17 team has been seeking. A strong run could go a long way for this team to reset prior to the playoffs.
Chris Buescher ($6,000)
Bristol: Four starts, zero wins, one top five (25 percent), one top 10 (25 percent)
Average finish at Bristol: 22.5
Fresh off a contract extension, the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet is riding cloud nine on and off the track. On the track, he's hitting his groove in the second JTG-Daugherty Racing car as the team gets rid of all the issues it had to start the year. Off it, he finally has a stable home, not having to worry where he'll be in the future for the first time in his short Cup career.
Buescher has a pair of top 10s in the last four races, including a sixth-place result at Michigan. Last year, he ran exceptionally well at Bristol, finishing fifth in the No. 34 car after running inside the top 10 for the majority of the race. With momentum on his side, Buescher is poised to have a great run this weekend.
(Photos courtesy of NASCAR.com)