NASCAR can change plenty of things (as they’ve shown us) but there’s one aspect of racing always out of their control: Mother Nature. After a clean start to the season, one where rain has had minimal impact on the weekend, it looks like Bristol is set to be a bit of a wash.
Thunder Valley is dealing with, well, thunder. Qualifying has already been canceled, the field set by points and the forecast for Sunday’s 500-lapper is iffy at best. Even with new rules in effect, ones where NASCAR could move start times up by as much as an hour, it won’t make much difference. Chances are 40-50 percent, depending on which meteorologist you trust, the race will run late Sunday night or even Monday.
That’s tough for a sport coming off one of its two major off weeks and looking to reestablish momentum. Bristol has always been a marquee event for the sport; the night race, until recent years was a 160,000-person sellout every year. Short tracks produce parity and unpredictability; they also reduce dependence on the “aero push” that’s haunted competition. Unlike intermediates, tracks where the leader has darted away in 2017, it’s hard to find yourself in Bristol clean air.
Fifteen-second laps lead to bumper-to-bumper traffic; the groove can only go so wide. Sometimes, the best way to take the lead is simply hit a guy in the bumper, get him loose and see what happens. Those instances often produce the type of made-for-TV moments NASCAR needs to capture attention in the midst of NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as the MLB season.
But alas, Mother Nature seems to have other plans. Let’s hope she cuts NASCAR a break on what could be one of the sport’s most exciting weekends of the season.
2017 Food City 500
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, TN)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Texas was big for a four-car operation that’s seen its 48/88 shop lag behind this season. Jimmie Johnson’s surprising win, from the back to the front came paired with a top-five finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. While Earnhardt remains outside playoff position, it’s easily the best he’s run all year. Johnson has basically clinched a chance for an eighth title.
Chase Elliott, ninth at Texas, was the least of HMS’ problems – he sits a solid second in points. Elliott hasn’t won a race yet but has been knocking on the door so much that when Victory Lane does happen there will be two, three, maybe even four more close behind. HMS, in the course of a weekend, got back on track. Now, if only this group could get Kasey Kahne going.
Who’s at the Back: Matt Kenseth
A rumor, 100 percent false, went around the past few weeks Kenseth was retiring. He shot that down quickly, laughing about his phone “blowing up from Easter,” but the whispers always start from somewhere. He’s crashed out of three of the first seven races, has failed to lead a single lap and sits outside the top 20 in points.
At 45, Kenseth is the oldest driver on tour and is in the last year of his contract. A former Cup champ, you expect him to get it together but the turnaround needs to start happening soon.
That whole Matt Kenseth retiring thing? That was a new sponsorship announcement instead. Circle K will be the primary on the No. 20 Toyota for six races this season and a major associate on all the rest. Joe Gibbs Racing continues to find patchwork deals to replace Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, who left at the end of last season.
Charlotte Motor Speedway announced their fall playoff race will move from Saturday night to Sunday this year. Considered the sport’s “home track,” the 1.5-mile oval has struggled with attendance and viewership in recent years.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe will be available for Brad Keselowski this weekend as the sport has not yet heard a final appeal on his multi-race suspension. Team Penske has disputed a ruling that came from failing postrace measurements March 19 at Phoenix. Wolfe was fined $65,000, suspended three races and Keselowski was docked 35 points.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish for Kyle Larson this season, the best of any full-time driver in Cup.
Average finish for Jeffrey Earnhardt this season, the worst of any full-time driver in Cup. That number includes a series-high five DNFs.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You can’t think Bristol without considering the Busch brothers. Kyle has won there five times, led nearly 2,000 laps and posted 13 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. But be wary, as it’s been somewhat feast or famine for him at this track. He’s had three wrecks in his last four races there, slumping to runs of 36th, 38th and 39th, respectively.
Kurt Busch may be a much better bet (top tier in some leagues, middle tier in others). Busch has four top-15 runs in his last five starts at Bristol although a crash left him 38th last August. Most importantly, crew chief Tony Gibson has it circled on the calendar as a “must win” for this group. It’s a special place for Gibson, having lost former boss Alan Kulwicki to a plane crash in 1993 outside this track.
Roush Fenway Racing, for all its faults has a great Bristol track record as of late. Trevor Bayne has three straight top 15s, including a fifth at Thunder Valley last spring and has looked much improved in 2017. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a career average finish of 10.6 and was second in the Bristol night race last August. It’s the one place you can start Stenhouse and be almost guaranteed to earn a top-10 performance.
Can Matt DiBenedetto do it again? He was a surprising sixth last spring at Bristol with BK Racing, a team that often doesn’t have the funding nor resources to compete. He’s aligned with a new program this year, Go FAS Racing, and already has a top-10 run under his belt from Daytona. Don’t count him out for a top-tier performance in a Sunday race that’ll include plenty of wrecks and DNFs.
What Vegas Thinks
Westgate Sportsbook has Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch tied with 6/1 odds to win. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano (7/1) are not far behind at a track that has produced parity this decade; no one has won at Bristol more than twice since 2010.
What I Think
You know how Matt Kenseth has been in the news? What better way to fend off silly retirement rumors than to take the No. 20 team to Victory Lane. After a tough start for Toyota this season, Kenseth raises eyebrows and scores a huge upset in the midst of a rain-filled Food City 500.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)