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NASCAR in Bristol: Will aggression spike at the half-mile bullring?


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Kasey Kahne’s and Tony Stewart’s opposite run of results at Bristol, the effect NASCAR’s revamped title format will have on the amount of in-race aggression at the bullring and an overdue qualifying tweak are just a few of the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

1. Kasey Kahne an easy pre-race favorite at Bristol  

It doesn’t take studying of loop data to see that Kasey Kahne figures to be up front Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mr. Blue Eyes had a combined average finish of 1.5 last year at the half-mile track after winning the spring race and falling just short of Matt Kenseth in the fall night race.

“I can’t wait to race there,” Kahne said this week in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “It’s a track we’ve performed really well at for a while. We won the spring race last year and had the best car there in the fall race — I just didn’t get by Matt.”

A win for Kahne would start to reveal his No. 5 as the contender that it should be this season. He is, after all, driving one of Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets.

Kahne was stung by pit road penalties and a crash in the season-opener at Daytona before landing inauspicious finishes of 11th and eighth at Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively. He’s led just two laps this season.

That number just might change at a track where he started and finished both races better than seventh last season.

2. Does points system really give drivers an incentive for Bristol aggression?

Much has been made over the last few days about the role that NASCAR’s newest points system played on Steve Letarte’s decision to gamble on fuel mileage and go for the win with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week at Las Vegas. All told, that’s an argument set to NASCAR’s desired narrative and not grounded in fact.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if NASCAR will be forced to reckon with driving more rambunctious than usual Sunday on Bristol’s high banks. While points certainly still do matter in the regular season, the new scoring style does play to the favor of drivers not really expected to be Chase players come September. And in those drivers’ favor is the fact that Bristol’s short track characteristics can provide a more even playing field amongst low-budget and top-tier teams.

That means drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, or Kyle Larson — remember how good Larson was in the Bristol Nationwide Series race last spring? — could be looking to push, pull and generally consider bulldozing as an option to gain track position in Sunday’s race. A win could be their Chase ticket, and they won’t have too many more opportunities.

3. Bristol not a good place for Tony Stewart’s rebound

After three races and only 48 total points collected, Tony Stewart has landed 27th in points without a single top-10 finish, a single lap led and only one lead-lap finish. Those are numbers that are probably worse than Stewart even expected to launch with in 2014 despite coming back from serious injury.

We wondered before Phoenix in this column if Stewart was physically ready to compete on the circuit’s demanding racetracks and the jury remains out. The tight confines of Bristol won’t be especially kind to him if physical pain or strength is making a difference in his ability to tune in the race car.

Even without the injury, Stewart has been woeful at BMS of late. Sunday’s race marks the four-year anniversary of Stewart finishing second at the track. Since then, he’s finished 19th, 28th, 14th, 27th and 31st. (Last season, of course, he missed the August race with the leg injury.)

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4. NASCAR averts substantial qualifying issue

We may never known why it took NASCAR until midweek between the Las Vegas race and this weekend’s event at Bristol to finally listen to basically everyone in the garage and a make a change to make qualifying safer. But NASCAR did finally come to its senses and Friday’s session won’t have the extra hazard of slow-driving cars trying to keep engines cool.

That’s because NASCAR changed protocol and will now allow teams to attach cooling hoses from a pit box to valves hidden just under the hood cowl flaps. The hoses will supply cold water to the car’s radiator and engine cooling system while pulling hot water out — allowing teams to make more runs during the “knockout” style qualifying sessions.

It’s a move that makes sense and one that came about two weeks too late. Fortunately, NASCAR avoided any serious incidents in the process despite drivers worried about the generous speed difference between cars trying to cool down while motoring slowly around the track and cars on hot laps. The problem would have been exacerbated at Bristol thanks to the short track having substantially less room for cars to operate.

5. Joe Gibbs Racing a recent Bristol force  

The Cup Series has raced three times at Bristol since the resurfaced track had its upper groove altered by a grinding process. The intent was for racing to move down to the bottom of the corners, but that never happened. Instead, drivers live at the top of Bristol’s high-banks and rarely venture down.

The style of racing has seemed to suit Joe Gibbs Racing pretty well. In those three races, JGR has two wins, a second-place and has led 42.9 percent of the laps raced. Was it not for a crash a year ago that knocked Matt Kenseth out of contention — he couldn’t avoid Jeff Gordon when the No. 24 blew a tire — JGR very well could have been three-for-three.

There are no guarantees how Kenseth, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin will roll off in Sunday’s race or if they’ll actually compete. But if the last three races are an indication at all, JGR should play in the mix at some point during the 266.5-mile race.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Actions Sports, Inc.