Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Bristol Motor Speedway
1. Bristol’s middle name may well be “payback”
You’ll probably make it through at least the first 10 seconds of the ABC race broadcast Saturday night without seeing a replay of an irritated driver throwing something or two cars bellowing sparks in the Bristol night as they crash. Just don’t expect to avoid it for much longer.
NASCAR’s television partners love to turn up the wick on Bristol’s penchant for causing helmet-throwing displeasure among the 43 competitors, and they do it for good reason: It happens a lot.
Guessing, however, where those emotions will run ragged can be a fool’s errand. Sometimes, they rise from one driver cutting off another. Others, they are the eruption of previous slight.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne leads the pack of Sprint Cup drivers with public displeasure. His stems from multiple incidents with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, most recently with Matt Kenseth at Watkins Glen.
Then there’s the Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano feud that enflamed at Bristol in March before resulting in Hamlin’s back injury in a racing-incident crash in California. There’s been no further action on that front, but 500 laps at Bristol has a way of igniting old flames. The same could be said for Danica Patrick and Travis Kvapil, a relationship rocky based on Patrick wrecking Kvapil twice this summer.
And who knows? Maybe this is the time when another rift comes to light. Those are always fun.
2. Spring Bristol race results hide Matt Kenseth’s fast carThat Matt Kenseth led 85 laps in the last Cup Series appearance in Thunder Valley after starting 12th isn’t too surprising. He’s won Bristol twice and finished in the top 5 on 10 occasions.
But Kenseth didn’t lead until Lap 238 of the March 500-lapper, and led those 85 laps in a manner that pretty succinctly showed that he was the driver with the car to beat. Kenseth lost the lead when a couple of other drivers, including Jeff Gordon, tried a dose of altering pit strategy. Ultimately, that strategy bit Kenseth when he was working Gordon to take the lead back on Lap 390.
Gordon blew a tire and collected Kenseth as he shot up the track and into the outside wall. Both drivers suffered enough damage that finishing wasn’t possible. It was bad luck all around, and may have been the only thing that kept Kenseth from Victory Lane.
Of course, that race was in the midst of Kenseth’s impressive start to the 2013 season in his new Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. By June 30, he had four wins.
Since then? He hasn’t won.
3. Third time a charm on ground-down Bristol surface?
Bristol Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith had finally seen enough results from Bristol’s 2007 resurfacing to know something must change. After all, his ceramic-tiled suite with a stained-glass ceiling fixture didn’t build itself on a take-it-or-leave-it, pedestrian style of racing.
But that’s what Bristol had become when the new concrete and progressive banking was added before the night race in ’07. It was chock-full of side-by-side racing, but the wider track produced little incentive for drivers to rub fenders.
So Smith demanded changes — the April 2012 announcement of which, naturally, fielded signs that read “Fans spoke, we listened” — and the track’s corners went through a grinding process aimed at reducing the width of the preferred racing groove. Ultimately, it worked — even if opposite of what was expected.
The high line around Bristol is now the fastest way in race mode, producing snaking lines of race cars and drivers trying desperately to pass. The wide-open inside line is massively attractive, but it rarely is faster. Now, the nudge-and-run is back.
Saturday night’s race is the third in the new “configuration” and could offer a different show than we’ve previously seen from the Cup Series. Teams are more prepared for what works at the half-mile track, and the temperatures will be up a bit from the spring. What that specifically means is unclear, but you can bet Bruton knows what he’s looking for.
4. How will bubble Chase drivers tread at Bristol? Jeff Gordon finished third a year ago at Bristol in his nail-biting run to Chase for the Sprint Cup qualification, and would likely be pretty pleased to pull that result off again.
Of course, that’s the same story for seven or eight drivers who know that there’s not much time to recover from a mistake with just two races left after Saturday night’s event. Simultaneously, the crowd of drivers seeking at least one of the two wild card entries has grown more crowded with Joey Logano’s win last week at Michigan.
How will they handle the tight and typically not-so-friendly confines of Bristol’s high banks?
It certainly needs to be a delicate balance. The risk of a tight battle for the win may not line up with the consequence of a crash. But that said, winning could nearly guarantee entry to the title fight with just two regular season races to go.
Gordon, of course, could desperately use a win to join the fight of one-win drivers like Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Logano and Ryan Newman. But you better believe those drivers will see Gordon (and each other) as more than just in-race foes Saturday night. Every on-track point will be critical.
5. Kyle Busch aims for Bristol sweep, round two
As long as Kasey Kahne doesn’t decide to deliver a case of payback — and if things go as expected in the Nationwide Series race (that’s a big “if” indeed) — then Kyle Busch may be looking at another shot to take three national series wins in one weekend at the same track.
He became the first to do it in NASCAR competition in 2010 when he won all three races at the August Bristol weekend, and set himself up to capture it again by winning Wednesday night’s Camping World Truck Series race in a pretty dramatic finish. Busch beat Timothy Peters by one-twentieth of a second after a final lap side-by-side duel.
He’s got a pretty decent chance to pull off the triple considering where he finished in the two-race spring Bristol weekend. In March, Busch won the Nationwide race over Kyle Larson and then finished second to Kahne in the Sunday Cup Series race.