It has been 14 weeks since NASCAR last visited a short track, and grassroots fans are jonesing for a fix.
The raw action of 43 cars on a bullring less than a mile in length is a recipe for excitement, and there will be two races on that track type in the next three weeks. If a wild-card battle that could still produce eight contenders for one of two final slots in the Chase wasn't enough to keep fans glued to television, the anticipation of them racing through a minefield of spinning cars and exploding tires certainly will.
Two weeks ago, the final lap of the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen highlighted the unpredictability of road-course racing and the final lap of that event was among the most exciting seen in recent memory. Short tracks have the potential to create laps like that every time the cars circle the course. The playoff picture will change several times during the weekend, and then it will change again at Atlanta next week -- and also at Richmond two weeks from now.
Picking a winner each week is difficult in the best of times, but with all of those intangibles thrown into the mix it will be more demanding than ever at Bristol.
Loss of rhythm
Bristol was once a rhythm track and drivers who found the right cadence could click off perfect laps for extended periods of time. Kyle and Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman are recent examples of drivers who were able to string together long streaks of top-10s even after this track employed progressive banking in 2007. Matt Kenseth is the only remaining driver with a current streak of more than three consecutive top-10s.
Eventually the drivers learned how to use the variable degrees to stay off one another's bumpers and develop two racing grooves. As they kept their cars in one piece and experienced fewer accidents, the final laps became less predictable yet with more and more cars on the same lap as the leader and minor mistakes producing major consequences.
This has given rise to some interesting dark horses in recent seasons, and it has rewarded drivers with the perfect mix of aggression and car control. It is no surprise that six of the last seven races on this track have been won by Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski because those two drivers drive flat-out every lap of every race. The only thing standing in the way of Victory Lane for them is the reliability of NASCAR's Sprint Cup cars, and with rules designed to improve the durability of their rides, they both have to be favorites this week.
This spring, there were several fresh faces among the leaders, who either earned their first or second career top-10s at Bristol, or were contending at the front of the pack again after a long hiatus. Keselowski's won the Food City 500 on the heels of last year's victory in the August night race, but those are his only top-10s in a five-race career. Truex finished second last August and was third this spring, and those are also his only top-10s in a 13-race career. Brian Vickers scored his first top-10 on this track, while Paul Menard scored only his second such finish.
Three other drivers failed to finish with the leaders in either race last year, but managed to score top-10s in March. Clint Bowyer, Juan Montoya and Jeff Burton could all be rightly described as dark horse contenders in the Food City 500. And since racing is a zero-sum game, that means that many of the favorites failed to live up to expectations.
If this bullring wasn't unpredictable enough, track owner Bruton Smith finally became fed up with the progressive banking and the relatively polite side-by-side racing it produced, so he reconfigured the track once more to encourage the old style of beating and banging for which Bristol was known. Experts will make predictions and fantasy owners will set their rosters, but all bets are off the table this week.
No matter how crazy the action gets, Matt Kenseth seems to rise above the fray. He has as much passion behind the wheel as the next driver, but he does a better job than most of sublimating his anger into focus and finds a way to let his right foot do the talking for him. Kenseth is not necessarily the first driver who comes to mind on short tracks, but his recent record at Bristol is better than anyone in the field. While no one else has more than three consecutive top-10s to their credit, Kenseth has an uninterrupted streak of six. In recent seasons, he has been better in the daytime spring race but both of his previous wins came under the lights in 2005 and 2006. Moreover, his second-place finish in March makes him an easy pick for the top spot on fantasy players' rosters.
It does not matter if a player values recent momentum or track record, Brad Keselowski is another must-have driver. It took a while for him to get the hang of Bristol and his first three efforts produced a best result of 13th. His eighth-place qualification effort in last year's Irwin Tools Night Race was a surprise, but it was even more shocking to see him roll into Victory Lane at the end of the evening. He started fifth this spring and it was much less surprising to see him race with the leaders all afternoon en route to a second consecutive win. He will not catch anyone napping this week with seven top-10s in the past seven races this season, especially since his last two efforts produced runner-up finishes, but he is well worth the salary cap nonetheless.
Clint Bowyer also has a good mix of recent momentum and short-track finesse. He has finished 16th or better in 14 of the last 15 races this season and the majority of those efforts ended in top-10s. Bowyer has been perfect on short tracks this year with a sweep of the top 10 in three races and his best effort came at Bristol when he was part of a top-five sweep for Michael Waltrip Racing. He is one of the drivers who finished strong this spring after struggling on the bullring in 2011, but his victory at Sonoma and fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen on a track type that has largely eluded him in the past proves he is capable of beating expectations.
After last week's blown engine and early retirement, Jeff Gordon is back in the unenviable position of needing to win in order to lock up a Chase berth. He could mathematically make up the points' deficit, but Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch know they only need to keep him in sight to keep him at bay. Bristol is not the track one would chose to race with that kind of pressure?especially in light of the fact that Gordon's best short-track finish this season was a 14th at Martinsville?but that is the situation he faces this week. There are two snippets of good news for Gordon fans. He has been dominant on this track in the past but, equally of importance, he turned around a generally lackluster short-track performance last year with a third in the Irwin Tools Night Race. After that, he went on to finish third at both Richmond and Martinsville in their fall finales.
Denny Hamlin needs to reverse his fortune as well. It is doubtful that he will fall out of the top 10 in points, but he needs some momentum on his side when the Chase starts in a few weeks. And the clock is ticking loudly. His 11th-place finish at Michigan came on the heels of back-to-back results outside the top 25, and Bristol has not been kind to him in recent seasons. He has only one top-15 finish in his last five starts and that was a seventh in this race last year. He gets the nod as a dark horse, however, because he performed well on the two flat short tracks of Martinsville and Richmond with top-10s in both of their spring races. He also has some success at Bristol; in 2008 and 2009, his worst result in four races was a sixth.
Instead of underdogs this week, Bristol highlights three outliers who should have a wide variety of experiences. Throughout his Cup career, Brian Vickers was expected to run strong at Bristol because some of his best efforts in the Nationwide Series came on the similarly high-banked Dover International Speedway. He could not quite find the groove on this half-mile track, however, and in 14 previous starts the closest he came to scoring a top-10 was a pair 12th-place finishes earned in 2005 and 2009. He even failed to qualify once by a wide margin. He was by far the most pleasant surprise this spring when he took the No. 55 to fifth, and now that he knows how to navigate this track he should run strong once more. It is unlikely that he will back up that top-five, but a top-10 or even a result in the low teens will make him an acceptable value.
Vickers' success gives hope to Sam Hornish Jr., too. Like the driver of the No. 55, Hornish has not been particularly strong at Bristol, and in six previous races the best he has finished was 25th in his latest outing in 2010. He is still auditioning for the role of full-time driver of the No. 22 and that is proving to make a huge difference in his finishing results. He earned a top-five at Bristol and could easily have cracked the top 10 at Michigan last week if that race had run a couple of laps longer and allowed him to regain his momentum that was lost during the frantic green-white-checkered finish. It is unlikely Hornish will finish in the top 10, but with a current four-race string of top-20s, he should be able to keep that streak alive.
Danica Patrick certainly picked some challenging courses for her limited Cup debut, but there is some method to her madness. If she can survive the Southern 500 at Darlington, the 600-mile marathon at Charlotte, the frenetic drafts of Daytona and Talladega, and now the bullring of Bristol, next year is going to seem easier by comparison. The biggest complaint about her in the Nationwide Series has been that she has not learned how to channel her aggression into success. She either allows other drivers to intimidate her or alternately becomes overly antagonistic in retaliation. But a little of that personality trait at Bristol could serve a purpose if it keeps her out of harm's way and gets the No. 10 to the end of the race. With enough attrition, Patrick could crack the top 25 and if she qualifies poorly, fantasy owners could rack up some place differential points in the NASCAR Live game.
|Fantasy Power Rankings|
|Short tracks (past three years)|
|1.||Jimmie Johnson||7.14||17.||Jamie McMurray||17.15||33.||David Gilliland||32.48|
|2.||Jeff Gordon||9.01||18.||Tony Stewart||17.31||34.||Reed Sorenson||32.63|
|3.||Kyle Busch||9.10||19.||Greg Biffle||18.20||35.||Ken Schrader||34.06|
|4.||Denny Hamlin||10.31||20.||Joey Logano||19.64||36.||Travis Kvapil||34.41|
|5.||Ryan Newman||11.95||21.||Brian Vickers||20.23||37.||David Stremme||35.03|
|6.||Kevin Harvick||12.92||22.||Kasey Kahne||20.72||38.||Landon Cassill||35.41|
|7.||Matt Kenseth||13.07||23.||Marcos Ambrose||23.12||39.||Scott Speed||35.72|
|8.||Clint Bowyer||13.26||24.||Aric Almirola||24.31||40.||Dave Blaney||36.13|
|9.||Juan Pablo Montoya||13.44||25.||Paul Menard||24.99||41.||Jason Leffler||36.30|
|10.||Carl Edwards||13.90||26.||David Ragan||26.17||42.||Mike Bliss||36.31|
|11.||Mark Martin||14.18||27.||Regan Smith||28.18||43.||Michael McDowell||38.56|
|12.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14.66||28.||Casey Mears||29.62||44.||Scott Riggs||39.03|
|13.||Jeff Burton||15.91||29.||Sam Hornish Jr.||29.73||45.||Josh Wise||39.55|
|14.||Kurt Busch||16.13||30.||Danica Patrick||30.05||46.||Joe Nemechek||40.05|
|15.||Brad Keselowski||16.23||31.||Bobby Labonte||30.22||47.||JJ Yeley||40.07|
|16.||Martin Truex Jr.||17.00||32.||Stephen Leicht||30.23|
- Matt Kenseth
- Clint Bowyer
- Brad Keselowski
- Brian Vickers
- Kyle Busch