All gambling-related puns aside, did anyone think that Tony Stewart would end up in Victory Lane last weekend in Las Vegas? With last week’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as the race unfolded, along with other events of the day (Kentucky’s Men’s Basketball team losing and Dale Jr. leading more laps than all of 2011 combined), I would have thought that the Mayans were off by about nine months and that the apocalypse was at hand. But in the end, it was Smoke that got in everyone’s eyes, with a gutsy move late in the race to take (and keep) the lead for the win.
This week we’re at Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) for the Food City 500…and Mother Nature notwithstanding, there will be action in Thunder Valley. Will lightning strike on NASCAR’s fastest half-mile and bring us another first-time Sprint Cup winner, stopping someone’s win-less streak at Bristol, or even disrupt another driver’s long-standing winless streak? To be sure it will be the .533-mile track of the BMS, and the concrete banking of the “Coliseum” that will determine who ends up in Victory Lane, and who ends up in the wall.
This fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup race of 2012 is always a test of a driver’s mettle, as this is not only an endurance race by measure of laps, but also the endurance required by each driver dealing with the noise, the physical, and the psychological aspects dealing with one of the most famous (and infamous) short tracks on the NASCAR circuit. Of course, with such a small track, those starting at the rear of the field could likely get lapped very quickly by the leaders. But fortunately, after the repaving that was done a few years ago, there is now a second “groove” for the drivers to race on, so passing is a lot easier than it had been in previous years. And finally with a Pit Road speed of 30 mph, be ready for quite the show for pit stops, with small pit stalls and pit boxes on both the 650 ft front and back stretches.
The race day gets started early with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED at 10:30am EDT, NASCAR Pre-Race on Fox at 12:30 EDT, and the race broadcast itself at 1:00pm EDT. Green flag waves at approximately 1:16pm EDT after a National Anthem performed by members of the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 119th Command and Control Squadron from the McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville, Tenn. Current weather forecasts have rain early on Sunday morning, but decreasing as the morning progresses. If the Green Flag doesn’t fly on time today, it will only be delayed a bit while the four Juan Pablo Montoya-proof Jet Dryers complete the track preparations (it only takes 45 minutes to dry the track surface at Bristol).
Best Bets: No real surprises here this week.
Kyle Busch (#18 Wrigley Toyota)- Rowdy is back in force this week; as a five-time winner here, one can scarcely think of a Bristol Race and not think of KyBu. And most fans won’t forget the post-race interview after the first race with the new (current) car, where he said it drove “like a brick”. The aforementioned five wins, seven top-fives, and ten top-tens, puts KyBu at the top of this week’s class. He’s got two wins in the last four BMS races, and has an overall 9.1 in average finish position. He may start back in thirteenth, but KyBu was second fastest in final practice. Watch out for him; he’ll likely be gumming up the works.
Greg Biffle (#16 3m/811 Ford)- Greg has finished in third place in each of this year’s first three races. He’s also the current NSC points leader, and won the Coors Light Pole award for his fastest qualifying run of 15.324 seconds/125.215mph. Biffle may be winless here, but is fifth overall in total points earned in the last four BMS races. With six top-fives and eleven top-tens, he can wrestle his car around the track. He’ll lead the field to green today, and was sixteenth-fastest in final practice.
Probables: Tough call for this week, but these two have a better-than-average chances at the Checkered Flag today...
Ryan Newman (#39 Quicken Loans Chevy)- The Rocketman wasn’t able to capture another Coors Light Pole this week, but he’s on the hunt to get back on the top of the scoring tower. Newman has three top-tens in the last three BMS races, and although he’s winless here, he’s got a top-five and twelve top-ten finishes. Additionally he sits eighth in points earned in the last four BMS offerings. Ryan’s gotten caught up in wrecks and other incidents a lot lately, but today he starts third and was fastest in final practice, so don’t be surprised if Newman gets by Biffle early and leads laps.
Jeff Gordon (#24 Driver to End Hunger Chevy)- Jeff has taken some tough laps so far this year, but he’s positioned well for a good finish this week. Gordon placed third last August, and has been third in the last three short-track races run in the Sprint Cup Series. Ol’ Super G has five wins here, with fifteen top-fives and twenty-one top tens. He’s in the running for top average finish with 11.5 as well. I expect to see him near the front, if not AT the front when we hit Lap 500. Jeff will start fourth, and was ninth-fastest in Happy Hour.
Dark Horses- Let’s bring back some favorites, but who have had difficulties of late.
Carl Edwards (#99 Cheez-It Ford)- Carl couldn’t manage to get it done last week, as he struggled to put up a fifth-place finish. He hasn’t finished worse than twelfth in the last four BMS races, and is sixth-highest in points earning at the last four BMS outings. Edward’s has two wins, four top-fives, and seven top-tens, with an average finish of 12.3. While only 32d in final practice, he does start eighth. Some good possibilities today.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevy)- Old “Five Time” has found success here, having a win, six top-fives, and eleven top-tens on this short track. Jimmie also has ten wins, twenty-five top fives, and thirty-six top tens on short tracks. He’s placed no worse than fourth the last four Bristol races, and seventh in total points earned the last four at BMS. Johnson will be back in mid-pack starting in 22nd, but was tenth-fastest in final practice. Be ready to watch him either muscle his way through the field to the front, or end up again in the wall like he did in the first practice session.
Also be on the lookout for Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 National Guard/Diet Mt Dew Chevrolet) and Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Jr’s putting the pieces together, having led more laps last week than he did the entire 2011 NSC season. Unfortunately, the four-tire stop near mid-race killed his momentum and only let him put up a tenth-place finish. Jr’s looking to break that streak and finally relieve some pressure, as he’s got one of the best average finishes with 11.7. He’ll start eighteenth and was eleventh-fastest in Happy Hour. And Brad Keselowski will be out to repeat his success from last August, timing lines or not on pit road (see TECH TALK below). Brad was third-fastest in final practice and qualified fifth–don’t expect him to stay in the back too long (unless he finds the wall early).
Rumor Mill: Another slow week, but revisiting a couple old topics.
Knaus Revisited (Otherwise known as “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’)- Chad Knaus had his appeal heard this week for the C-Post penalty from Daytona. And he lost. Lots of NASCAR fans and regulars alike have wondered how a championship-winning crew chief five times over has had such a sordid and penalty-filled career. So don’t expect to see him much this spring at the track. He’ll probably be home texting the crew, or back in the shop orchestrating what undoubtedly will be another victory for the #48 team. But which way would you have it–a rule-abiding crew chief who never takes chances, or one who looks to find the “gray” areas in the rules and takes advantage of it?
Amazing the discussion on this one over the past week has focused on the fact that this sport, like it or not, was based on bootleggers racing to avoid the police while they ran their illegal hooch. So from one perspective, this sport was based on illegal actions. Do I believe the sport has evolved to the extent the drivers should be given as much a level playing field so strategy and driving will be the deciding factor? Yes. But to I think a crew chief worth his salt should be finding the ways, albeit small, to find a competitive advantage? Absolutely.
Girl-Watching–Danica Patrick managed to have a relatively stress-free race in Saturday’s Nationwide race, finishing nineteenth. Johanna Long finished twenty-ninth and eight laps down, but did finish the race.
Tech Talk: Timing lines–For NASCAR officials to keep tabs on drivers on Pit Road, they have set a maximum speed getting into and out of the Pits (which as mentioned above is only 30 mph). In previous races at BMS, drivers realized that they could either speed onto pit road prior to hitting the START/FINISH line, or speed just after, since the timing line was placed right at the Stripe, and this helped Brad Keselowski cruise to Victory Lane last August here. NASCAR only allows drivers a +/- 5mph to that set speed, and there are lights on the driver’s dashboard to let them know when they’re approaching that limit. This hit Jeff Gordon particularly hard in last August’s Bristol Night Race, where he had a serious chance of victory, only to come up short, as certain pit stalls offered drivers a distinct advantage. “There is no track that we should go to this day and age that there should be that big of an advantage in certain pit stalls,” Gordon said. Driver Matt Kenseth echoed the sentiment, “There is a big advantage to about eight cars or so with the lines you can pick depending where you qualified, and you could speed as fast as you could in that line and be spinning the tires and all that. I think that it is probably a good thing to get it the same for everybody on pit road and keep the racing on the track.” (NASCAR.com) There will be two additional timing lines to curtail any driver looking for that advantage this week.
Final Thoughts: BMS is a track that some drivers love, some drivers hate, but all drivers respect. The biggest question out there is whether Mother Nature gets the best of NASCAR, or if the drivers will get the best of her. I’ve been at the spring Bristol race in 80 degrees, and 50 degrees. And don’t forget a few years ago where it SNOWED at the track before the Saturday race (cue the Kurt Busch snow angels at the START/FINISH line). Will there be a new driver in Victory Lane, or will there be a Bristol regular. We’ll find out this afternoon.
Only a few hours to tune in to FOX for the race broadcast. For those unable to tune in to FOX, catch the race broadcast on your local Performance Racing Network affiliate, and on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the excitement in Thunder Valley. And as usual, I’ll have my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rant on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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