Nothing beats racing in prime time, and this Saturday night that's exactly what the boys of NASCAR will be doing. This weekend we return to the bull ring in Bristol, Tenn., for the Irwin Tools Night Race. The high-contact, short track action under the lights is one of the most popular races in the schedule. It's been a long, hard haul since race number eight of the season, which was the last time NASCAR top division visited Thunder Valley. In that time we've seen Kevin Harvick monopolize the championship standings lead. We've seen Martin Truex Jr.'s big upset victory at Pocono. We've seen Kyle Busch's epic summer hot streak where he won four out of five-straight events during midsummer. We've also seen Carl Edwards return to victory lane with an upset win at Charlotte. So a lot has happened since the Sprint Cup Series last ran the high banks of BMS. We've also seen several different styles of tracks and generally raced on the larger ovals. Bristol should prove to be a big adjustment for the drivers to make this weekend. It's been some time since we've gone racing on an oval of less than one-mile in size. Despite the long layoff, we should see a lot of the same faces racing at the front that we saw here in April. Successful short track drivers are a rare mix of patience and aggression. Those who can balance that yin and yang and beat fenders when need be and still be able to sit back and wait for an opportunity to pass in traffic are the ones to succeed at this half-mile oval of chaos. When we put the fireworks of Bristol Motor Speedway under the lights we have a sporting event second to none in the racing world. We're sure to see some tempers raised, fenders beaten and feathers ruffled after this 500-lap battle Saturday night at what has been tabbed "The Last Great Colosseum". Much like Spartacus and his famous chariot race, the crowds will roar when these 43 drivers take to the lightning-fast bowl of Bristol Motor Speedway.
In preparing our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close look at the last 10 years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 21 races will be very useful. This span will cover Bristol's transformation from a one-groove to a two-groove short track and should bear some great data. In forming this week's driver list we'll also pay some attention to current hot streaks. Drivers who raced well at Michigan last weekend will also carry that momentum to the World's Fastest Half Mile this Saturday night. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Bristol drivers, sorted by driver rating.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||12.1||539||249||83||6,071||87.2|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||9.2||153||50||0||1,243||82.4|
|Martin Truex Jr.||20.7||589||219||114||4,932||80.0|
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In the season's first race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in April of this year, we had a few surprises, both at the top and the bottom of the finishing order. Still, some of the same short track specialists found their way to the front. Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch battled for the last 75 of the 500 laps until the Joe Gibbs Racing star came out on top with his fourth-career victory at the half-mile oval. That win capped an amazing day for Kenseth at BMS. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota qualified on the pole position for the Food City 500 and mixed it up with the leaders all race long to capture the win. Also of note that day in April was Kyle Larson's fantastic performance. He led a career-best 90 laps and finished seventh in the 500-lap spring battle at Bristol. That effort has set up the young driver for a lot of the improvement he's experienced this season. Roush Fenway Racing driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished fourth and upset many of the stars of the series by cracking the Top 5 with a great performance. As you can see, each of these trio of drivers compete for a different manufacturer. So we have plenty of parity among Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford at this historic short track. With Ford and Toyota drivers having won the last four-straight Bristol races, we have to concede a nod of favoritism towards them. Chevrolet last won at BMS when Kasey Kahne visited victory lane here in 2013, so this manufacturer is on the comeback trail to a certain extent. We'll take a look at the historical loop stats and recent hot streaks and see if we can clear up the picture, and give you the drivers you need this weekend to conquer the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Matt Kenseth - With his victory this past week at Michigan, Kenseth now has three victories for the season. He's been a very strong performer for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has enjoyed a lot of success at the famous half-mile oval in the second-half of his 16-season career. Kenseth is a four-time Bristol winner, and he sports an excellent 65-percent Top-10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. The veteran driver has won two of the last four races at the Tennessee short track and he comes into Saturday night about as hot as a driver can get. Kenseth's 1,430 laps led at this oval ranks third among active drivers. He'll be racing at the front again this Saturday night.
Carl Edwards - As we come to Bristol this weekend we begin to examine the possibility of Edwards getting back to victory lane. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been coming on in recent weeks, and showing signs of grabbing another win this season. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota picked up his third-career win at the Tennessee short track in the spring of 2014, and that ranks him third in victories at BMS among active drivers. With over 600-career laps led at this oval, it's clear that those victories didn't happen by accident. As for the intangibles are concerned, all three of Edwards' victories at Bristol have come under the lights.
Joey Logano - Logano claimed his first Bristol victory in this event one year ago. He battled tooth-and-nail with Matt Kenseth over the final 70 laps to come away the victor. Logano now has 13-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, so he's not short on experience here. That experience is now starting to pay off with challenges for the checkers. Logano's start here in April was an absolute disaster with him getting tangled up with teammate Brad Keselowski in the opening laps. That's a throw-away and not indicative of recent performance. We expect this driver to battle it out with Kenseth at the front in the Irwin Tools Night Race.
Kurt Busch - Coming off the disappointing 20th-place finish at Michigan, the No. 41 team should be very hungry as we return to the short tracks. Busch won earlier this season on the Richmond oval, and he's made quite a NASCAR career stacking up trophies on the short track circuit. The Stewart Haas Racing star has five-career wins at Bristol Motor Speedway, although all of those came prior to 2007. He's been a model of consistency at this short track with over 1,000-career laps led and a strong 52-percent Top-10 rate. Busch led 98 laps here in the spring before fortunes denied him a Top-10 finish. This time around could be very different for the former champion.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Brad Keselowski - One of the strongest fantasy racing plays for this weekend's Bristol race is Keselowski. The Penske Racing star has won two-career victories at the historic short track, and he's led a whopping 495 laps combined in 11 starts. Keselowski led 46 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago. We expect the No. 2 Ford team to return to Bristol and complete the unfinished business they started here in April of this year. The Penske Racing driver knows this race will be a key component in competing for the championship later this season.
Kyle Busch - The five-time Bristol winner has had some tough luck of late. His Watkins Glen and Michigan outings were finishes that fell a bit short of expectations. Busch comes into Bristol weekend hoping for a rebound performance. While he's got quite a short track reputation and a lot of Bristol hardware in his trophy case, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has had his struggles here in recent seasons as well. He has only two Top 10s in his last five trips to upper East Tennessee. Busch led only 8 laps in this event one year ago before crashing and finishing 36th. The No. 18 Toyota should be fast and the luck should hopefully turn the corner this weekend.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon is struggling coming to Bristol this weekend. He's coming off a subpar finish at Michigan, and a very poor Watkins Glen finish the weekend before. He's looking for a great final visit to the short track that put his name on the NASCAR map. The five-time Bristol winner hasn't won at the famous short track since 2002, but Gordon is also known for his rigid consistency at this tough short track. Victories aside, the Hendrick Motorsports star has maintained a 56-percent career Top-10 rate at the half-mile oval, and that includes Top 10s in three of his last four starts. We should see the Gordon of old in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.
Paul Menard - The Richard Childress Racing driver is riding a wave of momentum into Thunder Valley this weekend. Menard is riding a four-race Top-15 streak into Bristol and during this span he's moved from 14th- to 11th-place in the driver point standings. He also rides in confident on the strength of some good recent performances at the half-mile oval. Menard has Top-10 finishes in five of his last seven trips to the facility. The veteran driver finished ninth in this event one year ago. He should stay on target in this 500-lap battle under the lights.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Bristol who can provide a solid finish
Jimmie Johnson - While Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are normally contenders to win, Bristol has presented struggles over the years for the six-time champion. The Hendrick Motorsports star doesn't have a strong career record at BMS, but he has started to show some consistency at this wild short track in the last few seasons. Johnson has led close to 100 laps in his last six races at the half-mile oval. His 15-career Top 10s come in at a respectable 56-percent rate. So, while Bristol isn't one of Johnson's better tracks, he's still better than most of the field here. With the Chase for the Cup fast-approaching, it's time for the No. 48 team to start shoring up their position in the Chase Standings.
Ryan Newman - The Richard Childress Racing veteran righted the ship with his eighth-place finish this past week at Michigan. That performance snapped a five-race Top-10 drought for the No. 31 Chevrolet team. Now he comes to a short track that has held solid success for him over his 14-year Sprint Cup Series career. Newman has never won at the Bristol oval, but he has claimed 14-career Top-10 finishes. That includes an impressive fifth-place finish in this April's Food City 500. He checks out with a career 52-percent Top-10 rate at the facility. Newman should continue to build on what he started at Michigan last weekend.
Clint Bowyer - The stealth, dark horse contender this weekend at Bristol is Bowyer and his No. 15 MWR Toyota team. He's never won at the Tennessee short track, but he's been painfully close to breaking through at this facility. Bowyer owns eight career Top 10s at BMS and three of those have come in his last seven trips to upper East Tennessee. When he's not in the Top 10, he's generally not far out with Top-15 finishes in six of the last seven. Given how well the team is performing entering this week, Bowyer has a good shot at reviving his Bristol Top-10 streak. He has three Top 10s in his last four races.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - While the driver of the No. 17 Ford has had a season filled with struggles, he makes a great event-specific fantasy racing play this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Throughout his three-season Sprint Cup career, one thing has remained solid, and that's his performances on this half-mile short track. That makes BMS his best statistical oval on the circuit. In five-career starts Stenhouse has a pair of Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes. That includes his eye-popping fourth-place finish here in April's Food City 500. While he may not finish that well this Saturday night, a Top-15 finish is nearly a given.
Austin Dillon - The young driver of the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet has begun to get some traction in recent weeks. Dillon has one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in just his last seven starts. That includes his impressive fourth-place performance at Michigan this past week. It looks like patience and experience are starting to finally pay off for this second-season driver. The RCR driver's Bristol resume is short, but noteworthy for the good finishes. Efforts of 11th-, 28th- and 10th-place have been Dillon's record the last two seasons racing at BMS. Considering how well the team is performing right now, it wouldn't be surprising to see Dillon challenge that Top 10 again this Saturday night.
Kyle Larson - The Chip Ganassi Racing sensation will be looking to build on his good Michigan outing that led to a steady 13th-place finish. Larson should carry it forward easy enough considering how well he raced earlier this season at Bristol Motor Speedway. The young driver started 14th on the grid, led 90 laps and finished a strong seventh at the famous short track. In three-career starts at BMS, he now has finishes of 10th- 12th- and seventh-place. Larson has shown resilience all season long, and we expect no difference in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Kasey Kahne - The struggles of the No. 5 Chevrolet team in recent weeks are highly visible. After his nearly-invisible 15th-place finish at Michigan this past week, Kahne has sank to 17th in the overall championship standings coming to Bristol. This track has had its ups-and-downs over the years for the Hendrick Motorsports veteran, but the performances of late have turned sour. Kahne's 35th- and 37th-place finishes in each of the last two events at BMS have lowered his career Top-10 rate to just 44-percent. While that's not bad on the surface, it's the current state of this driver and team that you should fear.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt's slump at Bristol in recent seasons has begun to tarnish some of the great achievements he accomplished much earlier in his career at the East Tennessee short track. The No. 88 team have only cracked the Top 10 twice in the last 10 Bristol races. The finishes in just the last two seasons alone have been the most disappointing with 24th-, 39th- and 16th-place efforts. These performances have taken Earnhardt's career Top-10 rate at this short track down to just 45-percent. In the 2010 season that rate was well over 57-percent, so you can see how things have dwindled over the last five years at Bristol for the NASCAR icon.
Kevin Harvick - Even though Harvick is a one-time winner at the Tennessee short track, his consistency here over the years has been somewhat shaky. His 41-percent Top-10 rate ranks BMS pretty low among his track portfolio. Visits the last few years have been quite a struggle for the new Stewart Haas Racing driver. Harvick hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last eight visits to the Bristol short track, and with only one Top 10 at the small oval since the 2009 season, it's clear that something here isn't working for Harvick. It's best to stash him on the bench this week and deploy him on the larger speedways.
A.J. Allmendinger - The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has never really had any success at the Bristol short track. Spread across 14 starts, the journeyman driver has only three Top-15 finishes and no Top 10s. Allmendinger's last outing at Bristol in April's Food City 500 netted his first-career crash and DNF at the historic short track. Things could go much better this time around for the No. 47 team, but it's hard to get past Allmendinger's career 25.4 average finish at this facility. Things are looking dicey that he'll better that mark in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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