It’s rare – almost unheard of, in fact – that teams go to a race track unsure of what’s about to take place. But that’s the case this week at one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest-scheduled venues, Bristol Motor Speedway.
Unhappy with the on-track activities in March, Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s O. Bruton Smith fired up his heavy equipment and set to work milling down the top groove of the 0.533-mile oval’s progressive banking.
Whether this brings back the “old,” pre-2007 Bristol, in which racing was primarily punctuated with passing via bumps and gouges, remains to be seen. The progressive banking produced side-by-side competition in which passes could be executed without re-arranging a competitor’s doors and fenders and significantly reduced caution periods.
One thing is for sure; the driver introductions at the track will get everyone pumped up! Bristol Motor Speedway boasts one of the more unique driver introductions in all of NASCAR, as drivers choose their own entrance music as they walk down the stage in turn 3. This weekend, an added buzz will surround the festivities, as Michael Buffer – of “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” fame – will announce all 43 drivers.
“Who knows what will happen. Anytime you change a track like that there is no telling,” said Carl Edwards, winner of the 2007-08 Irwin Tools Night Races. “It might make it a completely different race.”
Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who’s yet to win at Thunder Valley, calls the reconfiguration “a shot in the dark.” And that’s exactly what his and other teams face when the series rolls into Bristol on Friday morning for the first practice.
Both Biffle and Edwards have some extra incentive to do well this weekend. If Roush Fenway Racing places two of its drivers in the top five on Saturday night, it’ll be the 700th top-five finish for the team. Coincidentally, the team’s first top-five finish came at Bristol, by Mark Martin on April 10, 1988.
Biffle won for the second time this season at the Pure Michigan 400, giving him three additional bonus points when the standings are reset for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™, which begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The driver of Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 Ford largely had dropped out of the championship conversation after losing the points lead in early June.
“Well, I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to win the championship and don’t expect us to compete for the title, but I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they want to talk about,” Biffle said. “We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that.”
Biffle has every right to claim the mantle of a favorite. That’s because there really isn’t one as the Race to the Chase heads into its final three events beginning with Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
He’s the third different points leader in as many weeks following Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The provisional Chase seedings haven’t moved since Indianapolis when Johnson won for the third time to match victory totals of reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
Biffle is the 10th consecutive different winner – a run that began at Pocono Raceway in early June.
The top four in the championship standings – Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt and Johnson – have separated themselves from the next six contenders.
Biffle has been the most consistent, posting top 10s and a win in four of his past five races. Earnhardt and Johnson each have three top 10s. Kenseth has a single top five and two finishes outside the top 20.
The pre-Chase momentum actually belongs to Keselowski, whose ranking (fifth) doesn’t reflect the current strength of his Penske Racing No. 2 Dodge team. Keselowski, hampered by early season mechanical problems, didn’t crack the top 10 until the first Pocono race on June 10.
Beginning with his June 30 Kentucky victory, the 28-year-old rising star has assembled seven consecutive top-10 finishes. Four of his last five races were top fives, the last two runner-ups at Watkins Glen and Michigan.
He battled Johnson late for the win at Michigan, Pocono and The Glen and claimed better finishes in all three races. It’s not yet a rivalry, but the No. 2 and Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet seem to be finding each other on the track on an increasingly frequent basis.
Keselowski might have the edge this week. He’s won the past two Bristol races and bids to become the track’s first winner of three straight since Kurt Busch in 2003-04.
With the regular season dwindling down to a precious few races, the Chase “Wild Card” race literally has become a game of musical chairs.
Six winners into two seats obviously won’t go. And that doesn’t take into consideration four more drivers ranked 11th through 20th able to win their way into post-season racing.
Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman retained the provisional “Wild Cards” in Michigan. Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano must wait for another day – or in the case of Bristol, night – to oust their rivals. Hope remains for non-winners Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton.
Kahne holds the best cards: Two victories to his challengers’ one or zero. He’s also only 33 points out of the top 10 and the possibility of entering the Chase with at least six bonus points.
Bristol isn’t quite a get-it-done-or-else affair but it’s close – especially for drivers who have feasted at the 0.533-mile concrete-surfaced oval in past years. That would be Busch and Gordon, five-time winners, and Edwards, who counts a pair of victories.
Busch has won four of the last seven Bristol races, including a sweep of both events in 2009. He has the top Driver Rating (102.3) among the contenders and the most laps led (1,375). Busch is one of three short-track winners in 2012, in May at Richmond.
The past few races have been on-again, off-again affairs with Busch: second at Indianapolis, 33rd at Pocono, seventh at Watkins Glen and 13th at Michigan.
With track changes expected to make track position and pit selection crucial, Gordon’s ability to qualify is an asset. The four-time champion’s average start (8.3) is best in the field and his Driver Rating (99.8) trails only Busch and Matt Kenseth. Gordon’s last Bristol victory came in 2002.
When a driver clinches his spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, they receive a commemorative black and yellow hat with the 2012 Chase logo emblazoned on it. So far, no one’s in possession of that hat.
Ten drivers in all have a mathematical chance at clinching a Chase spot. Seven can secure a top-10 berth in the Chase this Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Regardless of what any other driver does, points leader Greg Biffle will clinch with a finish of 28th with no laps led, 29th with at least one lap led and 30th with the most laps led. The scenario for Matt Kenseth is eighth with no laps led, ninth with at least one lap led and 10th with most laps led. Dale Earnhardt Jr. lands a spot in the postseason with finishes of sixth with no laps led, seventh with at least one lap led and eighth with the most laps led. Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will punch his Chase ticket with a victory or second-place finish while leading the most laps.
Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer also can reserve spots in the Chase but are not yet in charge of the their own destinies. The magic number is 97. Any driver 97 points ahead of 11th place leaving Bristol will officially clinch a top 10 spot.
Those who can clinch at least a Wild Card: Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer. A win and Keselowski and Stewart are in. Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer have to win on Saturday night, and get some help.
Michael Waltrip Racing got everyone’s attention when each of its three cars finished among the top five in March’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Some suggested, based upon the organization’s history, that the good times wouldn’t last. Oh, were they wrong.
MWR, which never has qualified a driver for the Chase, continues to steam toward not one but two spots. Wins and bonus points would be nice, but consistency, with three races remaining until the post season, is the key to Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer sealing the deal.
Truex is sixth in points; Bowyer, with one win, is seventh. Their lead over 11th-place Kasey Kahne is 69 and 63 points, respectively.
MWR’s five drivers – Bowyer, Truex, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip – have produced team records for poles (five), top fives (14) and top 10s (34).
With 21 more laps led, Jimmie Johnson will reach the 1,000 laps-led mark for the sixth consecutive year. Only four drivers have ever led 1,000 laps in six or more consecutive years: Richard Petty (12 straight years), Cale Yarborough (eight), Darrell Waltrip (seven) and Dale Earnhardt (seven).
Richard Childress Racing’s next top-10 finish will be No. 900 for the team. The first was scored by owner Richard Childress himself on Jan. 18, 1976, at Riverside International Raceway.
If you’re in town for the race and looking for something to do, Bass Pro Shops will be holding a groundbreaking ceremony, complete with Jamie McMurray, this Friday morning at the site of the future store location at the northeast quadrant of the Exit 74 intersection of Interstate 81 and Highway 11 W in Bristol. The store is scheduled to open in late 2013 or spring of 2014.
Fans can catch the race from “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile” this Saturday night. The IRWIN Tools Night Race will air live on Saturday, August 25, 2012 at at 7:00 p.m. on ABC, as well as on PRN radio and Sirius XM Channel 90. The race will probably have an exciting finish, as the last seven races at Bristol have all ended with a margin of victory under one second.
Be sure to subscribe to this column, and keep track of your favorite racers. If you’re a motorsports fan, and know of an event, team, or person you’d like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about local getaways, HOAs, elections, and restaurants.