NASCAR bumping and banging back at Bristol

For only the third time in 118 NASCAR Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway and the first time since 1983, Thunder Valley will have racing in May. 

Sunday’s Food City 500 was originally scheduled on the unique half-mile high-banked concrete layout on April 5 but was one of the 14 Cup dates that were either canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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There’ll be no fans in the stands this time around as the social distancing precautions demanded by NASCAR for all the teams, journalists and safety workers at the track have proven to be a success with no new outbreaks of the COVID -19 virus reported through three races. The Bristol Bullring is always one of the fan favorites because of the drivers bumping and banging and the fans should get a chance to visit again when the series returns Sept. 19 during the Playoffs, one week before the Las Vegas date.

The first thing we need to do before handicapping this Bristol race is understanding that it’s only the second race of the eight-race season so far to use the race package with engines producing 750 horsepower and the smaller spoiler. It was used at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, which was the last race before the shutdown.

Six of the races run this season have used the 550 horsepower package and the race at Daytona used the 550 HP superspeedway package. So we don’t have a lot of data accumulated with this week’s setup, although we should have a good idea who is fast just by the names that ran great at Phoenix.

At the end of the Phoenix race it was a battle between Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and eventual winner Joey Logano who led the last 23 laps. Keselowski would finish 11 the after leading four times for 82 laps. Kevin Harvick, who owns most of the career records at Phoenix, settled for runner-up after leading four times for 67 laps. Chase Elliott would lead six times for a race-high 93 laps before finishing seventh.

Hendrick Motorsports had all four cars finish in the top-14, but Stewart-Haas Racing looked the best at Phoenix with four of its Fords finishing ninth or better, including Clint Bowyer with fifth-place and rookie Cole Custer in ninth.

Another rookie, Tyler Reddick driving for Richard Childress Racing, only finished 33rd, but finished ninth in the first stage and fourth in the second stage. He won at Bristol last season in the Xfinity Series and he comes in this week finishes of eighth or better the last two Sunday’s using the other race package.

After refreshing ourselves on what happened at Phoenix, we need to get into which drivers really like Bristol. We start with Chase Elliott, who is the active leader with an 11.5 average finish, including a fifth last fall. He’s led at least 33 laps in his last three starts there.

Kyle Busch has eight Bristol wins in the Cup Series and has led 2,333 laps. No active driver comes close to that although the veteran old guys driving for Chip Ganassi Racing aren’t far behind. Kurt Busch has six wins with 1,092 laps led and Matt Kenseth has four wins and is the active leader with 15 top-fives while leading 1,583 laps.

What I’m hoping for is that Kyle Busch and Elliott battle for the lead and Elliott punts Kyle out of the way as he should have last week at Charlotte for Darlington payback. But it’s easier to do at Bristol with slower speeds where contact is just part of the way racing is there. Still, even with the backstory beef of incentive Elliott has, it’s hard betting against Kyle at Bristol.

Charlotte Part 2

We’ve got another Wednesday night NASCAR special, the second-to-last on the modified schedule, and I couldn’t be more excited.

I’m telling you weekday telecasts are the wave of the future. Last week’s Wednesday night race at Darlington was spectacular and I’m expecting something similar in the Alsco Uniforms 500K at Charlotte Motor Speedway (5 p.m. PT).

This is a short race around the 1.5-mile oval totaling 208 laps which is about half as many as the Cup Series ran during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. It’ll be over quick.

Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. I like Alex Bowman, who has been racing well and is 7-1.