Bristol brings true excitement with close quarters racing

Bristol brings true excitement with close quarters racing

August 14, 2018 3:04 AM
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There are only three more regular season races remaining in the NASCAR Cup Series before the green flag of the Playoffs drops Sept. 16 in Las Vegas, the first time our beloved Las Vegas Motor Speedway will have two Cup races in a year.

While I can’t wait for that new experience, I’m also getting a little antsy waiting for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race at Bristol. It’s the fastest half-mile track in the world where drivers are crammed together like packed sardines, bumper-to-bumper and fender-to-fender, and tempers always flare.

The first 23 races have seen three drivers combined to win 17 of the races led by Kevin Harvick’s career-high seven wins following his Michigan victory Sunday. Las Vegan Kyle Busch has six wins, which includes a win in the first Bristol race this season in April. It was his second straight win at Bristol, giving him seven overall in Thunder Valley making him the active leader.

Martin Truex Jr. has the third-most wins this season with four and he’s never won at Bristol in 25 starts. In fact, he’s only had two top-fives in a career there, the last coming in 2012. He was 21st in this race last season and then was 30th there in April after an accident, which raised his average finish at Bristol to 20.7. It’s just not his track, which is good news because I can simply scratch his name off as a candidate to win and concentrate on the rest of the field.

Now, can I cross Harvick off the list? Of course not, but I’m certainly not betting him to win. He’s a two-time winner at Bristol, the last coming in 2016. He’s finished eighth or better in his last six starts there but hasn’t led a lap in his last two. Not leading a lap in his incredible dominant 2018 is telling. He was seventh in April, one of only six races this season he hasn’t finished in the top-five. Yes, the guy has 17 top-5’s in 23 races. Incredible.

The positive for Harvick this week, beyond just being dominant, is him leading 201 of 400 laps in a May 6 win at Dover. Bristol is unique to itself, but the one-mile high-banked concrete layout of Dover is the most comparable and crew chiefs often use the same chassis and set-up notes for each. Truex finished fourth in that race – his home track – and Kyle Busch had some mechanical issues and finished 35th after getting top-three finishes in each of the first two stages.

I’m not going to bet Harvick to win, so now I have to worry about Kyle Busch who owns this track and is the favorite to win. I want some juicy candidates with high odds to win, but I also have to be realistic, which is why I’m using 25 percent of my allotted weekly NASCAR odds-to-win bankroll on Busch as a backup plan.

The rest of the bankroll is going to be split between Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. I’ve been waiting for Keselowski and Blaney to break through this season, but the Penske teammates were outstanding in the April Bristol race even though the final results don’t show it. Blaney finished 35th after being involved in a wreck but led twice for 100 laps.

Keselowski is a two-time winner and looked to have one of the best cars in the April race, something we haven’t been able to say about him all season. He led four times for 67 laps and finished first in each of the first two stages.

Kyle Larson had his first Bristol win in sight in April and led a race-high 200 laps. He was leading with six laps to go until Busch made the pass and then settled for runner-up. He’s looking for his first win of the season and this could be it.

As for Stenhouse, this is the long shot value of the week and he should be able to fetch around 100-to-1 odds. What I like about it is desperation coupled with Bristol skills. He needs to win a race to make the Playoffs because he’s 62 points behind the final cutoff point. He’s got nothing to lose, is not afraid of any driver and has the best average finish (10.1) among all active drivers. He’s got four top-5’s in 11 starts there, including fourth-place in April.

Harvick’s Stewart Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch should both be very good this week too.