Expect tempers to flare at Bristol

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There have only been four winners between the seven NASCAR Cup Series races so far, but the racing has been more competitive than last season and television ratings are up.

Now it’s Bristol week where we’re sure to be thrilled even more with tempers flaring as usually happens on the crowded high-banked half-mile bullring in Eastern Tennessee. 

Last week’s race at Texas was the perfect race for NASCAR to brag about with its new race package introduced this season because there were 26 lead changes between 13 drivers. There’s parity like maybe never before. The edge elite teams have had in recent years has been taken away while programs like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, and Richard Childress are back and ready to win again soon.

Perhaps what was best of all was seeing seven-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, who had won at Texas seven times, looking like classic J.J. again. 

He didn’t win a race in a season for the first time in 2018 and his last win, the 83rd of his career, came in the 13th week of 2016 at Dover. That’s a span of 66 races without a win.

But Sunday he finished fifth and he led 60 laps which are more than he led the entire 2017 season. His Hendrick teammates William Byron (6th) and Chase Elliott (13th) also had lots of speed and led some laps.

More evidence at Texas that teams are figuring out the 550 horsepower package out as they get more time to tinker with set-up strategies is Daniel Suarez finishing third, Erik Jones fourth, Ryan Newman 11th and Austin Dillon 14th. Eleven of the top-14 finishers led a lap. It was great television, like a good ‘who done it’ movie that keeps you guessing until the end.

Last week’s race package is evolving and getting better each race, but Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol will be using the engine package with 750 horsepower and no aero-ducts like they used at Martinsville and Phoenix, two races that each had a single driver dominate. Kyle Busch led 177 of 312 laps winning at Phoenix. At Martinsville, Brad Keselowski was one of only three drivers to lead a lap and he hogged almost all of them, leading 446 of 500 laps.

The question this week is whether or not the growth with this race package happens in a similar way the 550 horsepower package has. Martinsville and Phoenix race nothing like Bristol, which has two equal grooves, allowing for lots of side-by-side racing. The tight quarters and speeds at Bristol create lots of bumps and bruises on the cars, and then the drivers get angry with each other.

It’s awesome! I think we need more fights or rivalries.

I use the 1-mile concrete layout at Dover as the best comparison to Bristol because of the surface and banking, but there’s no data from Dover yet in this package.

All we have to go off is who performed well at Martinsville and Phoenix and then mix in some past Bristol history. Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Denny Hamlin had top-five finishes in both races. Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, and Kevin Harvick had top-10 finishes in both. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Busch and Hamlin have combined to win four of the seven races this season.

As for track history, the Las Vegas Busch brothers are the active leaders in wins with 13 combined, Kyle has seven, Kurt has six. They’ve won the past three Bristol races. Kyle won this race last season and Kurt won in the fall, his first there since 2006.

Drivers with two wins each are Joey Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, and Harvick. Hamlin’s lone Bristol win came in 2012.

The driver I’m going to key on prior to practices is Ryan Blaney, who drives a Penske Mustang. His teammates have combined for three wins and his best performances this season where he was good enough to win was using this package. He was third at Phoenix leading 94 laps and fourth at Martinsville.

In his first season with Penske last year, he got to the front quickly, leading 100 laps in the spring before being caught up in an accident and then leading 121 laps in the fall before finishing seventh.

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