For the fourth straight week we get to see the new Gen-6 car on a vastly different track. The world’s fastest half-mile at Bristol is up next and if the learning curve we saw last week is any indication, we should be in store for a treat.
At Daytona and Phoenix we didn’t see much passing. But at Las Vegas we saw 22 lead changes – the most since 2007 – among eight drivers.
The plentiful passing at Las Vegas could simply mean the car is better on a 1.5-mile track with speeds at 188 mph and a larger spoiler, as opposed to the snoozer at Daytona with restrictor-plates and a shorter spoiler. But it’s likely that after three weeks of competitive racing and practices, every crew chief is finding out more about what the Gen-6 car is all about. Expect Bristol to provide the most exciting race of the season thus far.
The new car hasn’t only created some uncertainties with the crew chiefs as they accumulate new data every week, but also bettors. Past trends and pre-race analysis of practices that have been successful over the last decade have failed to be successful the first three weeks of the season. What we do know is teams with big money are going to be successful, which shortens the field to about 18 drivers a week with a legitimate chance. After that it’s kind of a crap shoot.
Bettors who won with Matt Kenseth last week probably cited his past success at Las Vegas with two wins and the fact he’s on one of those elite teams. But for those who wager based on practices, Kenseth wasn’t a consideration. He didn’t do anything in practice to suggest he would be a major player in the race, and he wasn’t until late. These are all things that have to be rendered into the betting equation each week, and at least considered until the Gen-6 car starts to show some kind of pattern that can be followed.
Over the last few years at Bristol we’ve seen quite a few changes with the COT and then changing the layout of the track twice. Now we get to see how the new car performs on the new layout, which makes this a difficult race to handicap.
Kyle Busch won four of five races from 2009-11 in the COT and Brad Keselowski won two in a row before Denny Hamlin won last fall. They would appear to be the drivers to beat again this week. All three have performed well this season, and all three are from high profile organizations.
Busch may have the overall edge, even though it’s been four races since he last won. He’s got five wins over his career at Bristol – winning on the old faster configuration as well as the bad idea configuration with multi-grooves. That bad idea to change the track is why Bristol is no longer the toughest ticket to get in sports, which is why they changed it again last season. Although the racing isn’t back to being the way it was in 2007, it is an improvement.
In 16 career starts, Busch has a 10.3 average finish at Bristol with 11 top 10 finishes. He’s going to be a short price this week at about 6-to-1, but should be the driver to key on.
The trend at Bristol has been watching drivers win races in bunches over the course of a three year span. Between David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch, they dominated over long stretches.
The driver who fits that role right now is Keselowski, who won in the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012 before finishing 30th last fall. Just like all those drivers before him, Keselowski has the mindset and skill set to be one of those who etches his name into Bristol history.
The driver with the best career average at Bristol over the last 20 races is, surprisingly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 9.8. He’s only had one win over that span (2004), but he hasn’t finished any worse than 18th and has 10 top 10 finishes. Junior currently sits third in points and has finished in the top 10 of all three races thus far – one of three drivers to do so. Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson are the others.
Johnson struggled at Bristol for most of his career until finally getting his first win in 2010. Since then, he’s kept his Bristol roll going strong. In his last four races, he’s finished fourth or better three times and his worst finish has been ninth-place. Johnson has a five-point lead over Keselowski and a 10-point lead over Junior in the season point standings.
Kenseth is right behind Junior with a 10.3 average finish over the last 20 races at Bristol. He’s a two-time winner, the last coming in 2006. He’s had top 10 finishes in six of his last seven starts and should be considered a top contender behind Busch and Keselowski.
Hamlin loves short track racing and, despite dominating Martinsville and Richmond over his career, he didn’t get his first Bristol win until last fall. In 14 career starts, Hamlin has a 14.6 average finish and has finished seventh or better seven times.
Carl Edwards has bounced back from a terrible Daytona Speed Weeks, where he wrecked five of his cars, to have back-to-back top 5 finishes, including a Phoenix win that broke a 70-race winless streak. He’s climbed all the way to fifth in points and now visits a track that has been very good to him.
At least, if we wipe away 2012 (and we should be able to do so with ease), it’s apparent the equipment he’s got in the Gen-6 car is light years ahead of the junk he had last season. Edwards is a two-time winner at Bristol with a 14.4 average finish in 17 starts.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow him on Twitter @MicahRoberts7. Contact Micah at [email protected].