Beginning with Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action will be happening for the next 14 weeks. No more off days.
For some drivers, they’ll be using the next four races to try and qualify for NASCAR’s Chase while others that are locked in will be using the next four races to get dialed in to win a championship. Let’s unofficially call these next four races the wild card round.
The first thing in handicapping the race is to check out the Bristol results from April where Carl Edwards led 276 of the 500 laps starting from the pole. It was a dominating performance and kind of a prelude of what was about to happen the rest of the year at all tracks.
Chevrolet had won three of the first five races, but then only twice in the next 17. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have won 11 of the 22 races this season. Surprisingly, Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won since Jimmie Johnson captured his second and final race of the season at Fontana in March.
So you have to start with JGR cars again. They’re all in the Chase, have raced well at Bristol over their career and all looking to tack on more wins. Kyle Busch is a five-time winner at Bristol, Matt Kenseth has won four times, including twice in the last six. Edwards also has four wins, twice in the last five. Denny Hamlin captured his only Bristol win in 2012 and was third last August.
It’s hard to suggest another team will win this race, but if you had to take two guesses to derail Toyota, Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would be the best candidates. Logano has won the past two August night races at Bristol and Keselowski won two straight there in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.
JGR Toyotas, the pickings are slim. Kevin Harvick will be considered one of the favorites just because he’s so consistent with a series-leading 17 top-10 finishes, but he still has only one win on the year – the fourth race of the season at Phoenix – and his only Bristol win came in 2005 with the older layout when there was only one groove.
The old layout provided much better racing because every driver was fighting for that inside line. Fans obviously agree as the Bristol Night Race is no longer the hardest ticket to get in the series.
Kurt Busch is a five-time winner at Bristol, but hasn’t won there since 2006. He was third in the April race, leading 41 laps. Of all the drivers outside of the Penske and Gibbs cars, he probably offers the best value on the board. But you’re not going to get better than 12-to-1 and he’s only won once this year, so I don’t know if that’s exactly value.
We can also reference Dover’s one-mile high banked concrete layout. Bristol is only a half-mile, but it’s also concrete and high-banked making the set-up requirements similar for crew chiefs. Kenseth won that race in May just prior to the Charlotte All-Star race. Kyle Larson was second – leading 85 laps, Chase Elliott third, Kasey Kahne fourth and Kurt Busch fifth. Keselowski was sixth and Harvick led a race-high 117 laps before finishing a lap down in 15th.
There’s enough reason to suggest Kurt Busch again, but what about Elliott, who also finished fourth at Bristol? He’s got the Hendrick drought going against him and he’s also finished 13th or worse in his last seven starts after having 11 top-10s in the first 15 races. His current form isn’t so hot, which makes him a pass. Larson, who is trying to qualify for the Chase, might be a decent look at 25-to-1 odds to win this week.
Everything still points to the Gibbs cars. Good luck, and enjoy the race.