Best bet Bristol itself

Mar 29, 2005 9:58 AM

Two weeks of old school NASCAR half-mile racing begins this week in Bristol.

After beating and banging on each other on the high banks in Tennessee, the circuit limps into Virginia to battle Martinsville’s flat half miler. The body shop at each the team headquarters are definitely going to have their hands full.

Bristol is the most sought after ticket in NASCAR and quite possibly all of sports. Every seat is sold out with a capacity of 160,000. On normal race weekends around the country, you can buy a ticket from someone outside the gates fairly easily, but not at Bristol. If you don’t have a ticket by the time you roll in to Bristol, it’s a good bet that you aren’t getting in.

The attraction to Bristol is that there is never a dull moment. The track gives the every type of race fan something they personally like most about the sport — side by side racing, speed, crashes, close finishes and, most of all, drivers losing their temper.

Like clockwork, it never fails that after a Bristol race someone is upset with someone else.

One of the more memorable temper tantrums in recent Bristol history involved this week’s favorite, Las Vegan Kurt Busch. In this race back in 2002, Jimmy Spencer and Busch got into it pretty hard on the track. Busch ended up winning his first career race and also found his first real enemy on the circuit.

The relationship is heated to this day.Since then however, things have gone in opposite directions for each driver. Busch has won 10 more races in his career, including the 2004 Nextel Cup championship. Spencer still searches for a permanent Cup ride.

Busch has also put himself into an elite class of Cup drivers with his Bristol performances. He’s won four of the last six races, following a pattern that has just about every former Cup champion winning there. Bobby Labonte is one of the few past Cup champs without a Bristol victory.

The critical link to being a champion and having success at Bristol is patience and smarts. For the first 400 laps, it’s about staying out of trouble. Defensive driving is a must and being aggressive too early always proves to be costly.

In Busch’s case, it also doesn’t hurt that Bristol is his kind of track. As youngster in Las Vegas driving at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bull Ring (the short track adjacent to the speedway) Busch caught the eye of car owner Jack Roush because of his smooth skills. He drove the wheels off of any kind of car and shined over everyone.

A few years later, Roush found Kurt’s brother Kyle, a 14 year old driving wonder touted to be even better. Roush brought in the younger Busch to his stable of drivers and had him racing trucks.

When NASCAR placed an age limit requirement for all their drivers, Kyle had to wait a few years for his chance. Roush put the younger Busch on hold with a promise of getting him into NASCAR when he reached the allowed age, but he didn’t have anything but a handshake deal. That’s when Hendrick Motorsports swooped in and signed Kyle away from the Roush Family in the same fashion that Hendrick swooped in on Bill Davis for another young driver named Jeff Gordon.

Jack Roush is still bitter to this day about that scenario, but I’m sure winning two straight Cup championships has eased his pain.

So while the focus will be on Kurt Busch (6-1) as the driver to win again this week, overlooking Kyle (28-1) might not be a good idea. Hendrick drivers have won seven races at Bristol — five by Gordon (7-1), two by Terry Labonte (40-1).

The car Labonte used to drive, the No. 5 Chevrolet, is the same car Kyle drives this year. Labonte will be driving the No. 44 Kellogg’s Hendrick Chevrolet this week as part of his limited schedule.

A driver I have keyed at Bristol every year with no success has been Kevin Harvick (8-1) and now it has become somewhat of an obsessive quest. Since taking over the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet for one of the greatest Bristol legends of all time in 2001,

Harvick has been close four times only to have something crazy. Whether it’s tires or bad luck on a pit sequence, Harvick just hasn’t had what was needed to win a Cup race at Bristol.

Being that I’m not a quitter, I cannot give up on Harvick at Bristol. No driver has a better average than Harvick in the last eight Bristol starts. His average finish is just over ninth with two seconds, a third, and a fourth place finish.

Kurt Busch has four wins over that same span, but has an average finish of tenth. Odds will vary on Harvick all over Las Vegas in the range of 8-1 to 18-1.