Bristol breaks new ground

Mar 20, 2007 6:39 AM

This week’s race at Bristol marks the debut of NASCAR’s "Car of Tomorrow."

NASCAR will run 16 races this season in the new car, including next week at Martinsville as well. The changes to the car were all made in efforts to make the drivers safer. There is a larger cockpit, more steel plating by the doors, and the fuel cell is a much thicker container.

So far the car has been met with a tremendous amount of approval from the drivers.

"The first thing about it is the car is safer," Kevin Harvick said. "Whatever it is after that is a bonus. The drivers have more room inside. There’s a lot of things built into the car to absorb energy when they hit the wall. That’s just the starting point.

"The bottom line is, NASCAR has to make the best decision for them," Harvick continued. "They felt it was time to evolve the car and make it safer, and the teams will figure out the rest."

Obviously there is bound to be some kind of change with what we have come to expect, whether it’s an increase or decrease in performance. All the past data that we have may wind up being tossed out the door. Or they could run very similar. We’ll have to wait and see for ourselves and trust the drivers who tested the cars in Bristol at the end of February.

Dale Earnhardt Jr thinks the cars may even run a little better.

"The Impala SS actually drives better than our other cars do here," he said. "The car is an inch wider and has a little more grip. I am really pleasantly surprised. It has exceeded my expectations at this point and how the car is driving. I anticipated it to be a little more of a struggle get the car to turn, to work, to get it up off the corner.

"Our lap times are comparable with the other chassis we have been running here the past couple of years," Junior stated. "I think we are ahead of the game a little bit. As far as I thought we would be, we are ahead of that."

So how do we handicap this week’s race with all the changes? To start with, you have look at the drivers and use past trends to guide you. Drivers who do well at Bristol always do well there. It’s not a coincidence that the same drivers finish in the top 5 twice a year and that the same few drivers win in every Bristol. They are just better. I wouldn’t imagine the changes to the car affecting the select few drivers who dominate at Bristol.

The first candidate to win this week is Las Vegas native, Kurt Busch (6/1). He has 5 career wins at Bristol in his last 10 starts there. He has won with Jack Roush and did it last season with Roger Penske showing that Busch can do it at Bristol in nearly any situation.

The next driver to keep an eye on is Kevin Harvick (6/1). Since his rookie year in 2001, no one has a better Bristol average finish position than Harvick. He won this race in 2005 and finished second last season.

Matt Kenseth (9/1) has won the last two Bristol night races. In this race last year, Kenseth finished third. Since 2002, his worst result has been 16 with nine top 10 finishes.

After you throw out all the wins of Kenseth, Harvick, and Busch you’re left with three other drivers that have won in the last 11 races — Tony Stewart (7/1) in 2001, Jeff Gordon (10/1) in 2002, and Dale Jr (14/1) in 2004.

Sometime soon, some driver is going to step and show the Bristol heavyweights that they’re ready to become chief. Kurt Busch was that guy to do it. Greg Biffle has come close, but I believe the next in line are Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

We’ll throw them in our top 5 this week.