Bristol might see new faces in the winner’s circle

March 20, 2001 5:49 AM
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NASCAR fans were asked lately where they enjoy watching racing most. Bristol Motor Speedway was the 2-1 choice. It’s not hard to see why. It has all the best elements of stock car racing: high banks, rubbin’ fenders, action in all 500 laps; and, best of all, tempers.

Rivalries are created at Bristol. For a driver to win a race, he’ll have to bump a few colleagues out of the way. It’s a tight half-mile track, but its 36 degrees of banking allow these cars to fly around like no other half-miler.

For a handicapper’s angle, the strongest trend is to look no farther than Winston Cup champions. In the last 20 races (covering 10 years), only one non-Winston Cup Champion has won at Bristol: Mark Martin, won twice (’93 and ’98). If you throw out 1990 when Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan won, you have to go back to 1971, when Charlie Glotzbach won, to find a year that a non-champion won at Bristol.

To narrow it even more, the last Winston Cup champion to never have won at Bristol was Bobby Isaac, who won the season title in 1970. This doesn’t mean history will repeat itself, but it’s a magnificent trend. More important is what it says about the drivers winning. It takes someone who fully understands racing to win at Bristol.

According to our trend, there are five drivers out there to watch. All are champions and past winners at Bristol.

Rusty Wallace (7-2) is the active win leader at Bristol — nine over his career. He won three of the last four Bristol races, including a sweep last season. Rusty’s success at Bristol is attributed mainly to being unnerved about rattling someone’s cage if he has to. If Rusty were to win a third straight at Bristol, he’d join David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to do so.

Jeff Gordon (4-1) is a four-time winner at Bristol (all four during the fall night races from ’95 to ’98). He won the championship in three of those years. He’s had an extremely fast car on every type of track this season. Now comes the challenge of setting up a short track car. Crew Chief Robbie Loomis struggled with that chore last season, but things look a lot brighter already for Team Du Pont.

Dale Jarrett (6-1) in his new UPS paint scheme is driving like he’s irritated with his "Mr. Nice Guy" label. His tenacious nasty streak over the last four races makes him one to watch Sunday. He’s the points leader, looking to win his second career race at Bristol.

Terry Labonte (45-1) hasn’t been the same since his crash last season, but Bristol might revive his competitive spirits. He’s a two-time winner on the short track. He finished in the Top 5 in nearly half of his 44 career starts, including a 5th in this race last season.

Labonte knows what it takes to win at Bristol. He’s been on both the bumper and bumpee side. In ’99, Dale Earnhardt gave Labonte, who was leading, a little love tap on the final lap. It spun Labonte out. It was classic Earnhardt and what Bristol is all about.

Bill Elliott (35-1) has never been known for his short track exploits, but he did capture a win at Bristol in ’88, the same year he won his only championship. In all, Elliott has only managed to crack the Top 5 in five of 33 starts. This is a new year in a new car, which presents many unknowns. So far, Elliott has been just average this season while some of the other Dodges have been outstanding. It’s a long shot, but he’s part of the trend.

Bobby Labonte (8-1) is the only active Winston Cup champion who’s never won at Bristol. Based on his performance this season and his history at Bristol, this won’t be the year he joins the other champions. He hasn’t finished in the Top 5 in 16 career starts.

Just because there’s strong trend at Bristol doesn’t mean it’s going to continue. Three non-champions have won four races over 30 years, so it’s possible. With so many new faces performing well this season, the trend might be bucked.

Kevin Harvick (20-1) had all his top performances in the Truck and Busch Series on short tracks. He won the fall Busch Series race at Bristol last season. Now he’s equipped for the Cup series race at Bristol with a win under his belt on the season and a crew that made Dale Earnhardt the top money winner in Bristol’s history. Look for Harvick to have a great showing.

Sterling Marlin (12-1) has been getting closer every week to winning his first race in five seasons. The native Tennessean was never much of a contender at Bristol. With only two Top 5 finishes in 32 starts. He’s a fan favorite there. He might finally have a setup to win. He took his own car to a Busch series win there last season.

Steve Park (9-1) is on fire. He’s setting himself up every week to win. It gets scarier for the competition as well. He’s always had good runs at Bristol. Now he comes in with a swagger as one of the top drivers. Last season, he sat on the pole for this race and finished seventh. In the fall race, he started third and finished fifth.