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Mar 18, 2003 4:55 AM

Last week’s thrilling finish at Darlington might end up being one of the classics of all-time, but Bristol Motor Speedway is no stranger to great endings.

The one of a kind configuration of the half-mile track creates some of the most exciting races bi-annually. The excitement is produced entirely because of the 36 degree of banking in the turns that allows the drivers to rip in and out with minimal braking.

The short track keeps the drivers bunched together. Due to the turns, speeds never rise above 127 mph. The relatively slow speeds allow the drivers to make moves and bump one another with knowledge that the chances of serious injury to a fellow driver are less likely to happen.

The emotions that result from the "paint-rubbing" adds to the drama of every Bristol race. Tempers always get out of hand, but that’s what makes Bristol one of the most great spectator tracks on the circuit. Something’s always going to happen.

Coming into this week’s race, Matt Kenseth leads Tony Stewart in the Winston Cup points competition by 57. Both are the only drivers to have four top-10 finishes this year. The surprise contender is Michael Waltrip, who gained his third top-5 last week at Darlington. Only 198 points separate 1-14 in the points battle after Darlington. The way Kenseth is going, 6-1 to win the championship should look enticing.

The last two spring Bristol races have produced first time wins for drivers. Young guns Elliott Sadler (20-1) and Kurt Busch (10-1) took the checkers. It’s the first time since 1966 that a non-NASCAR champions won Bristol in back to back years. Prior to Busch and Sadler winning, only three drivers (Mark Martin, Ernie Ervan and the late Davey Allison) since 1972 had won Bristol races that weren’t champions.

Bristol is a track won by drivers who have a confident swagger. This allows them the unofficial right to bump others out of the way. Aggressive drivers aren’t severely retaliated against due to common respect.

The top active driver at Bristol is Rusty Wallace (8-1), who has nine wins over his career. Unlike some of the older drivers, Wallace’s past accomplishments still hold a tremendous amount of validity when handicapping this week’s race. Three of his wins have been since 1999.

Wallace has always been known for being the king of the short tracks and makes it known to all that Bristol is his all-time favorite track. In 38 starts, Wallace has 20 top-5 finishes. The only driver in track history with better credentials will be in the broadcast booth for FOX television. Darrell Waltrip won 12 times in 52 starts that included finishing in the top 5 in half his starts.

Jeff Gordon (6-1) is the co-favorite this week based on his five career wins. Also, Gordon appears more dialed into the 2003 season than Wallace. Gordon won the fall race last season for the first time. His previous wins all came in succession in spring races from ”˜95 to ”˜98. Gordon has finished in the top-5 in half of his 20 starts.

Kurt Busch (10-1) took some lumps in his first two tangos at Bristol, learning what the track was all about. When he found himself in the lead with 90 laps to go in this race last season, he drove the wheels off the car to win his first career race. Busch and Jimmy Spencer (75-1) mixed it up for several laps with Spencer attempting every trick in the Bristol book on Busch and vice versa.

The post-race interviews were classic with plenty of expletives. That battle was a preview to the NASCAR nation showing what a great driver the skinny kid from Las Vegas really was. In the fall, Busch led 44 laps late in the race and settled for sixth. Of all the young drivers, Busch has the best Bristol attitude because he’ll mix it up with anyone. Over the last 25 laps at Darlington, Busch was fishtailing around every turn like he was on a dirt track and almost nipped winner Ricky Craven at the wire.

Kevin Harvick (10-1) had his most memorable Bristol moment in the Busch Series race last year when leaped several cars after the race to get to Greg Biffle after they tangled in the last two laps. Harvick has always been a short track driver dating back to his roots with Ron Hornaday at Bakersfield, CA. The "No Fear" attitude is there, but Harvick has ran into some bad luck ata Bristol.

The year Sadler won, Harvick dominated but had a tire blow on him, yet still finished on the lead lap. Harvick followed that up with three top-10 finishes, including a second. Odds are sure to vary at several books in Nevada. If you like Harvick’s chances this week, it’ll be worth shopping because 25-1 should be available somewhere.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (8-1), like Busch, took his Bristol lumps early but came on strong last season with a fourth and third. Tony Stewart (6-1) is a past winner at Bristol and, like everyone else that has been successful at Bristol, he has a nasty streak.


TOP 5 finish prediction

#29 Kevin Harvick 10-1

#97 Kurt Busch 10-1

#2 Rusty Wallace 8-1

#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr 8-1

#24 Jeff Gordon 6-1