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Forget football, excitement comes at Bristol

Aug 19, 2003 8:17 AM

Preseason pro football has given the sporting nation an adrenaline rush, but the excitement produced this Saturday night at Thunder Valley has no equal.

Even though the race will be televised on cable and exposed to a limited audience, the Bristol race will still be the most watched sporting event of the weekend -- and that includes the Thursday and Monday night preseason football games on national TV.

The annual night race in Bristol has become one of the most sought after tickets on the tour. Because of the tight configuration of the track, things get jumbled on nearly every turn of every lap. Fans love when the drivers mix it up.

In the last three Bristol races, there have been 46 combined cautions, an example of just how tangled things can get. Stations Casinos posts a weekly number on cautions. This week, as Green Valley Ranch’s Kelly Downey explains, they are posting their highest caution total ever.

"Fourteen cautions is a ton and we’ll likely get bet over, but we don’t want to get too crazy with the number because there have been some relatively low cautions there like 10 and 11," Downey said. "We settled on 14½ over as the favorite."

Typically, Stations settles on between 5 and 8, but Bristol is a whole new game.

"It’s like bumper cars out there," Downey says, "Then you mix in guys like Todd Bodine and Ken Schrader, who are always good for two or three cautions alone, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a caution-fest."

Usually at Bristol, a Winston Cup points champion wins. The reason is that other drivers are usually more careful around drivers they respect. Winning a championship automatically gives a driver respect among his peers. Prior to the 2001 race Elliott Sadler won, only three non-champions (Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin) won at Bristol dating to 1972.

Here’s a look at some of the top candidates this week based on past performances at Bristol mixed in with a combination of respect and attitude.

Kevin Harvick (10-1): Has the required skills and pedigree. Harvick nurtured his skills on the short track at Bakersfield and also excelled in the Trucks and Busch series. Won twice at Bristol in the Busch series. Led the most laps in the 2001 race his tire gave out. Since then has placed second, fourth, and seventh. Has been running consistently better over the last few months.

Jeff Gordon (8-1): Won last year, his fifth lifetime at Bristol. Has 10 top 5 finishes In 21 starts there. Led the most laps in first race this season, finishing ninth.

Tony Stewart (5-1): In the spring race over his career, Stewart’s best finish has been 15th. In the fall, under the lights, Stewart has three top 5’s that include a win. Look for Stewart’s nightlife trend to continue.

Rusty Wallace (12-1): In 39 career starts, Wallace has 20 top 5 finishes that include nine wins. Wallace’s whole career has been built on the short tracks. In ”˜99, he won twice and came right back the following spring to take Bristol again. Since then, he has four top 10’s, including a second. Will be tough in all matchups.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (9-1): May be the most respected driver by his peers. Early in his career, he took some learning lumps at Bristol. His fourth and third place efforts last year indicate Junior may be ready for the winners circle.

Kurt Busch (9-2): Won last two day races at Bristol and was sixth under the lights in ”˜02. Enters as the favorite due to the recent success. History shows multiple winners at Bristol (such as Wallace, Gordon and Waltrip) keep winning. His time spent in the Bullring at Las Vegas and other NASCAR Southwest series short tracks have prepared him well.

Also: Matt Kenseth (15-1). Winston Cup points leader. Finished six or better in last three Bristol races.... Greg Biffle (40-1). Placed fifth in Cup debut there in March. Experienced from Western short tracks... Terry Labonte (33-1). Two-time winner. With luck, has moxie to hold off, bump, and fight for a win..