Bristol promises more thrills

Aug 24, 2004 6:52 AM

From 1981 to 1984, Darrell Waltrip won seven straight races on the half mile high bankings of Bristol Motor Speedway. Waltrip ended his Hall of Fame career with 12 wins in 52 starts at Bristol and finished in the top 5 in half of his starts. DW is, without much argument, the best driver ever at Bristol.

However, the debate over who is unquestionably the greatest driver at Bristol has several candidates to rival Waltrip. There have been so many greats in NASCAR that have had dominating stretches at Bristol. It takes a tremendous amount of patience to win there, but it also takes an equally important mix of toughness to win. The drivers that balance those two different aspects the best usually win at Bristol. When reviewing all the past multiple winners there you’ll see a common correlation of championship drivers between most of them.

Until this season, winning a NASCAR Cup Championship took that same mix of conservative yet aggressive approach. Throughout time, the greats from Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Richard Petty, and Cale Yarborough have mastered Bristol. In recent history Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon have followed the same pattern.

From 1991 to ”˜99, only Mark Martin won a Bristol race without having gone on or previously captured a NASCAR points championship. To Martin’s credit, he may be the greatest driver to never win a driving title. Martin has finished second four times.

The tide turned against the Bristol norm in 2001 when Elliott Sadler scored an improbable win for the Wood Brothers at 75-1. Stewart followed with a victory that fall and would become a champion the next year.

The out of the ordinary trend Sadler started would continue when Kurt Busch won in 2002. Gordon won that fall, setting all the past trends straight again. Busch went on to sweep 2003 and then won again in the spring this year. The Las Vegas native has won four of the last five there.

Busch may eventually win a driving championship. He’s got a lot in his favor being in Jack Roush’s stable, but hasn’t demonstrated the same type of patience it takes to win at Bristol for an entire season. He clearly shows his aggression, but his ability to channel both together so successfully at Bristol is somewhat of a mystery. Busch has his enemies at Bristol, but the pursuers were never quite able to catch him and deliver retaliation.

The one thing most apparent at Bristol is that not everyone is going home happy. There is no other track on tour where more fireworks and explosions are instigated by the drivers’ tempers. The post race interviews are the most entertaining in all of sports. The safest bet one could make all weekend is that someone is going get real upset with someone else.

Here are some of the prime candidates this week to win at Bristol. Young gun Kurt Busch opened as the 5-1 favorite to win at Station Casinos.

Tony Stewart (8-1): Owns a win at Bristol along with two other top 10 finishes in his 11 starts. Hasn’t been very successful in his last three appearances, averaging 24th. Currently, T-Stew is in the midst of a pretty good run with six top 10s in his last seven races. Stewart is fourth in points.

Kevin Harvick (8-1): Grew up racing on short tracks in California. Saturday Night specials are what racing is all about to Harvick. Both Harvick and Busch came up the same year. Even though Busch has all the Bristol wins, Harvick still has a better overall average finish.

Rusty Wallace (8-1): Has mellowed over the years but remains one of the true hot heads of all time. The veteran can roll up in someone’s grill, chew out drivers and still be respected. Wallace has nine career Bristol wins, including a sweep in 2000. Rusty was second earlier this year.

Jeff Gordon (7-1): has 17 top 10 finishes this season, lifting him into the points lead. Meanwhile, teammate Jimmie Johnson (14-1) has taken a major nose dive. Gordon was the first driver to clinch a position in the playoffs. At Bristol, Gordon is a five-time winner.

Matt Kenseth (10-1): is a driver, who fits the patience mold perfectly to win at Bristol. Kenseth need more of a tiger in him, but has shown some toughness this year. Harvick has five straight top 6 runs at Bristol.

NOTES: Of the 87 Bristol races run, 20 have been won from the pole and 73 from a top 10 starting position. Elliott Sadler started from 38th and won in 2001, the furthest back anyone has ever won.

”¡ Robby Gordon is going to attempt the night racing trifecta this weekend — Trucks on Wednesday, the Busch Series on and the Nextel Cup Series on Saturday. All three series may be wagered at Station Casinos and Palms.

”¡ Mark Martin might retire after 2005 season when his sponsors contract runs out. 2005 could be a huge year with a legends tour if both Martin and Rusty Wallace retire.