It’s got history, it’s got action and it brings out the very best and very worst of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ drivers. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, tonight is the Bristol night race.
Frankly, this event needs no introduction; the track’s history precedes itself. The race has long been one of the marquee races on the NASCAR calendar, and that will not be changing anytime soon.
After a five year lull of dull races due to a repave in 2007, a secondary repave in 2012 has revitalized the circuit in a major way, and has helped return the facility to its former glory. Bristol is now as action-packed as ever, and anytime we descend upon a race known for high levels of drama, many storylines are born.
So sit back, relax and find out what everyone will be talking about as we head into one of the most exciting nights of the year for NASCAR.
1. Will the string of exciting races at Bristol continue?
For a string of about four-and-a-half to five years, Bristol Motor Speedway lost its legendary bite. In what would become a rather infamous case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” track owner Bruton Smith made the colossal mistake of altering the banking at Bristol as part of the track’s repave in 2007 in order to “bring more side by side racing” to the track. The plan failed miserably, as the track turned into a mini intermediate track that had ample room for passing and little to no beating and banging, for which Bristol had traditionally been known.
The fans responded with their wallets, and within a few years, the track’s once sold-out grandstands began to empty in short order. A second repave was ordered in 2012 to help fix the racing, and miraculously, it worked. The repave turned reduced the number of grooves around the track from three to one-and-a-half, which was roughly the number of grooves the track had before the repave. The only difference now is that instead of those one-and-a-half grooves being around the bottom of the track, they are now around the top, which makes the track very challenging to pass on, thus creating a great deal of frustration for faster drivers. Frustration leads to beating and banging, and beating and banging leads to excitement. Hence, Bristol has been reborn.
Given how exciting the past four post-2012 repave Bristol races have been, there’s no reason to think that tonight won’t be equally as dramatic. Everyone in practice was riding around the top, and when everyone is running the same groove on a short track, excitement ensues. It should be a fun race today.
2. Could this (finally) be Kyle Larson’s day?
Since his arrival on the NASCAR scene two years ago, there have been two tracks where Kyle Larson has truly demonstrated his incredible skill as a driver. One was Eldora, where Larson has wowed onlookers with his incredible dirt racing abilities two years in a row. The other track has been Bristol.
For whatever reason, Larson has taken to the high banks of Bristol like a fish to water. Larson famously placed second in his first-ever Nationwide race at the facility to Kyle Busch in a photo finish. It was arguably that moment which truly put Larson on the radar of the greater NASCAR community. One year later, earlier this year in his first Cup race at Bristol, Larson shined once again by driving into the top 5 and staying there for much of the race, even challenging for the lead a few times. He earned his first ever Cup Series top-10 finish that night, a race that truly validated his place in the Cup Series.
Now, Larson enters tonight’s race at Bristol with different expectations. Larson and the No. 42 team can clinch a Chase berth with a win, and everyone on the team is confident that tonight could be Larson’s night. Larson was lightning fast in practice on Friday, finishing first in the opening practice and fifth in the second practice.
All told, this could be Larson’s breakout race. He’ll be a great story to watch all night long.
3. Will tempers truly flare in the wake of the Kevin Ward tragedy?
Typically when the series visits Bristol, there is an expectation that drivers will get angry with one another throughout the race and cause all sorts of ruckus both on and off the track. But in the wake of the Kevin Ward tragedy, that sort of behavior is not exactly something that anyone is celebrating right now. NASCAR’s new rule that prevents drivers from leaving their cars after an accident will largely prevent anyone from daring to gesture or approach other moving cars like we’ve seen here in years past, and there’s no telling where exactly the line is now in terms of confrontational behavior.
One could argue that the “boys have at it” era ended two weeks ago after the Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy, and tonight could be the first real litmus test to see if that notion rings true. Two drivers are almost certainly going to get into some sort of an on-track disagreement at some point tonight, so the way each reacts will give us a pretty clear idea of how racing-related confrontations will be handled going forward. Will anyone dare test NASCAR’s new rule? Will confrontations be held in safe, off-track locations? Will anyone be willing to issue on-track payback at any point? Tonight will be a real test to see what all that kind of stuff will look like in this sport going forward, and is something of an under-reported story that will bear watching both tonight and in Richmond two weeks from now.
4. Who will take the checkered flag first?
Much like the superspeedway and road course races, short track events are wild cards, and Bristol is arguably the wildest short track around. The way Bristol races nowadays, and with how close the field is on short tracks, it is tough to truly cast anyone in the field away as a non-factor for the win. I genuinely believe that in today’s style of NASCAR short track racing, anyone with the right handling car could win.
Granted, I’m exaggerating to some extent, but with how crazy Bristol can be, with the difficulty of passing and the near-certainty of big wrecks, underdogs stand a great chance here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the usual suspects won’t be up front for most of the night however, and one of those usual suspects in particular is my pick to win today.
That usual suspect is none other than Matt Kenseth. Since 2012, Kenseth has led more laps than anyone else at Bristol, and was almost certainly the dominant car here earlier this year in the spring race. Were it not for a bout of mid-race incompetence courtesy of the lapped machine driven by Timmy Hill, Kenseth likely would have dominated the rest of that event. His car was just that good. And then of course in this event last August, Kenseth won in a fierce duel with Kasey Kahne. As you can see, Kenseth seems to be the guy to beat here recently, and I don’t see that changing tonight. Kenseth knows he needs to grab a win to lock himself in the Chase, and Bristol is the best place for him to get it done.
Outside of Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch are all drivers who should fare well tonight if their early-season short track performance is anything to go by. In terms of underdogs, Larson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. would both make for solid picks based on their performance in the spring race.
Ultimately, this is a tough race to predict a winner, but I do genuinely think Kenseth will be the man to beat tonight.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Irwin Tools Night Race
- 20-Matt Kenseth
- 42-Kyle Larson
- 22-Joey Logano
- 4-Kevin Harvick
- 24-Jeff Gordon
- 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- 2-Brad Keselowski
- 99-Carl Edwards
- 41-Kurt Busch
- 18-Kyle Busch