Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Which Winless Driver Will Triumph in Bristol?

How will XFINITY heat races play out in Bristol?

To match their name, Saturday’s XFINITY Series heat races will be hot as two 50-lap shootouts will help determine the starting lineup for the 200-lap “main” at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Thanks to one of the neatest additions from the offseason, the XFINITY field will finally have something to shake up the action against the powers that be in Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 crew.

But will it work? Erik Jones has been the next man in line through six races in 2016 – finishing second to Busch two of the last three races while qualifying second in four the the last five. On Thursday, the 19-year-old expressed concern regarding the lack of back-up cars being available if you were to crash your car in your heat race.

That will absolutely prove to be a factor in both heat races as all teams will more than likely being looking out for their own equipment for when it counts. Similar to the Can-Am Duels in Daytona, everybody is showing up with their goods. The last thing they want to do it tear stuff up in a race that doesn’t bring a trophy.

One more spicy ingredient they threw in was the Dash 4 Cash competition among series regulars. This has already proven to give small teams more incentive – and even some time in the spotlight – to chase after a cool cash reward.

There’s no place better to kick off this new format than Bristol. Though Joey Logano led a flag-to-flag race in 2015, the track is known to bring the best and worst out of the field of drivers.

How will 5-place grid penalty impact Lewis Hamilton in China?

Following a gearbox change for Lewis Hamilton‘s No. 44 W07 chassis, the two-time defending Formula 1 champion will be deducted five spots once the lights go out for the Chinese Grand Prix.

How big of deal will this be? It can go both ways.

Lewis-Hamilton-Spanish-F1-Grand-Prix-Practice-getty images
Hamilton must show patience Sunday if he wants to catch his flying Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg [Photo: Getty Images]
In the past couple seasons, we have seen Hamilton find trouble when it came to passing cars. Whether it be a poor run to Turn 1 like the past two weeks or a little contact with another car, Hamilton has shown some traits of panic when he’s a little behind.

One example came in Hungary last season, when pushing the issue with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg on Lap 1 forced Hamilton into an error. Losing 10 spots, he never recovered for the rest of the day.

Realistically, Hamilton will only be bumped to sixth or seventh on the grid for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix. Going back to another race – the 2014 German Grand Prix – Hamilton drove all the way from pit lane to finish third on podium.

However, in 2014 the Silver Arrows did not have as close of competition with another team; that team being Ferrari. I think simply starting behind Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikonnen will spell trouble for the Brit.

Unless he can squeak by with nifty pit calls like he has in the past, it could be a tough day if Hamilton doesn’t fix up his starts.

What 2016 Sprint Cup contender will end their winless streak in Bristol?

Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, the list can go on for about 12 drivers who can easily end their winless seasons on Sunday afternoon in Bristol.

It’s always a good sign when you need both your hands and your left foot to count the competitors who can bring home a win every weekend. It’s never easy, but it can always happen.

The spring race at Bristol has be known to bring drivers their first wins of Sprint Cup series seasons. Following a number of missed opportunities, Kenseth grabbed win No. 1 in last year’s rain-assaulted race while Carl Edwards did the same in 2014.

In fact, nine of the last 11 spring Bristol races have produced different winners, with seven of the nine breaking season winless runs.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. suffers damage after contact during the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway
With two top 5s in last four Bristol races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knows this track like no other. (Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)­­

Looking past track history, the above mentioned drivers will be threats to win on Sunday if they bring their 2016 speed in the Last Great Colosseum.  Edwards and Martin Truex, Jr. are fresh off an overall tough loss last week in Texas. Though Truex has only two top 10s in 20 Bristol starts, the team’s Joe Gibbs Racing affiliation has fueled Furniture Row Racing to early 2016 speed.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a three-time track winner and has led a stellar 357 laps in the last five Bristol races. They used to call him “Concrete Carl”, and you can bet we’ll see him up front on Sunday.

Will we see some underdog performances Sunday?

Like plate racing at Talladega and Daytona, the high-banked half-mile of Bristol can collect some sheet metal – just ask Michael Waltrip or Mike Harmon.

OK, the walls have been completely overhauled and that will never be a worry ever again, but this place has torn up some cars every year since 1961 regardless.

In return, those small teams further back have been given great opportunities to bring home a great finish.

The 2015 spring event saw more fun storylines in the top-20 than the front page of TMZ.  Let’s name them: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. fourth, Tony Stewart sixth, Justin Allgaier career-best eighth, Danica Patrick ninth, Brett Moffitt 17th, David Gilliland 18th and Alex Bowman 20th.

Boy, how can that not get you talking about the underdogs? Attrition, buttloads of rain and 11 laps of overtime will likely bring finishes like that. However, that’s exactly what makes Bristol what it is.

Even in the fall race last year, Allgaier returned for a 12th-place finish in his No. 51 HScott entry. In other words, Clint Bowyer can shock the field with a much-needed run on Sunday in his No. 15 ride.

The rookie class will have a fun time putting a whole 500-lap race together in Tennessee. Ryan Blaney has an XFINITY win there while Jeffrey Earnhardt scored his best XFINITY finish there in 2014.

Both Front Row Motorsports and BK Racing have shown improvement in the early weeks of 2016. To boost the steady start, BK Racing will have Matt DiBenedetto one year removed from a career-best non-plate qualifying effort from one year ago.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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