Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race Preview: World's Fastest Half-Mile

Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race Preview: World's Fastest Half-Mile

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Nothing beats racing in prime time, and this Saturday night that's exactly what the boys of NASCAR will be doing. This weekend we return to the bull ring in Bristol, Tennessee for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. The high-contact, short track action under the lights is one of the most popular races in the schedule. It's been a long, hard haul since race No. 8 of the season, which was the last time NASCAR's top division visited Thunder Valley. Since that time we've seen Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. duel for the championship standings lead. We've seen Ryan Blaney's big upset victory at Pocono. We've seen Jimmie Johnson's spring hot streak where he won three out of seven races. We've also seen Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin return to victory lane after long droughts with wins at Indianapolis and New Hampshire. So a lot has happened since the Monster Energy Cup Series last ran the high banks of BMS. We've also seen several styles of tracks and generally raced on the larger ovals.

Bristol should prove to be a big adjustment for the drivers to make this weekend. It's been some time since we've gone racing on an oval of less than one-mile in size. Despite the long layoff, we should see a lot of the same faces racing at the front that we saw here in April. Successful short track drivers are a rare mix of patience and aggression. Those who can balance that yin and

Nothing beats racing in prime time, and this Saturday night that's exactly what the boys of NASCAR will be doing. This weekend we return to the bull ring in Bristol, Tennessee for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. The high-contact, short track action under the lights is one of the most popular races in the schedule. It's been a long, hard haul since race No. 8 of the season, which was the last time NASCAR's top division visited Thunder Valley. Since that time we've seen Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. duel for the championship standings lead. We've seen Ryan Blaney's big upset victory at Pocono. We've seen Jimmie Johnson's spring hot streak where he won three out of seven races. We've also seen Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin return to victory lane after long droughts with wins at Indianapolis and New Hampshire. So a lot has happened since the Monster Energy Cup Series last ran the high banks of BMS. We've also seen several styles of tracks and generally raced on the larger ovals.

Bristol should prove to be a big adjustment for the drivers to make this weekend. It's been some time since we've gone racing on an oval of less than one-mile in size. Despite the long layoff, we should see a lot of the same faces racing at the front that we saw here in April. Successful short track drivers are a rare mix of patience and aggression. Those who can balance that yin and yang and beat fenders when need be and still be able to sit back and wait for an opportunity to pass in traffic are the ones to succeed at this half-mile oval of chaos. When we put the fireworks of Bristol Motor Speedway under the lights we have a sporting event second to none in the racing world. We're sure to see some tempers raised, fenders beaten and feathers ruffled after this 500-lap battle Saturday night.

In preparing our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close look at the last 12 years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 25 races will be very useful. This span will cover Bristol's transformation from a one-groove to a two-groove short track and should bear some great data. In forming this week's driver list we'll also pay some attention to current hot streaks. Drivers who raced well at Michigan should carry that momentum into the World's Fastest Half Mile this Saturday night. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Bristol drivers, sorted by driver rating.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Matt Kenseth14.38106361,5369,553100.2
Kyle Busch15.16047731,9607,62099.3
Chase Elliott8.717153141,18297.4
Kevin Harvick14.97296686478,63496.3
Erik Jones17.05324041393.4
Jimmie Johnson14.16646378868,48993.0
Kyle Larson19.32951892922,21292.8
Kurt Busch16.68004385728,08291.4
Denny Hamlin15.96164886076,98890.5
Brad Keselowski17.15662524994,58089.6
Joey Logano 16.85292875224,56687.7
Kasey Kahne17.38015065127,00586.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.6588272836,61585.6
Ryan Newman15.8746178668,22485.6
Martin Truex Jr.20.37503632306,37884.0
Jamie McMurray17.87522631716,82280.6
Clint Bowyer15.15502631375,54680.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.10.42888401,99379.0
Ryan Blaney25.317032091773.3
Paul Menard 17.9495751044,12772.2

The last time we went racing on Bristol's high banks, we had some variables to take into account. Firstly, we saw the race ran on a Monday rather than a Sunday due to rain. Secondly, we saw Bristol Motor Speedway use a substance called PJ1 TrackBite on the lower groove of the track to introduce more grip to cars running on the bottom of the race track. The spring Bristol race was some of the best action we've seen at the short track in a long time. Bristol will once again be using that resin compound on the lower groove and hopefully we'll see some of the same great action this Saturday night.

In the season's first race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in April of this year, we had a few surprises, both at the top and the bottom of the finishing order. Still, some of the same short track specialists found their way to the front. Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. staged a running battle for the first 300 laps, but it would be the No. 48 Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson that would take control in the second half of that race and go on to win. It was the Hendrick Motorsports star's second-career victory at Bristol. That performance and win capped an amazing day for Johnson at BMS. The veteran driver didn't take the lead for the first time until lap 394, but he would be a force over those final 106 laps. Also of note that day in April was Clint Bowyer's fantastic performance. He raced inside the Top 10 all day and finished runner-up to Johnson in the 500-lap spring battle at Bristol. It was Bowyer's career-best Bristol finish and first Top 5 at the half-mile oval since leaving Michael Waltrip Racing. The duo of Larson and Truex combined to lead an amazing 318 laps, but neither would have the luck to win finishing sixth and eighth respectively. As you can see, each of these four drivers compete for a different manufacturer.

So we have plenty of parity among Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford at this short track. With Johnson's win, Chevrolet has taken the last two Bristol wins, and six-race Ford/Toyota monopoly on the famous short track. Could Larson keep this streak going for the bowtie brand, or will Toyota and Ford rally back with their surging drivers? We'll take a look at the historical loop stats and recent hot streaks and see if we can clear up the picture, and give you the drivers you need this weekend to conquer the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski - One of the strongest fantasy racing plays for this weekend's Bristol race is Keselowski. The Penske Racing star has won two-career victories at the historic short track, and he's led a whopping 499 laps combined in 15 starts. Keselowski has had a tough time at the Tennessee short track in recent outings, but the No. 2 team is surging strong entering this Saturday night's battle. He won the pole and led 105 laps this past week at Michigan before the wrong fuel strategy took the win away from him. Keselowski's short track performances this season have been razor sharp. With a win earlier this year at Martinsville and runner-up finish at Richmond, this driver and team are dialed-in for speed on these small ovals.

Kevin Harvick -
With his win in this event one year ago, Harvick is now a two-time Bristol winner. Some inconsistency had marked his outings at this oval from 2009 to 2014, but now the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team has found the speed Harvick was missing at this short track for almost 5 years. Harvick's last six starts at Bristol Motor Speedway have netted one pole position, over 400 laps led, one victory and four Top-10 finishes (including a runner-up and third-place). Since Bristol starting treating the lower groove with grip compound, Harvick has really come to life at this oval. We expect to see the No. 4 Ford up front for many laps in Saturday night's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

Denny Hamlin -
Coming off a pair of Top-5 finishes the last three weeks at Pocono and Watkins Glen, it would seem that the No. 11 Toyota team are gathering some momentum heading into the Chase for the Cup. Hamlin has one victory on the season and he's cracked the Top 5 in four of his last six starts coming into Thunder Valley Saturday night. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time Bristol winner and he's won three pole positions here since the 2013 season. Hamlin has a tendency to perform better in the summer installment at Bristol than the spring race. He's nabbed a pair of third-place finishes in his last two Bristol night races. The race that the veteran driver won at Bristol in 2012 was a night race. The odds and trends would seem to favor this Joe Gibbs Racing driver and team.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing star has been really good of late. With two victories and five Top-3 finishes in the last six races, it's hard not to be high on the No. 78 Toyota team. Truex's career numbers at Bristol Motor Speedway are less-than-inspiring. He has only three Top-10 finishes in 23 starts. However, he's begun to show some signs of life at this challenging short track. Truex made a start here in the spring in the Food City 500 and posted career-best Bristol marks with a third-place qualifying effort and 116 laps led. It would culminate in an eighth-place finish, but it was by far one of his best performances at this oval in 12 seasons of Cup competition. We expect crew chief Cole Pearn and Truex to have taken good notes away from that outing. Given how hot this driver and team are right now, there's no discounting Truex, even at his worst tracks.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Chase Elliott - The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is gearing up for the Chase, and no better place than Bristol to make a run at a very important win, and help the standings position. Elliott has three-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway and they're finishes of fourth-, 15th- and seventh-place. This young driver took to this tough short track like a duck to water in his transition to NASCAR's top division. His start here in April's Food City 500 yielded an outside pole position and the aforementioned seventh-place finish. Elliott is coming off a pair of Top-10 finishes in the last three races entering this weekend, so momentum is clearly building for this driver and team leading up to the Chase for the Cup. He'll be sharp and focused for a good finish in this 500-lap short track battle.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth snapped a four-race Top-10 streak with his subpar performance at Michigan this past weekend, but we expect him to rebound well at one of his favorite short tracks. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has enjoyed a lot of success at the famous half-mile oval in the second-half of his 18-season career. Kenseth is a four-time Bristol winner, and he sports an excellent 60-percent Top-10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. The veteran driver finished a strong fourth here in April's Bristol battle, so he left this track with a very good performance in his last start. Kenseth's 1,572 laps led at this oval ranks second among active drivers. He'll be racing at the front again this Saturday night.

Joey Logano -
Logano has had a really tough season. He enters this Bristol race in precarious position regarding the Chase for the Cup, and it almost emergency mode to find more speed and good finishes. A visit to the Tennessee short track should be just what the doctor prescribed to fix the ills of the No. 22 Ford Team. Logano has two-career victories at this short track, the last as recently as 2015. He rides a four-race Bristol Top-10 streak into Saturday night's action, and that current string has boosted his career Top-10 rate here to 41-percent. The short tracks have been the lone bright spot for Logano and his Penske Racing team this season. He won earlier this season at Richmond (albeit penalized and encumbered) and he also nabbed a pair of Top 5s at Martinsville at Bristol in the spring.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson and his No. 48 team have been a real puzzle this season. With three victories in tow entering the weekend, his standing for the Chase for the Cup is secure. However, his struggles have been perplexing at times this season. With only seven Top-10 finishes to this point, it's been a wildly inconsistent season for the seven-time champion. Johnson does have the positive of being our last Bristol winner. He took the lead from Kevin Harvick and led the final 21 laps en route to the victory in April's Food City 500. That experience will help Johnson this weekend. He's also been strong recently at this half-mile oval. Aside from the win, he has five Top 10s in his last six starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. Don't let Johnson's uneven 2017 season keep you from deploying him in fantasy lineups this Saturday night.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Bristol who can provide a solid finish

Kyle Larson - The Chip Ganassi Racing sensation may be our most recent race winner (Michigan) but he gets a bit of a fantasy racing downgrade this weekend. Larson has been stellar on the larger ovals in 2017, but on the smaller ones not so much. His starts on ovals less than one-mile in size dating back to last season's Bristol night race have netted two Top-10 finishes in six events. That's pedestrian to be for sure, but we have to keep him on our radar screen for what Larson did at BMS in April. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet turned in his career-best Bristol performance with a pole position, 202 laps led and a sixth-place finish. While there is some inconsistency in his Bristol performances and short track performances this season, Larson still brings considerable homerun potential to the table.

Clint Bowyer -
The rejuvenated Bowyer will make a big return to Bristol this week, with big stakes on the line. Currently he is one of the bubble teams in the quest to make this season's Chase for the Cup and time is running out. We'll see a real sense of urgency from this driver and team Saturday night. The good news is that he absolutely owned this oval in April of this year. Bowyer peddled his No. 14 Ford to a stellar runner-up finish in the Food City 500. That only added to an already impressive career statistical body at this historic short track. He now has 11 Top-10 finishes in 23 starts and that checks in at a respectable 48-percent rate. With Top-10 finishes in three of his last four Bristol starts (across three different teams we might add), how can you not like this driver and team this Saturday night?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
As we come to Bristol this weekend we have to take a close look at the Roush Fenway Racing veteran's body of work on the short tracks this season. It has been nothing short of impressive for Stenhouse and his No. 17 team. He nabbed Top 10s this spring on all three bullrings of Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond. His outing at Bristol of particular interest yielded a ninth-place finish in April's Food City 500. Stenhouse has been pretty consistent in his last three Bristol outings with finishes of 16th-, second- and ninth-place. Now in his fifth season of Monster Energy Cup Series racing, his resume is starting to grow at this half-mile oval. Stenhouse's five Top 10s in nine starts checks in at a very favorable 56-percent rate.

Jamie McMurray -
The 2017 season has been a fantastic campaign so far for McMurray and the No. 1 team. With 12 Top 10s to this point, he stands a very good chance of making the Chase for the Cup despite being winless. The veteran driver has a pretty good resume at the World's Fastest Half Mile. McMurray has 11-career Top-10 finishes at this oval. His recent outings going back to the 2014 season have yielded performances of eighth-, 14th-, 11th-,13th-, eighth- and 12th-place. McMurray has avoided the DNF bug-a-boo during that span and finished on the lead lap in all but one of those starts. Considering how this driver and team has performed on the short tracks this season, he should keep that roll going, and challenge the Top 10 this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran righted the ship with a strong fourth-place finish at Michigan this past weekend. That has bolstered Newman's performance overall as he prepares for this season's Chase for the Cup. Now he comes to a short track that has held solid success for him over his 16-year Monster Energy Cup Series career. Newman has never won at the Bristol oval, but he has claimed 16-career Top-10 finishes. He checks out with a career 52-percent Top-10 rate at the facility. Newman nabbed a pair of Top 10s at Martinsville and Richmond earlier this spring, and he posted a respectable 14th-place finish in his last visit to Bristol.

Trevor Bayne -
Despite a recent string of mediocre finishes, it's been a pretty good season for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Bayne brings the same short track upside to the table this weekend that his teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., brings to Bristol. The driver of the No. 6 Ford has 13th-, 11th- and 13th-place finishes in his Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond outings this season. If that wasn't steady and consistent enough, his recent record at Bristol Motor Speedway has been outstanding. Bayne is riding 15th-, fifth-, 12th- and 11th-place finishes in his last four trips to the upper East Tennessee short track. He pulled a surprise Top-5 finish at Michigan this past week, and that should give the team the momentum to come to Bristol and deliver another good performance.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Busch - The five-time Bristol winner has had some tough luck at this oval the past few seasons. However, he's had the speed to be very competitive despite the bad luck finishing in those races. Busch comes into Bristol weekend hoping for a rebound to his prior performances at this small oval. The veteran driver has the short rack pedigree and experience to succeed in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. From a fantasy racing standpoint, it's a sizeable gamble to deploy the No. 18 team at Bristol. Busch has crashed and DNF'd in four of his last five starts at the World's Fastest Half-Mile. Those disappointments despite leading over 450 laps across those five starts. It's a bit perplexing to say the least. A fantasy racing start for Busch this weekend is a swing for the fences, but it also comes with a very high strikeout rate.

Ryan Blaney -
For Blaney to be having the great season that he's having, it's almost impossible to understand how poor the No. 21 team has been on the short tracks in 2017. The Wood Brothers Racing driver has finishes of 25th-, 33rd- and 36th- at Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond. That flies totally in the face of how he's fared on the intermediate and larger ovals. To be completely honest, Blaney has had only one decent finish (11th-place) in his four-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. The average Bristol finish checks in somewhere around 25.2. That's well below where we see the No. 21 team running and finishing on a weekly basis this season. In weekly lineup leagues it would be best to bench Blaney this Saturday night and save a start for him on the cookie cutter ovals that remain.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt's career record at Bristol Motor Speedway speaks for itself. In 34 starts he's captured one win and 16 Top-10 finishes. Those stats are normally good enough to warrant a fantasy racing start for any driver, but in this instance it does not. The No. 88 team has struggled immensely this season. With more DNF's than Top-10 finishes and lagging tremendously in the points, Earnhardt's deployment any week comes with major risk. His four Top 10s to this point have come on the intermediate and larger ovals and one road course. The short tracks have been nothing short of a horror show for Earnhardt. Finishes of 34th-, 38th- and 30th-place have been his body of work at Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond to this point. That's very uncharacteristic for this driver on short tracks, and very unfortunate given that this is likely his last Bristol race.

Kurt Busch -
Coming off the somewhat disappointing 11th-place finish at Watkins Glen, the No. 41 team should be very hungry as we return to the short tracks. Busch finished a strong eighth at Richmond earlier this season, and he's made quite a NASCAR career stacking up trophies on the short track circuit. The Stewart Haas Racing star has five-career wins at Bristol Motor Speedway, although all of those came prior to 2007. He's been battling some consistency issues on the short tracks of late. His last six starts on ovals less than one-mile in length dating back to last season's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race have only yielded two Top-10 finishes. Busch's Martinsville outing was a crash and DNF and his spring Bristol start was a very subpar 25th-place finish. For whatever reason the No. 41 team hasn't looked very sharp on the short tracks the last 12 months.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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