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Irwin Tools Night Race Preview: The Unpredictable Bull Ring

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The highly exciting and highly anticipated second race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway is on tap for this weekend. After 17 weeks of racing on tracks larger than one mile in size, the series returns to its roots this weekend with short track racing at Bristol. The Irwin Tools Night Race is the premier NASCAR event under the lights that has often been considered one of the most sought after tickets on the entire circuit. The thrill of seeing 43 cars race around the highly-banked half-mile oval under the lights makes for a very entertaining prime-time sporting event. The 500-laps in the bull ring of Bristol demand the utmost physically and mentally from the drivers and highest level of endurance and performance from the equipment. Those competitors, who can finesse Bristol and use wise pit strategy, will be the drivers that succeed this Saturday night in this thrilling short track event.

We'll take a look at the last six years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 11 races will be useful, but we'll put some extra emphasis on the results from this season's Food City 500. That race will better reflect recent trends and who is running the best short track program right now. In forming this week's driver list, we'll also pay some attention to current hot streaks. Drivers who raced well at Michigan last weekend will also carry that momentum to the World's Fastest Half Mile this Saturday night. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Bristol drivers, sorted by driver rating.

Kyle Busch10.12154019353,483103.0
Greg Biffle10.52512422984,407101.2
Jeff Gordon11.52321741084,50199.4
Matt Kenseth12.52412317064,40297.5
Kurt Busch15.12032173503,74196.1
Tony Stewart14.42252597703,34995.9
Denny Hamlin12.41742382822,86495.0
Marcos Ambrose15.31005901,12093.4
Kevin Harvick14.21841811613,42691.5
Mark Martin17.7921502422,34789.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.8.4213116363,24989.1
Brad Keselowski13.07042637288.7
Jeff Burton15.82422152673,36588.3
Carl Edwards11.61572242823,45588.2
Jimmie Johnson16.51902212943,62087.0
Ryan Newman18.2230114273,40885.8
Kasey Kahne19.41461603052,61284.6
Clint Bowyer18.0147111812,34679.9
David Reutimann22.41183311,17178.9
Elliott Sadler21.89077422,28178.1

In the season's first race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in March 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 veterans found their way to the front. Jimmie Johnson overcame a dominant Kurt Busch to lead the final seven laps and collect his first career win at BMS. There was a lot of parity behind the dominant Busch, with Ford driver Greg Biffle leading 78 laps and Johnson leading 84 in his Chevrolet. We should see that type of manufacturer parity again this weekend at the half-mile oval. In the surprise department usually short track dominant Jeff Gordon led no laps and finished an unspectacular 14th at the end of 500 laps. It was the Hendrick Motorsports star's third straight race at Bristol with no laps on the point. Another surprise, but more on the positive side of the ledger was Penske Racing phenom Brad Keselowski. In his first career Sprint Cup start at the historic short track, Keselowski grabbed the attention of all in attendance with 26 laps led and a brilliant Top-15 finish. What surprises are in store for us this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway? A repeat win for Johnson? Redemption for Penske Racing veteran Busch? That first BMS win for Greg Biffle? Another heart-breaking day for a Chase contender? We'll take a look at the loop stats and recent trends 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.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch
The winner of two of the last three Bristol races is looking to break back into the win column. So motivation won't be a cause for concern for the No. 18 team this Saturday night. Busch has led over 900 laps for his career at BMS, so the setup is dialed-in for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Despite the fact that Busch hasn't won since May at Dover, you can't discount him in this 500-lap bang-fest.

Jimmie Johnson
It took 17 attempts, but Johnson finally broke through for his first Bristol win in the spring of this year. The defending Sprint Cup champion doesn't have a strong career record at BMS, but his performances have been improving the last couple seasons. Johnson well over 250 laps in his last three Bristol outings and racked up Top 10's in each of those performances. With the Chase for the Cup fast-approaching, it's time for the No. 48 team to find high gear.

Kurt Busch
We're still reminded of the five wins that Busch collected at BMS from 2002 to 2006. While he's only visited victory lane once at the half-mile oval with Penske Racing, that's no reason to discount this veteran driver. Busch is racing as well as he has in years in 2010, and he has been a top performer on short tracks earlier in the year. The No. 2 Dodge team qualified on the outside pole, led 278 laps and finished third at Bristol Motor Speedway in March.

Greg Biffle
Since the resurfacing and variable banking were introduced at Bristol Motor Speedway, Biffle has been finding the new configuration to his liking. We wonder when he'll make his first visit to victory lane at the famous short track. It could happen on Saturday night and it wouldn't come as much of a surprise. Biffle had great cars here in the last 12 months. The veteran driver of the No. 16 Ford had led over 150 laps and collected a pair of fourth-place finishes in his last two Bristol outings.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart
Smoke is one of the leaders in the loop statistic table at Bristol Motor Speedway. The half-mile oval has held a lot of success early and later in his NASCAR racing career. While Stewart only sports a 35 percent career Top 10 rating at the small oval, he's closer to 50 percent in the last three years. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet most recently finished second at BMS in this season's Food City 500.

Ryan Newman
Newman is battling hard to get his No. 39 team at Stewart-Haas Racing into this season's Chase for the Cup. He has to be eagerly anticipating Saturday night's 500-lap event at Bristol Motor Speedway. Newman owns four Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to BMS. This spring he finished 16th in an uninspiring effort, but we're willing to bet the veteran Chevrolet driver rebounds this Saturday night.

Carl Edwards
Although we don't typically think of Edwards when it comes to short track racing, it's hard not to put him in the solid plays list this week. He's been a night race specialist at the bull ring in Bristol the last few seasons. The No. 99 Ford team has captured the victory in two of the last three Bristol night races. Edwards came to this small oval in the spring and navigated his way to a solid sixth-place finish despite his struggles with consistency earlier this season.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has been coming on in recent weeks, and trying to regain the thunder he showed earlier in this season. The return to the short tracks will be a welcome sight for this Joe Gibbs Racing star. These small ovals are among Hamlin's best tracks on the circuit. When the No. 11 team visited Bristol in March of this year, Hamlin snapped a four-race Top 10 streak at BMS with a sub-par 19th-place finish. We can definitely state a rebound outing is in order.

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

Jeff Gordon
We acknowledge that Gordon's glory days at Bristol Motor Speedway are over, but very solid stats at Bristol make Gordon a very good fantasy racing choice this Saturday night. The five-time Bristol winner hasn't won at the half-mile oval since 2002, but Gordon does have four Top-5 finishes in his last eight races at the bull ring. Gordon seems to be feast or famine of late at Bristol Motor Speedway, but you can't ignore that tremendous upside.

Jeff Burton
While this season has been pretty remarkable for Burton and the No. 31 team, this weekend could be a real gem in what has been a great season. Burton has one win and five Top-10 finishes in his last eight races at Bristol. In the Food City 500 earlier this season, he piloted the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a solid 10th-place finish. Chances are most fantasy racing players have forgotten how good Burton is at the Tennessee short track, so take full advantage of that on Saturday night.

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been nearly invisible this season, but he's run a pedestrian performance of nine Top-10 finishes to this point to have him barely inside the Chase for the Cup field. Still, the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team is good enough at some tracks to take a second look. Kenseth is a two-time Bristol winner, and he sports a stellar 62 percent Top 10 rate at the half-mile oval. This season's Food City 500 yielded one of a handful of Top-5 finishes for this driver in 2010.

Brad Keselowski
We've gained more respect for Keselowski as the 2010 season has progressed. The Penske Racing youngster has four Top 20's in his last five races entering this weekend, and he's currently ranked 25th in the series standings. Keselowski earned respect among his NASCAR peers when the Sprint Cup Series visited Bristol in the spring. His first career visit to Bristol saw the driver of the No. 12 Dodge lead 26 laps and finish a respectable 13th.

Marcos Ambrose
Despite his 33rd-place finish here in the spring, we're hard pressed to forget Ambrose's two outings at Bristol last season. The driver of the No. 47 Toyota racked up a pair of Top 10's at BMS in 2009, including a brilliant third-place finish in this race one-year ago. While Ambrose won't likely be seen in the Top 5 this Saturday night, you can bet the team remembers the set up for that race well. Ambrose should crack the Top 15 in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

A.J. Allmendinger
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver of the historic No. 43 has been Mr. Top 15 this season. Allmendinger has been the best friend of fantasy racing players in deep leagues or looking for C-tier help on a weekly basis. His recent fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen really underscores the talent of this driver. Allmendinger has put up two Top-20 finishes in his last three outings at Bristol Motor Speedway. We're willing to bet he'll be on the right side of the ledger again on Saturday night.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano
The season has been full of ups-and-downs for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team. In light of his Top 10 last week at Michigan, Logano has looked brilliant on larger ovals, but his short track success has still been slow to come. In three career starts at BMS, Logano has no finish better than 27th and he has one DNF. Even after winning the pole in this season's spring race at BMS, he posted a very disappointing finish.

Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish is another Sprint Cup Series driver better suited for the large oval and not the circuit's bull rings. The driver of the No. 77 Dodge has five career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he just can't seem to figure out how to race the small oval. Hornish has only one finish inside the Top 30 at Bristol, and prospects for breaking this trend seem bleak this weekend.

Mark Martin
Despite strong career numbers and a short track racing flair, Martin has been just too unpredictable this season to have any fantasy racing expectations for this weekend at Bristol. In 2009 the Hendrick Motorsports star was winning poles and collecting Top 5's at the half-mile track, but this season has been all together different. Martin's last visit to BMS yielded a disappointing 35th-place finish, and that's been very illustrative of his winless-2010 season.

Kasey Kahne
Kahne initially prospered on the resurfaced and re-banked Bristol Motor Speedway with one pole, over 300 laps led and three Top 10's shortly after the track received a facelift. However, the No. 9 Ford team has struggled in recent Bristol outings. Kahne has three finishes outside the Top 25 in his last four trips to the upper-East Tennessee race track. We don't see that trend changing in the Irwin Tools Night Race.