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Irwin Tools Night Race Preview: The Unpredictable Bullring

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.

One of the most popular races in the schedule is on tap for this weekend. The highly anticipated and widely watched night race at Bristol Motor Speedway is up next for the Sprint Cup Series boys. It's been a long, hard haul since race No. 4 of the season, which was the last time NASCAR visited Thunder Valley. With school starting and the weather cooling, the series makes its annual return to its roots this Saturday night 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 raced in this historic bullring 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.

In preparing for our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close 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 13 races will be useful, but we'll put some extra emphasis on the results from this season's Food City 500 that was held in March. 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 Busch8.72725431,3714,445108.1
Greg Biffle10.13112552984,94599.4
Jeff Gordon11.63142011105,27797.6
Matt Kenseth11.73512607065,21897.5
Kurt Busch14.03212443504,71296.8
Tony Stewart15.72552797713,82692.8
Kevin Harvick13.52272321983,97591.8
Carl Edwards10.92112673004,37891.7
Jimmie Johnson16.92143556334,38091.1
Ryan Newman16.6295139534.36488.7
Mark Martin17.71641782432,89988.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.8.9268131363,84287.9
Denny Hamlin16.31872642822,94787.4
Kasey Kahne17.52372223053,46487.1
Jeff Burton16.22852262673,65985.6
Marcos Ambrose16.21306301,34384.6
Clint Bowyer18.3178133822,72279.8
David Reutimann20.615561261,66679.5
Juan Pablo Montoya19.317672292,40779.0
Martin Truex Jr.22.4253108632,24175.4

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. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson threw haymakers at each other the entire 500 laps until the Joe Gibbs Racing star came out on top with his fifth career victory at the half-mile oval. That win capped an amazing run for Busch at BMS. It was his fourth victory in the last five races at Bristol Motor Speedway, and ranks as one of the most impressive streaks of dominance in the Sprint Cup Series right now. Not to be outdone, Carl Edwards won the pole for this event and was a fixture in the Top 5 throughout the day, but he just didn't have quite the car that Johnson and Busch had. There was a lot of parity behind these three drivers, with Ford driver and Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth forging an impressive Top-5 finish. Chevrolet was far from uncompetitive with Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard combining to lead over 70 laps and both cracking the Top 10 for the day. We should see that type of manufacturer parity again this weekend at the half-mile oval. In the surprise department usually short track savvy Clint Bowyer led no laps and finished a shocking 35th after an untimely engine failure. Also, the usually dependable Jeff Gordon sputtered home to an unspectacular 14th at the end of 500 laps in the mixing bowl. It was the Hendrick Motorsports star's fourth straight race at Bristol without finishing in the Top 10. Another surprise, but more on the positive side of the ledger was Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. He grabbed the attention of all in attendance with 63 laps led and a solid Top-20 finish. Considering how well the No. 56 team is performing right now, Truex is likely poised to finish well at BMS this Saturday night. What surprises are in store for us this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway? Yet another win for Busch? Snapping a long winless streak for Hendrick star Johnson? 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 four of the last five Bristol races is looking to keep his winning streak alive. So motivation won't be a cause for concern for the No. 18 team this Saturday night. Busch has led well over 1,300 laps for his career at BMS, so the setup is dialed-in for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. No driver has dominated the bullring in Bristol like this since Jeff Gordon in the mid-90's. Busch is fresh off the impressive victory at Michigan, so we believe he'll be on the mark again this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson
The only thorn in Busch's side at Bristol the last three seasons has been Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team. The defending Sprint Cup champion doesn't have a strong career record at BMS, but he did manage to steal a victory away from Busch in the spring 2010 event. Johnson has led well over 600 laps in his last five races at the half-mile oval. With the Chase for the Cup fast-approaching, it's time for the No. 48 team to find their race-winning form.

Carl Edwards
Although we don't typically think of Edwards when it comes to short track racing, it's impossible to exclude him from the contenders list this week. He's been a night race specialist at the bullring in Bristol the last few seasons. The No. 99 Ford team has captured the victory in two of these events in the last four years. Edwards came to this small oval in the spring and won his second career pole at Bristol Motor Speedway. After 500 laps of mayhem the Roush Fenway Racing star finished second that day.

Greg Biffle
Even though Biffle is winless in 17 career starts at the World's Fastest Half-Mile, he's been very close to winning there on more than one occasion. 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 has led 350 career laps at BMS, and he's riding a four-race Top-10 streak at the small oval into this weekend's Irwin Tools Night Race. If there's to be a surprise winner in victory lane this weekend, it's likely it will be The Roush Fenway Racing veteran.

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

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been pretty steady this season. He enters this event with two victories and ranked a respectable fifth in the championship standings. The No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team is good enough at some tracks that we need to give more emphasis to Kenseth in a fantasy racing context. Kenseth is a two-time Bristol winner, and he sports a stellar 65 percent Top 10 rate at the half-mile oval. This season's Food City 500 at BMS yielded one of a handful of Top-5 finishes for this driver in 2011.

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 enters this race ranked eighth in the championship standings, and currently within the playoff field. Rocket Man has to be eagerly anticipating Saturday night's 500-lap event at Bristol Motor Speedway. Newman owns five Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to BMS. This spring he led 26 laps and finished 10th in a workman-like effort. We're willing to bet the veteran Chevrolet driver performs even better this Saturday night.

Kurt Busch
Like his younger brother, Busch is also a five-time winner at the bullring in Bristol. While the last of those victories came a long time ago in 2006, that's no reason to discount this veteran driver. Busch is fighting hard to get a good spot in the Chase for the Cup as the playoff format approaches. The urgency to perform well at Bristol this weekend will be backed up with Busch's comfort level of this small oval. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge is riding a four-race Top-10 streak at Bristol into this weekend's event. Chances are very good for another Top 10 to be added to that streak.

Kevin Harvick
The Richard Childress Racing star is only a one-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, but we've grown accustomed to seeing Harvick race up front at the half-mile oval over the years. He's led 427 career circuits at the small oval and he's managed to maintain a 57 percent Top-10 rate at BMS. Harvick brought the No. 29 Chevrolet here in March and led 37 laps before finishing sixth in the Food City 500. That performance snapped a four-race Top 10 drought for Harvick at Bristol. We're willing to bet he can forge another good finish in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

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 three straight Top-15 finishes at the bullring. Gordon seems to be heating of late as we push towards the Chase. He has Top 10's in three of his last four races entering this weekend. We should see the Gordon of old in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

Martin Truex Jr.
Another hot driver coming to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend is Truex and his Michael Waltrip Racing team. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota has been impressive since his mid-summer crew chief change. Truex owns Top-15 finishes in three of his last five starts. He enters this Saturday night's event with a three-race Top-20 streak at BMS. That includes a 63-lap led and 17th-place finish at Bristol in March of this year. Truex is in a groove right now and it doesn't hurt to ride his momentum at Bristol.

Mark Martin
The veteran Hendrick Motorsports driver may be starting to heat up as we reach the two-thirds point in the season. Martin raced with the leaders and posted only his second Top 5 of the season this past weekend at Michigan. The 29-year Sprint Cup Series veteran boasts two victories and 23 career Top 10's at the Tennessee bullring. Martin's last outing at BMS yielded a steady 12th-place finish in the Food City 500. We're willing to bet he'll be even better this Saturday night.

Brad Keselowski
We've gained a tremendous amount of respect for Keselowski as the 2011 season has progressed. In fact, he looks poised to become the next super star in NASCAR's top division. The Penske Racing youngster has finishes of first, second and third the last three races entering this weekend, and he's currently ranked 12th in the series standings. Keselowski has posted Top-20 finishes in each of his three career starts at the half-mile oval in Bristol. Considering the momentum that the No. 2 team is carrying coming into this race, a career-best Bristol finish should be in store.

Marcos Ambrose
Despite his disappointing 27th-place finish at Michigan this past weekend, we're hard pressed to overlook Ambrose this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 9 Ford racked up his first career Sprint Cup victory two weeks ago at the Glen, and he should be looking forward to the 500-lap event at Bristol. While Ambrose won't likely be seen in the Top 5 this Saturday night, his career numbers at this historic short track are very solid. His 15th-place finish here in March was one of three career Top 15's at the small oval. Ambrose is poised for a similar effort in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Paul Menard
While Menard has cooled off a bit since his big win at Indianapolis a few weeks ago, we think this weekend is a start when we shouldn't overlook the RCR driver. Menard should be looking forward to a short track race since he's had a lot of success on these small ovals in 2011. The driver of the No. 27 Chevy posted a brilliant Top-5 finish at BMS in the spring, so you know he'll be looking forward to this Saturday night. This 500-lap event will likely help Menard end his recent performance skid.

Bobby Labonte
Labonte is yet another veteran driver who looks forward to visiting Bristol Motor Speedway. He's racing well right now in the JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota Camry. Four of Labonte's last five races have resulted in Top-20 finishes. His last short track race, which was at Loudon, New Hampshire even resulted in a Top 10 effort. Labonte posted a Top 15 at BMS in March, so our expectations are pretty high for this small race team at Bristol.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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. However, we have to throw out the record books this weekend at look at the struggles of the No. 14 team this season. Stewart fought like a demon at Michigan this past weekend to eek out a Top 10 at an oval where he normally contends for the win. Nothing has come easy for the two-time champion in 2011. Stewart has a lonely, single Top-10 finish in his last five trips to this historic short track.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has experienced nothing short of a complete collapse the last several weeks. The brush with the wall and 35th-place finish this past Sunday at Michigan are a prime example of Hamlin's summer struggles. The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to an oval that hasn't held a lot of success for the No. 11 team. Hamlin is normally short track savvy, but he's never had a solution for Bristol. He sports a sub-par 45 percent Top 10 rate at the half-mile oval, and his last three finishes at the facility have all been outside the Top 15.

Joey Logano
The season has been full of ups-and-downs for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team. Logano's 21st-place finish at Michigan International Speedway this past Sunday is a bit puzzling considering how well he's performed on two-mile ovals. It's that kind of inconsistency that makes him a risky fantasy racing play for the Irwin Tools Night Race. Logano's Bristol resume includes only one Top-20 finish in five career starts. That is a less-than-stellar performance record at BMS. We're willing to bet that Logano will have his troubles again this Saturday night.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Outside of a brilliant seventh-place finish at Watkins Glen recently, there hasn't been much to cheer about if you're the No. 42 EGR team. Montoya has gone off in the deep weeds as the summer has progressed. His 25th-place "disappearance" at Michigan this past weekend is illustrative of Montoya's struggles. Short track racing has been hit-or-miss for him during his NASCAR career, with Bristol more in the "miss" category. In nine career starts at the half-mile oval, Montoya has only two Top-10 finishes.