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Irwin Tools Night Race Preview: The Bristol of Old

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 anticipated races of the season takes place this weekend. This Saturday night we return to the bull ring in Bristol, Tenn., for the Irwin Tools Night Race. The prime time 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 number four of the season, which was the last time NASCAR visited Thunder Valley. To go with that long lay off, track owner Bruton Smith listened to the voice of the fans and decided to do something about the racing surface at Bristol Motor Speedway during the long break. The track has undergone "milling" of the surface in all four turns. The expectation is that this will produce more single-groove racing at the progressively-banked short track. This factor, combined with the long break between Bristol races should prove to be a big adjustment for the drivers to make this weekend. Goodyear scheduled a tire test on the new surface at BMS in June, and the results were pretty clear. Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer all took hot laps on the newly-milled surface and the reviews were unmistakable. Tony Stewart's exact quote was, "Well, you've definitely lost the top groove. Guys who run up there aren't going to be able to do that because it's pretty slick up there. There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves and any time you've got less room to get around it can get pretty interesting." Interesting may be a kind description of what we will see this Saturday night. Those who fondly remember the bruising battles of the 80s and 90s at the World's Fastest Half-Mile will surely be tuning in for the Irwin Tools Night Race.

In preparing our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close look at the last seven years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 15 races will be very useful. This span will cover some of the action that happened at this short track prior to resurfacing, so the numbers should be pretty useful. 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 Busch10.63425501,3754,892102.3
Matt Kenseth10.74123688616,169100.8
Jeff Gordon12.64033103176,13199.8
Brad Keselowski10.41541343471,41799.4
Greg Biffle11.73542823395,51397.0
Kurt Busch14.53732583505,04994.0
Jimmie Johnson15.53104287095,33193.2
Kevin Harvick13.92612341984,36189.5
Ryan Newman15.7356146575,18789.5
Tony Stewart16.42802957714,18689.2
Carl Edwards12.72672773004,89788.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.8317163384,49888.1
Denny Hamlin15.82502722823,36886.3
Jeff Burton15.43502412674,25486.2
Mark Martin19.71851912433,00886.0
Kasey Kahne18.32682453053,57483.4
Martin Truex Jr.19.3370159683,18880.1
Clint Bowyer17.8231163823,19579.9
Marcos Ambrose18.11957001,82679.0
Juan Pablo Montoya18.322089292,69078.5

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 specialists found their way to the front. Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth battled for the last half of the 500 laps until the Penske Racing star came out on top with his second straight victory at the half-mile oval. That win capped an amazing run for Keselowski at BMS. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge also won this event one year ago. So for the moment, Keselowski has become king of the Bristol hill. Also of note in March's Food City 500, newly-signed Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers made his first start of the season in the No. 55 Toyota. Vickers sprang out of the box to lead 125 laps in the first-half of the event and eventually finish a stellar fifth. He will return to the Tennessee short track again this Saturday night and attempt to win the race he narrowly lost in the spring. Chevrolet drivers were surprisingly uncompetitive in the earlier race at BMS, with the top finisher (Jeff Burton) only coming in a distant sixth. Bowtie drivers led a paltry 3 laps combined of the 500, so Chevrolet must surely have high hopes for the new racing surface and that it may breath some life into this manufacturer's drivers. Considering that the speculation is we will see racing resembling what was seen at Bristol in the years leading up to new surface and progressive banking, some of the old timers may find the change in racing more to their advantage. Veterans like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch may take to the single-groove surface like ducks to water. 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 -
Keselowski is probably the biggest of the dark horse contenders for this season's championship. The Penske Racing youngster has finishes of fourth-, second- and second-place the last three races entering this weekend, and he's currently ranked fifth in the series standings with three victories on the season. Keselowski has won the last two Bristol races in dominating style. He led 232 laps in the spring race at this small oval and walked away with the win, and he led 89 laps in this event one year ago to beat out several short track specialists. We expect the No. 2 Dodge team to vie for the victory at BMS and further bolster Keselowski's championship hopes.

Kyle Busch -
Before Keselowski's streak of Bristol dominance there was driver Busch and the No. 18 Toyota team. He was the winner of four of the five Bristol races prior to Keselowski's streak, so top performance at the World's Fastest Half-Mile is expected with this driver and team. 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. The return to a one-groove race track should suit Busch just fine. He is one of the more aggressive drivers in the series and enjoyed a good deal of success at this track before the repaving in 2008. We look for Busch to challenge to retake his throne at Thunder Valley.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been pretty dependable this season. He enters this event with one victory and ranked a stellar second in the championship standings. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has enjoyed a lot of success at the famous half-mile oval in the second-half of his 13-season career. Kenseth is a two-time Bristol winner, and he sports an excellent 40 percent Top 5 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. In his last two trips to upper East Tennessee, the Roush Fenway Racing star has led over 150 laps and walked away with finishes of sixth- and second-place. Kenseth will be racing with the leaders on Saturday night.

Greg Biffle -
Even though Biffle is winless in 19 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 close to 400 career laps at BMS, and he sports an eye-opening 32 percent Top 5 rate at the small oval coming into this weekend's Irwin Tools Night Race. Coming off the big Michigan win last Sunday, the No. 16 Ford team is riding a lot of momentum into Bristol. If there's to be a surprise winner in victory lane this weekend, it's likely it will be this Roush Fenway Racing veteran.

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

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 solid plays list this week. He's been a night race specialist at the bull ring in Bristol over his Sprint Cup Series career. The No. 99 Ford team captured the victory in two of these events in 2007 and 2008, so Edwards has experience winning on both the old and new track configuration. He had qualifying efforts of first and second in the two Bristol races last season and finishes of second- and ninth-place to go along with those. Edwards is heating up as we come to the Irwin Tools Night Race, so it's a great time for him to be visiting one of his favorite tracks.

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 13th in the championship standings, and currently within the playoff field due to holding the second of two wildcard spots. Rocket Man has to be eagerly anticipating Saturday night's 500-lap event at Bristol Motor Speedway. Newman owns three Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to BMS. In this event one year ago he won the pole position and finished a respectable eighth. We're willing to bet the veteran Chevrolet driver performs up to that level this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
While Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are normally contenders for the win, Bristol has presented struggles over the years for the five-time champion. The Hendrick Motorsports star doesn't have a strong career record at BMS, but he has started to show some consistency at this wild short track in the last few seasons. Johnson has led close to 700 laps in his last seven races at the half-mile oval. During this span he's collected six Top-10 finishes. With the Chase for the Cup fast-approaching, it's time for the No. 48 team to start shoring up their position in the Chase Standings.

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 very impressive in 2012. Truex owns a four-race Top-10 streak entering this weekend's Irwin Tools Night Race. He has only two career Top 10s in 13 career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, but the really good news is that each of those have come in the last two races at the small Tennessee oval. That includes a second-place finish in this event one year ago and a third-place finish in spring's Food City 500. Truex is in a groove right now and it doesn't hurt to ride his momentum at Bristol.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's best seasons at the World's Fastest Half-Mile are all but over, still he has the potential to post good finishes at the famous short track. The five-time Bristol winner hasn't won at the half-mile oval since 2002, but Gordon does have four Top-15 finishes in his last five trips to the bull ring. Gordon led 206 laps and finished third in this event one year ago, so he still has Top-5 potential at BMS. With the urgency of the approaching Chase, we should see the Gordon of old in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is a near 50-percent Top-10 finisher at Bristol Motor Speedway. Two of his last four trips to the Tennessee short track have yielded a pair of fourth-place finishes. Bowyer enters this weekend's event on a solid three-race Top-10 steak and in a good seventh-place ranking in the Chase Standings. The No. 15 Toyota only has to show up and race hard in each of the next three events to assure a berth in NASCAR's post-season field, so we expect Bowyer to recreate the fourth-place finish that he earned in the spring at this facility on Saturday night.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers burst onto the scene in 2012 with Michael Waltrip Racing at this same oval in March. It was a peculiar day for the veteran driver because he had never before cracked the Top 10 in 14 starts at this facility, yet he led 125 laps and finished a brilliant fifth on the day. Vickers has displayed this same excellence in other starts this season. He cracked the Top 20 at Martinsville and the Top 15 at Loudon. So we return to the site of Vickers' coming out party this season. He shouldn't disappoint. We expect the part-time driver of the No. 55 Toyota to crack the Top 10 in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Marcos Ambrose -
Coming off the Top 10 at Michigan and the big win at Watkins Glen, we'd be hard pressed to overlook Ambrose this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 9 Ford racked up his second 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 10th-place finish here one year ago was one of three career Top 10s at the small oval. Ambrose is poised for a Top 15 performance in Saturday night's prime time race.

Jamie McMurray -
While McMurray and the No. 1 Chevrolet team has been battling inconsistency much of the last two seasons, one thing has remained constant and that is his good racing at Bristol. McMurray has carried his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team to Top-10 finishes in four of his last five Bristol starts. That includes a fifth-place finish in this event one year ago and a solid seventh-place finish in the March Food City 500. McMurray has completed a surprising 97 percent of his laps raced at BMS over his 10-year career. That speaks volumes of his level of performance at Bristol and lack of DNFs.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is riding a wave of solid performance into Thunder Valley this weekend. Menard has a four-race Top-15 streak as we come to Bristol Motor Speedway for Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race. He also rides in confident on the strength of some good recent performances at the half-mile oval. Menard has a fifth- and 10th-place finish in two of his last three trips to the facility. The new track surface will be a bit of a wrinkle for sure, but one with think a veteran driver like Menard can adapt to.

David Ragan -
The deep sleeper alert falls on Ragan this week for the Irwin Tools Night Race. It has been a season of struggles for the former Roush Fenway Racing driver as he has adjusted to life at Front Row Motorsports. Ragan has still maintained a decent level of performance on the short tracks and that includes Bristol. His last three trips to Thunder Valley have yielded finishes of 16th-, 20th- and 23rd-place. That meshes well with his current level of Top 25 performance in recent races. The driver of the No. 34 Ford should finish in that range on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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 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 has slipped from fifth to ninth in the Chase Standings the last five races. Nothing has gone well for the defending champion of late. Stewart has a lonely, single Top-10 finish in his last seven trips to this historic short track.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has experienced nothing short of a complete collapse the last several weeks. He's slipped from fifth to 10th in the Chase for the Cup Standings and he has four DNFs in the last nine races. 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 46 percent Top 10 rate at the half-mile oval, and four of his last five starts have resulted in finishes 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 31st-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 three Top-20 finishes in seven 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 pole positions at Pocono and 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 26th-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 11 career starts at the half-mile oval, Montoya has only three Top-10 finishes. We're willing to bet the change in racing surface will just be added misery for Montoya at BMS.