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Irwin Tools Night Race Preview: World’s Fastest Half-Mile

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.

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, 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. In that time we've seen Jimmie Johnson run away and hide with the championship standings lead. We've seen David Ragan's epic upset victory at Talladega. We've seen Martin Truex Jr. snap a big drought with his victory at Sonoma. We've also seen Brian Vickers end a similar drought with his upset win at Loudon. So a lot has happened since the Sprint Cup Series last ran the high banks of BMS. We've also see several different 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 March. 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.

In preparing our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close look at the last eight years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 17 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 Busch9.84405811,4315,760103.0
Jeff Gordon13.34753723836,974100.6
Matt Kenseth12.94914129716,80199.9
Brad Keselowski12.12291484092,15399.0
Greg Biffle12.14473153806,23095.8
Jimmie Johnson15.13744687616,13593.8
Kurt Busch14.64783013515,57892.8
Denny Hamlin15.33413714694,32790.8
Kevin Harvick14.03512661985,16390.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.7440192515,16187.9
Kasey Kahne16.83453654564,31786.8
Ryan Newman16.4401146575,46086.7
Carl Edwards13.52942923455,20886.5
Mark Martin19.71851912433,00886.0
Tony Stewart17.93013037724,29884.4
Jeff Burton17.43612482674,40483.5
Clint Bowyer16.2353202823,98882.6
Martin Truex Jr.18.34941951124,07282.4
Marcos Ambrose16.82238412,26680.0
Juan Pablo Montoya18.8253103293,10077.4

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 specialists found their way to the front. Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne battled for the last 100 of the 500 laps until the Hendrick Motorsports star came out on top with his first-ever victory at the half-mile oval. That win capped an amazing day for Kahne at BMS. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet qualified on the outside pole for the Food City 500 and mixed it up with the leaders all race long to capture the win. Also of note that day in March was new Furniture Row Racing driver Kurt Busch and his Top-5 finish that was a preview of things to come in what has been a very successful season for the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet. Busch charged from 19th starting spot on the grid and eventually finished a stellar fourth. He will return to the Tennessee short track again this Saturday night and attempt to win the race he challenged for in the spring. Aside from Keselowski, Ford drivers were surprisingly uncompetitive in the earlier race at BMS, with only two Top-10 finishers. Ford drivers led a paltry 65 laps combined of the 500, so drivers of this manufacturer's camp must surely have high hopes for a rebound performance in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Toyota should be well represented between Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth. These three drivers represent that manufacturer's best chances for a visit to victory lane at Bristol. 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 –
Probably the biggest of the contenders for this weekend's Bristol race is Keselowski. The Penske Racing star has won two of the last four races at this historic short track entering this weekend, and he's led a whopping 383 laps combined in those four starts. Keselowski led 62 laps in the spring race at this small oval and finished an impressive third in the Food City 500. We expect the No. 2 Ford team to return to Bristol and complete the unfinished business they started here in March. The Penske Racing driver knows this race will be a key component in defending his championship later this season.

Kyle Busch –
The five-time Bristol winner has been carving out a reputation at the half-mile oval for the last six years, so top performance is expected with this driver and team. Busch has led well over 1,400 laps for his career at BMS, so the setup is dialed-in for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. He is one of the more aggressive drivers in the series and that's a major benefit when we visit the beating-and-banging of Bristol Motor Speedway. In March's Food City 500, Busch won the pole and led 56 laps before finishing runner-up. We look for him to challenge to retake his throne at Thunder Valley this weekend.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne is one of the biggest recent movers in the loop statistic table at Bristol Motor Speedway. The half-mile oval has held a lot of success of late in his NASCAR racing career. In the Food City 500 earlier this year, the Hendrick Motorsports star led 109 laps and out-dueled Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to win his first event at BMS. In just his last two starts alone at the half-mile oval he's led a combined 151 laps. It's taken a lot of time but crew chief Kenny Francis and Kahne are finally on the same page at this facility. Now they're firing for “effect”. We expect to see the No. 5 Chevrolet racing with the leaders this Saturday night.
Clint Bowyer – The stealth, dark horse contender this weekend at Bristol is Bowyer and his No. 15 MWR Toyota team. He's never won at the Tennessee short track, but he's been painfully close to breaking through at this facility. Bowyer enters this weekend's event with finishes of fourth-, seventh- and fifth-place in his last three Bristol starts. Over the last year he's been the most consistent driver in the Sprint Cup Series on ovals less than one-mile in length. Bowyer has 355 laps led and five-straight Top-5 finishes at these bull rings dating back to the Richmond race last September. This streak includes runner-up finishes at both Martinsville and Richmond earlier this season.

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

Jimmie Johnson –
While Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are normally contenders to 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 300 laps in his last five races at the half-mile oval. During this span he's collected four 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 atop the Chase Standings.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth has been pretty dependable this season. He enters this event with four victories and ranked a solid sixth in the championship standings. 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 14-season career. Kenseth is a two-time Bristol winner, and he sports an excellent 63 percent Top 10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. In his last two trips to upper East Tennessee, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has had some tough luck, but don't let that discourage you from selecting him this weekend. Kenseth will be racing with the leaders on Saturday night.

Paul Menard –
The Richard Childress Racing driver is riding a wave of momentum into Thunder Valley this weekend. Menard posted an impressive fourth-place finish at Michigan this past weekend 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 Top-10 finishes in four of his last five trips to the facility. The new Gen-6 race car has done nothing to deter his BMS excellence. Menard qualified fifth and finished ninth in the Food City 500 with the new car this past March. He should stay on target in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

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 15th in the championship standings and currently battling for a wild card berth due to his one victory this season. Rocket Man 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. In this spring's Food City 500 he qualified a dismal 31st, but raced his way to a respectable seventh-place finish. We're willing to bet the veteran Chevrolet driver performs up to that level this Saturday night.

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

Kevin Harvick –
Even though Harvick has only one career win 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 way back to victory lane at the famous short track. It could happen on Saturday night and it wouldn't come as much of a surprise. Harvick has led close to 450 career laps at BMS, and he sports a respectable 48 percent Top 10 rate at the small oval coming into this weekend's Irwin Tools Night Race. Coming off the big runner-up finish at Michigan last Sunday, the No. 29 Chevrolet 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 Richard Childress Racing veteran.

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 famous short track since 2002, but Gordon does have a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last four trips to the bull ring. Gordon led 66 laps and looked like a contender for the win in this season's Food City 500, but misfortune struck and he crashed just short of the finish. With the urgency of the approaching Chase, we should see the Gordon of old in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

Brian Vickers –
Vickers burst onto the scene in 2012 with Michael Waltrip Racing and has been a part-time short track ace ever since. He's scored eight Top 10s in 17 starts during this stint with MWR. One victory and six Top 10s have come for him on ovals less than one-mile in length. Vickers' victory at the New Hampshire oval earlier this season is a prime example of the potential he and this team possesses. The veteran driver has scored Top-10 finishes in all three prior Bristol starts with this team, so the track record is spotless. In this race one year ago, Vickers led laps and finished a brilliant fourth at the end of the night.

Marcos Ambrose –
Coming off the Top 10 at Michigan, we'd be hard pressed to overlook Ambrose this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 9 Ford racked up his best oval track finish of the season one week after his disaster 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. He has a pair of Top 10s and three Top 15s in his last five starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ambrose is poised for a Top 15 performance in Saturday night's prime time race at the half-mile oval.

Jamie McMurray –
While McMurray and the No. 1 Chevrolet team has been battling inconsistency much of the last three 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 five of his last seven Bristol starts. That includes a 10th-place finish in this spring's Food City 500. McMurray has completed a surprising 97.5 percent of his laps raced at BMS over his 11-year career. That speaks volumes of his level of performance at Bristol and the lack of DNF's is a great security blanket for a rough and tumble short track like BMS.

Casey Mears –
The Germain Racing driver is riding a wave of solid performance into Thunder Valley this weekend. Mears has a three-race Top-25 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 ova. Mears won the pole position for this race one year ago, and led 21 laps before finishing a respectable 21st. This spring, the driver of the No. 13 Ford finished a surprising 15th in March's Food City 500. Mears should challenge the Top 15 again on Saturday at Bristol.

Ryan Truex –
The deep sleeper alert falls on Truex this week for the Irwin Tools Night Race. The younger brother of Michael Waltrip Racing star Martin Truex Jr. is poised to make his Sprint Cup debut in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Normally, we'd shy away from recommending situations like this as sleepers, but there are some good vibes in this arrangement that can't be ignored. First, Truex is not short on experience. He has almost 40 combined starts between the Nationwide and Truck Series, with a short track racer's reputation in each. He also has two K&N Pro Series East championships to his credit. So there's little doubt this 21-year-old can wheel a stock car. Truex will have the benefit of driving the same No. 51 car that A.J. Allmendinger piloted to a 13th-place finish at Bristol earlier this season. It all adds up to a Top-25 finish in his Sprint Cup debut.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Carl Edwards –
We don't typically think of Edwards when it comes to short track racing, and there's a good reason why. The Roush Fenway Racing star hasn't cracked the Top 15 in his last three Bristol starts. That's despite some good qualifying efforts to boot. Edwards has a subpar 39 percent Top 10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway, so his 14.6 career average finish at the half-mile oval indicates some mediocre finishes for the No. 99 Ford. There are better weeks to deploy Edwards, so it's best to keep him on the bench this week in favor of other options.

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin has experienced nothing short of a complete collapse this season. He's slipped all the way to 25th in the Chase for the Cup Standings and he has three DNF's in the last seven races. The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to an oval that hasn't held a lot of success for the No. 11 team, outside of his surprising victory here one year ago. Hamlin is normally short track savvy, but his slump this season is truly all-encompassing. His crash and DNF at one of his favorite tacks, Pocono Raceway, a few weeks ago is plenty of evidence to keep Hamlin out of your lineup this weekend.

Mark Martin –
The veteran driver will be relieving Tony Stewart this weekend in the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet. Martin has mind-boggling experience at the World's Fastest Half Mile. He has two victories and 23 Top-10 finishes in 46 starts at the Tennessee short track. The last couple years have been less kind to Martin, and he has raced less at this oval thanks to the presence of Brian Vickers at MWR. Three of his last four starts at the track have resulted in finishes outside the Top 20. Martin hasn't raced at BMS since the 2011 season, so the unfamiliarity with his new team coupled with his long layoff at Bristol add up to uncertainty for the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Outside of his Top-5 finish at Watkins Glen and Top-10 finish at Indianapolis recently, there hasn't been much to cheer about if you're the No. 42 EGR team. Montoya has been officially announced as not returning to the team next season and he's racing for a job in 2014. Normally this would be a motivating factor for any driver, but at historically poor tracks it's not a good sign. Montoya has only three career Top 10s in 13 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway (23%). His start here in the spring netted a disappointing 30th-place finish. Montoya is a high risk driver any time the series takes to the high banks of Bristol.