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Irwin Tools Night Race Preview: The Last Great Colosseum

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 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 number four of the season, which was the last time NASCAR top division visited Thunder Valley. In that time we've seen Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth swap the championship standings lead. We've seen A.J. Allmendinger's epic upset victory at Watkins Glen. We've seen Aric Almirola snap a big drought for Richard Petty Motorsports with his victory at Daytona in July. We've also seen Kurt Busch return to victory lane with an upset win at Martinsville. So a lot has happened since the Sprint Cup Series last ran the high banks of BMS.

We've also seen 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. 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 at what has been tabbed "The Last Great Colosseum." Much like Spartacus and his famous chariot race, the crowds will roar when these 43 drivers take to the lightning-fast bowl of Bristol Motor Speedway.

In preparing our fantasy race teams this week, we'll need to take a close look at the last nine years at Bristol Motor Speedway in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The loop stats from these 19 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 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 Larson10.066160490104.5
Matt Kenseth12.36025081,2857,689102.7
Kyle Busch10.94915981,5046,278101.7
Jeff Gordon12.65964193837,730100.6
Brad Keselowski14.33221674492,80595.9
Greg Biffle11.94973253806,65293.7
Jimmie Johnson16.44184968056,36191.2
Kurt Busch16.65093564335,85990.7
Denny Hamlin15.54293874965,19290.7
Kevin Harvick16.44633272335,94390.3
Carl Edwards14.23783975426,02489.3
Kasey Kahne15.55214244725,24588.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.5507215835,84388.5
Ryan Newman16.6464157576,06286.0
Tony Stewart17.13373117724,58084.6
Jeff Burton17.23982502674,57583.0
Clint Bowyer16.03772301374,33782.0
Martin Truex Jr.20.35542131144,67081.3
Marcos Ambrose14.92959512,77980.7
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.12.010330075280.7

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. Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick battled for the last 100 of the 500 laps until the Roush Fenway Racing star came out on top with his third-career victory at the half-mile oval. That win capped an amazing day for Edwards at BMS. The driver of the No. 99 Ford qualified 12th on the starting grid 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 Edwards' teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. picking up a career-best finish of second-place. That effort has set up the young driver for a lot of the improvement he's experienced this season. Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola finished third and upset many of the stars of the series by cracking the Top 5 with a great performance. The trio took the top three spots for manufacturer Ford and gave them the best performance for this camp at the Bristol short track in quite some time. Toyota was represented by Denny Hamlin's pole position and Top-10 finish that day. He and teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are proven short track drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing. These three drivers represent that manufacturer's best chances for a visit to victory lane at Bristol. Not to leave out Chevrolet. Kasey Kahne (2013) and Jimmie Johnson (2010) are our last two Bristol winners in that manufacturer's camp. They should prove to be stiff competition as well. 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

Carl Edwards
As we come to Bristol this weekend we begin to examine the possibility of an Edwards sweep of this short track. The Roush Fenway Racing star announced this week his move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015 and historically this kind of news gives a driver a performance "bounce" in the short term. The driver of the No. 99 Ford picked up his third career win at the Tennessee short track in the spring and that ties him with Matt Kenseth for second among active drivers at the track. With more than 500 career laps led at this oval, it's clear that those victories didn't happen by accident. As for the intangibles, all three of Edwards' victories at Bristol have come under the lights.

Brad Keselowski
One of the biggest contenders 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 449 laps combined in nine starts. Keselowski led 40 laps in the spring race at this small oval but shuffling track position caused him to finish 14th 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 of this year. The Penske Racing driver knows this race will be a key component in competing for the championship later this season.

Denny Hamlin
2014 has been nothing short of a frustrating experience for this Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin has had his bright spots along the way though. One of those came in the Food City 500 at BMS in March. He won the pole, led 4 laps and ultimately finished an impressive sixth. Hamlin has led well over 400 laps in his last four Bristol starts and he has two poles and one victory (2012) in those starts. This hasn't been one of his strongest short tracks, but it's been getting incredibly better of late. For a driver and team that have been beaten down by inconsistency, this could be a very big performance for the No. 11 Toyota team.

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been held out of victory lane to this point in 2014. As amazing as that is, he's still been a very strong performer for Joe Gibbs Racing. 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 15-season career. Kenseth is a three-time Bristol winner, and he sports an excellent 62-percent Top-10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. In this event one year ago, he battled with Kasey Kahne in the closing laps but held on to win an impressive victory. Kenseth will be racing with the leaders again this Saturday night.

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

Jeff Gordon
Gordon is on fire coming to Bristol this weekend. He's coming off his third win of the season at Michigan, which was his first victory at that track since 2001. He's redefining expectations after years of mediocrity at some tracks. The five-time Bristol winner hasn't won at the famous short track since 2002, but Gordon is in top form and could erase that long dry spell. Victories aside, the Hendrick Motorsports star has maintained a 56-percent career Top-10 rate at the half-mile oval, and that includes Top 10s in four of his last six starts. We should see the Gordon of old in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

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 owns eight career Top 10s at BMS and three of those have come in his last five trips to upper East Tennessee. He led 50 laps in this event one year ago before settling to finish 14th. Given how well the team is performing entering this week, Bowyer has a good shot at reviving his Bristol Top-10 streak. He has four Top 10s in his last six races.
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. Kahne rides a four-race Bristol Top-10 streak into this weekend. In the Food City 500 earlier this year, the Hendrick Motorsports star led 16 laps and finished eighth at BMS. In just his last four starts alone at the half-mile oval he's led well over 150 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.

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 three of his last four trips to the facility. The veteran driver led 64 laps and finished sixth in this event one year ago. He should stay on target in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

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

Jimmie Johnson
While Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are normally contenders to win, Bristol has presented struggles over the years for the six-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 100 laps in his last four races at the half-mile oval. His 13 career Top 10s come in at a respectable 52-percent rate. So, while Bristol isn't one of Johnson's better tracks, he's still better than most of the field here. 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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Earnhardt's earlier trip this season to the high-banked short track was nothing to write home about, it doesn't tarnish his career achievements at all. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has worked hard to earn 14 career Top 10s in 29 starts and two of those have come in his last three visits. In this event one year ago he led 32 laps and finished 10th after 500 bruising laps of action in the Bristol mixing bowl. With Chase position hanging in the balance this weekend, we expect Earnhardt to be on top of his game at this familiar short track.

Brian Vickers
Vickers burst onto the scene in 2012 with Michael Waltrip Racing and has been a short track ace ever since. He's scored nine short track Top 10s during his three-season stint with MWR. Vickers even scored a victory at the New Hampshire short track last season underscoring his talent on these ovals less than one-mile. The veteran driver sports a five-race Bristol Top-10s streak with this team entering this weekend, so the track record is spotless. In this race one year ago, Vickers finished a brilliant fourth at the end of the night.

Marcos Ambrose
Coming off the runner-up finish at Watkins Glen and solid 12th-place finish 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 finishes of the season earlier this year with a pair of fifth-place finishes at both Bristol and Martinsville. While Ambrose won't likely be seen in the Top 5 this Saturday night, his career numbers at this historic short track are very impressive. He has six Top-10 finishes in 11 career starts, and three of those Top 10s have come in his last four trips to the half-mile oval.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has clinched a spot in the Chase for the Cup later this season. With his big win at Watkins Glen, he followed up well with a steady 13th-place finish at Michigan last week. The confidence of this driver and team are sky high right now. Allmendinger has 12 career starts at this half-mile oval with five Top-20 finishes to his credit. He finished 13th in this event one year ago, and that's indicative of his abilities on this speedway. Allmendinger should crack the Top 15 once again in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Aric Almirola
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver posted a career-best Bristol finish of third in the spring during the Food City 500. Almirola used brilliant pit strategy and great moves on the track to post a great short track finish. The effort was no accident. In this event one year ago, he cracked the Top 15 for the fourth time in his career at this half-mile oval. The 40-percent Top-15 rate is pretty respectable given this driver's position in weekly lineup and salary cap games. A Bristol Motor Speedway start should yield good returns on Almirola and his No.43 Ford team.

Kyle Larson
The rookie sensation will be looking to rebound from his poor Michigan outing that led to a crash and DNF. Larson should shake it off easy enough considering how well he raced earlier this season at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver started 20th on the grid for his first Bristol race and navigated the pit falls and mishaps to finish 10th in his debut at the famous short track. Larson has shown resilience all season long, and we expect no difference in Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick
Even though Harvick is a one-time winner at the Tennessee short track, his consistency here over the years has been somewhat shaky. His 44-percent Top-10 rate ranks BMS pretty low among his track portfolio. Visits the last few years have been quite a struggle for the new Stewart Haas Racing driver. Harvick hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last six visits to the Bristol short track, and with only one Top 10 at the small oval since the 2009 season, it's clear that something here isn't working for Harvick. It's best to stash him on the bench this week and deploy him on the larger speedways.

Kyle Busch
The five-time Bristol winner has had some tough luck of late. His Watkins Glen and Michigan outings were complete disasters. Busch limps into Bristol weekend hoping for a rebound performance. While he's got quite a short track reputation and a lot of Bristol hardware in his trophy case, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has had his struggles here in recent seasons as well. He has only two Top 10s in his last six trips to upper East Tennessee. Busch led 74 laps in March's Food City 500 before running into trouble and finishing 29th. The No. 18 Toyota should be fast, but the luck side of this team doesn't instill much confidence.

Joey Logano
While the Penske Racing driver normally makes a fantastic fantasy racing play on the larger ovals and speedways, this is a week to rethink deploying the No. 22 Ford. Logano now has 11 career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, so he's not short on experience here. But the finishes have been less than encouraging. With only two Top-10 finishes over those 11 starts, he checks in with a lowly 18-percent rate. Logano's start here in March yielded 12 laps led, but only a 20th-place finish. We expect much more of this driver and team on a week-to-week basis.

Casey Mears
The Germain Racing driver has made some real strides this season for this small race team. Mears comes to Bristol 24th in the championship standings, his highest ranking since 2009. However, you have to take the good with the bad. The veteran driver has really struggled at this track over the years. Outside of a surprising pole position here in 2012, Mears has only one Top-10 finish in 23 starts. He's only cracked the Top 20 once in his last nine Bristol starts. The 27th-place finish he posted here in March may be the high water mark for the No. 13 team this weekend.
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