Mash The Gas: Bristol Preview

Matt Kenseth leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. [Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Matt Kenseth leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. [Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

It’s back to the short tracks for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as the tough and exciting Bristol Motor Speedway hosts the Irwin Tools Night Race.

IRWIN Tools Night Race
Bristol Motor Speedway
266.5 miles (500 laps)
Saturday, Aug. 22, 7:30pm ET
PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
The Bristol night race at one time was the toughest ticket to obtain as Bristol’s tough close racing under the lights always entertains. The fast Bristol high banks almost always produce fender rubbing action and with the Chase looming just around the corner the pressures of needing a victory to improve their position or even qualify for a shot at the Sprint Cup have ramped up tremendously. The close contact nature of the fast half mile tends to fire up tempers and bruise egos and drivers who fail to check their emotions at the gate often wind up in trouble.

It’s Bristol Baby… under the lights in the Irwin Tools Night Race, and here are some drivers to watch Saturday night.

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
Matt Kenseth won the spring race here to beef up his Bristol record to four wins, thirteen top five finishes, and twenty top ten results in thirty one races. Plus, he’s coming off a dominating win at Michigan a week ago which makes him a 6-1 favorite at Bristol. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have set the performance benchmark over the past two months and Kenseth is the best of the Gibbs drivers at Bristol. Solidly in the Chase, Kenseth knows the real pressure is off and he’s free to focus solely on winning the race. Matt Kenseth is always dangerous at Bristol and when he’s riding the current wave of momentum he’s on he’s downright lethal. Look for another Matt Kenseth victory Saturday night (unless teammate Kyle Busch as something to say about it.)

Kyle Busch (John Wiedemann)
The expectations for Kyle Busch last weekend at Michigan weren’t anywhere near as high as they are this weekend at Bristol. With Joe Gibbs Racing running on top of the NASCAR world, thanks in part to Kyle’s successful return, one would expect one of the four JGR drivers to end up in victory lane. Matt Kenseth may be statistically the best, but I believe it will be Kyle in victory lane this weekend with his sixth win at the track. Kyle has raced his way into the Chase and holds a 23 point lead over Cole Whitt in 31st place. It would take a disastrous three races to knock him out of the Chase at this point and I don’t see that happening. I also wouldn’t expect Kyle to play it safe. Add the fact that another win this season would put him on top of the Chase Grid, wouldn’t that get everybody fired up?

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch and the #41 team have continued to consistently be one of the top teams on the circuit and they have managed to avoid the pitfalls Kurt Busch has traditionally run into during the long summer run of the season. That leaves Kurt Busch heading into Bristol in an upbeat mode as he owns five victories here to go along with eight top fives, and fifteen top ten finishes. Busch is listed at intriguing 10-1 odds this weekend. Busch was fourth in this race a year ago and finished 15th in the Spring. At Bristol, you need a driver who can get up on the wheel when it is “Go” time and Kurt Busch has no problem putting the foot down to get the job done. Kurt Busch should be one of the drivers to watch Saturday night.

Jeff Gordon (JW)
The third five time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway is Jeff Gordon. While he and the Busch brothers are a far cry from Darrell Waltrip’s 12 wins at Bristol, they are at the top of the active drivers with victories at Bristol. Gordon won each of the spring races from 1995 through 1998 and then won the fall race in 2002. The 2002 win was probably the most dominant as Gordon led 235 laps, almost half, on his way to victory lane including a slight altercation with Rusty Wallace. Since 2002 there have been no wins for Gordon but there have been 12 top ten finishes including a third place finish this season back in April. This will be Gordon’s only chance to top the Busch brothers and take hold of second place in all time wins at Bristol and it will be fun to watch him try. Maybe Gordon could renew the old (Rusty Wallace), and recent (Brad Keselowski), rivalry with the #2 car for some excitement this weekend.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski has just kind of been hanging around the last few weeks, turning in solid performances without leading a lot of laps. Bristol should be a welcoming site for Keselowski and it presents a strong opportunity for him to pick up his second victory of the season and move up the Chase standings. Keselowski has two Bristol victories to his credit and was second in the Bristol night race in 2014. Brad Keselowski has adapted well to Bristol’s aggressive style and he could make a statement on Saturday night. He’s listed at 7-1 odds to win and Brad Keselowski is without a doubt tough enough to find victory lane in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
Jimmie Johnson remains a question mark as the regular season winds down and teams prepare for the Chase. Currently at the top of the Chase Grid, Johnson is set to go into the Chase tied with Kyle Busch with bonus points for their four wins each this season. But Johnson is looking to be on a different trajectory than Busch as Johnson’s last win was at the end of May at Dover and Busch has won four races since then. Johnson’s finishes since May have been a roller coaster ride topping out with a second place at Daytona and bottoming out with a 39th place finish last weekend at Michigan. Of course Johnson, Chad Knaus and the Hendrick Motorsports team can turn it on when the Chase starts, they have done it before, but the lack of consistency this season makes one wonder if this is really their year. A solid run at Bristol could ease some concerns about the perennial championship contender.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (DM)
My long shot pick this week is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who comes into Bristol at 100-1 odds to win. Stenhouse hasn’t had much to brag about this season but his Bristol record is pretty stout with two top five finishes and three top tens in just five starts. His last three races here have produced finishes of fourth, sixth, and second as Bristol seems to suit his on the throttle style. If Stenhouse wants to be included in this year’s Chase, he and the #17 team need to throw a Hail Mary as a victory is the only way they make the cut. If there is any fight left in Ricky Stenhouse, it should come out at Bristol as Saturday night is his best and quite possibly only shot at making this season’s Chase.

Clint Bowyer (JW)
Where will this soap opera turn to this weekend? The rumors have finally been announced and Clint Bowyer’s Michael Waltrip Racing team will cease operations after this season with Bowyer given a release from his contract. Bowyer is currently on the Chase Grid bubble, 23 points ahead of Aric Almirola. With three top ten finishes in the last four races, Bowyer comes to a track that he has been a solid performer at. In 19 races at Bristol, Bowyer has eight top ten finishes with a best finish of third twice. Since joining MWR, Bowyer has an average finish of 10.6. Bowyer’s main obstacle to making the Chase is if someone lower in the point standings than him would get their first victory of the season. Currently 32 points behind Jeff Gordon in the Chase Grid, Bowyer probably won’t catch him in three races. So either Bowyer needs to win or hope the next three wins go to drivers already in the Chase.

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