Mash The Gas: Bristol Preview

Kyle Larson leads the field in a restart during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. [Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Kyle Larson leads the field in a restart during at Bristol Motor Speedway. [Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The final off weekend of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is in the rear view mirror as the circuit kicks back into action this Saturday night with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Bristol Night Race has traditionally been one of the most anticipated events of the season as the heated competition and tempers of Bristol ratchet up the intensity under the lights. Some track changes also greet the drivers this weekend as the lower groove of the speedway has been polished and worked in with tire rubber.

With only four races remaining to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, the pressure is mounting on the drivers still on the outside looking in as just five spots are available in the Chase field. That number dwindles to four if Pocono winner Chris Buescher makes up the three points he needs to enter the top 30.

That makes for a lot of drivers vying for a few precious spots in the Chase at Bristol, a track known for its close quarters, full contact racing and hot tempers. Throw all that under the lights and you have the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race this Saturday night and here are some drivers to watch…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
When it comes to Bristol lately, the battle for supremacy has come down to the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and the Penske Fords, and the best driver statistically in the Gibbs camp is Matt Kenseth. Kenseth has four Bristol wins to go along with thirteen top five finishes and twenty top ten results. He owns the best Driver Rating at Bristol and has won two out of the last six races. However while he has raced strong at Bristol, he has encountered bad luck the last two races here including last March when tire issues forced him out while leading. Matt Kenseth has always adapted well to Bristol’s high banks and with already being locked into the Chase this season, he should be at the front of the field once again on Saturday night. If the tire issues from March are solved, Matt Kenseth is definitely one of the favorites to win the Bristol Night race on Saturday night.

Joey Logano (John Wiedemann)
Joey Logano has won two of the last four races at the Bristol Motor Speedway and is the defending champion of this race. Logano could use another victory to go along with his Michigan win for the bonus points that are awarded at the start of the Chase. Currently in the ninth place in the Chase Grid, Logano is set to be in the Chase but another three bonus points wouldn’t hurt. Logano has eight top ten finishes in the last ten races and has averaged an eleventh place finish in all of those events. Logano has proven he knows what it takes to win at Bristol and he could do it again on Saturday night.

Kyle Busch (DM)
Kyle Busch can also legitimately lay claim to the title of King of Bristol as he is tied for the most wins at the high banked half mile with five. Kyle Busch also has eight top five finishes and thirteen top tens in just twenty two starts, which earns him the second best Driver Rating behind Matt Kenseth. Kyle Busch also drives one of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas which means he will have a fast car on Saturday night. He also raced strong at this track back in March before being caught up in an accident. Kyle Busch is also locked into the Chase field this season which opens up the possibilities to take some chances to secure a victory and lets him approach the race more aggressively than those drivers on the Chase bubble. Kyle Busch is always a threat at Bristol and nothing should change on Saturday night as he should be considered one of the favorites.

Carl Edwards (JW)
Carl Edwards will be looking for his fifth win at Bristol on Saturday night. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be one to contend with as he returns to the track where, in the spring, he won from the pole and led 276 of the 500 laps. Edwards needs a good run as his recent results have been mixed. Don’t let those races think he is down though. Returning to a track where he dominated will fire him and the team up to be just as tough as he was in the spring. Edwards is my pick to win and sweep the Bristol races for 2016.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch also owns five Bristol victories and his statistics boast nine top five finishes and sixteen top ten results. However, he hasn’t found victory lane at Bristol since 2006, a full decade ago. That doesn’t mean Kurt Busch hasn’t raced well at Bristol though as he did finish a very strong third at this track back in March. Busch returns to Bristol this weekend driving the same chassis he drove to that third place finish and the car also has a top ten result from Dover this season. Kurt Busch is another driver who adapted well to Bristol right out of the box and the track seems to fit his style of racing. Already qualified for the Chase, Kurt Busch can be as aggressive as he wants this weekend as he attempts to derail the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota juggernaut. Kurt Busch isn’t afraid to attack the Bristol high banks he should be on your list of drivers to watch on Saturday night.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JW)
Each time the Bristol Preview rolls around, we talk about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. And pretty much each time, Stenhouse is there at the end. Except recently. After three straight top six finishes, Stenhouse finished 21st at this race last season (four laps down) and finished 16th this spring. Is it over for Stenhouse? Not yet. I don’t think the question is the driver, Stenhouse runs Bristol well. The question is how setup are the Roush Racing cars when they roll off the truck. I believe that Stenhouse will be the top Roush driver this weekend. If the cars are ready, Ricky will be taking his to the front.

Kyle Larson (DM)
Kyle Larson is my long shot pick this weekend as he needs a good run to remain in the hunt to qualify for this year’s Chase. Larson does have two top ten finishes at Bristol and he has raced well here in the Xfinity Series. Plus earlier this season, Larson finished a close second at Dover which, like Bristol, is another high banked concrete track. Kyle Larson has been on the cusp of that first Sprint Cup victory and is on the verge of the Chase cut off with just four races to go and Bristol may just be a good place for him to break through. Larson is plenty aggressive and he is very good at using all available grooves of the track to find the quickest way around. If you are looking for a somewhat of a surprise winner on Saturday night, don’t forget about Kyle Larson.

Kasey Kahne (JW)
Kasey Kahne used to be a solid threat at this track. In 2007 he led 305 laps on his way to a runner up finish and in 2013 he led over 100 laps when he won the spring race. Kahne has ten finishes in the top ten and half of those, including his win, were in the top five. The last four races at Bristol haven’t been good with accidents and other incidents putting him laps down. Kahne finished the spring race this year on the lead lap but was in seventeenth place. Kahne has won at three of the next four races that are on the schedule and needs to repeat that feat once to get himself into the Chase. Otherwise, this will again be another lost season from a driver and team that had so much promise.

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