Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 14, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol

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    This place is the "Woodstock of Speed." Bristol Motor Speedway is a one-of-a-kind racetrack. And it makes every race here a one-of-a-kind race.

    With its grandstands towering high over a high-banked, half-mile track, a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway leaves one dazed and confused, with: 1) serious hearing loss (if you don’t wear earplugs), 2) a sore throat from yelling even the shortest of sentences to the person next to you and 3) the unmistakable smell of racing gasoline and tire rubber permeating your clothes.

    Sounds great, doesn’t it?

    The action here is crazy fast. Any attempt at keeping track of who’s ahead of whom is simply a lost cause without a lengthy glance at the scoring tower. 

    Last week, Sprint Cup teams got the chance to see if their 1.5-mile track setups were good, bad or maybe something in between. 

    This week, it is the short-track setup that’s under review. And another chance to say, “I won at Bristol.” A win here is a “must-have” on any driver or crew chief’s resume. 

    Victory at Bristol means you can’t be intimidated by a bit of physical contact like slamming bumpers or rubbing fenders. In fact, the expression “rubbin’ is racin” was probably first said by someone racing here.

    Las Vegas race winner Brad Keselowski is good here. He’s won here twice. The Busch Brothers have five wins apiece, as does four-time champion Jeff Gordon. There’s a lot to choose from when you’re trying to pick a winner. And then there's Denny Hamlin.

    Mother Nature is expected to play a role on race day, with showers predicted. You can never trust the weatherman. Race teams will be prepared for a long weekend; you should too.


    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated. 

Bristol by the Numbers

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    Food City 500

    The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway

    The Date: Sunday, March 16

    The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 266.5 Miles (500 laps)

    Last year's race winner: Kasey Kahne

    Youngest Pole Winner: Joey Logano (03/21/2010—19 years, 9 months, 25 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: Harry Gant (08/27/1994—54 years, 7 months, 17 days)

    No. of Race Winners: 41

    Youngest Winner: Kyle Busch (03/25/2007—21 years, 10 months, 23 days)

    Oldest Winner:  Dale Earnhardt (08/28/1999—48 years, 3 months, 30 days)

    Races Won from Pole: 22

    Last Race Won from Pole: Carl Edwards (08/23/2008)

    Race Record: Charlie Glotzbach (Google him!) 101.074 mph (07/11/1971)

    Qualifying Record: Kyle Busch 129.535 mph (03/17/2013)

    All-Time Race Winner: Darrell Waltrip (12)


    Bristol Weather

    What to do in Bristol

A Historical Look at Bristol

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    • Bristol Motor Speedway was built in 1961 on what was once a dairy farm in 1961 by local businessmen Carl Moore, Larry Carrier and R.G. Pope. They got the idea to build the track after a trip to Charlotte (N.C.) to attend the first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
    • Instead of building a big track like Charlotte, the three decided on building a half-mile track for its intimate setting and because it would require less real estate. Seating capacity back then was 18,000.
    • Today, it is 160,000.
    • The original name of the track was Bristol International Speedway. 
    • The first NASCAR race was on July 30, 1961. Fred Lorenzen started from the pole. Jack Smith was the official winner, although he required relief driver Johnny Allen to finish the race when the heat in his car became unbearable. Second place went to Edward "Fireball" Roberts.
    • On March 13, 1982, Bristol International Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Grand National (Nationwide Series) event. Phil Parsons was the race winner. 
    • On January 22, 1996, then-owner Larry Carrier sold the track to Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), which later that year changed the name of the track to Bristol Motor Speedway.
    • The track’s surface has gone through multiple changes. The most recent came in 2012, when the upper groove of the track was reduced to the same degree as the middle of the surface. This was done to eliminate the top groove of the track as an option. This forced drivers to remain on the bottom of the track which tightened up the racing.
    • Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway over the years has been known to be a contact sport using fenders and bumpers. The result is often crumpled up race cars. One of the worst is from 2002. (pictured above)

    For more on Bristol Motor Speedway go here.

Storylines to Follow

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    Bristol is a driver’s track. Your car doesn't have to be perfect for you to have a good race. That bodes well for several drivers, including points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has one win here (August 2004).


    Team Penske on a Roll

    Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Logano have started on the front row in each of the last two races. Keselowski has two wins here. They start in the first and second row this weekend. Keselowski said:

    The weekend at Las Vegas gives us momentum and freedom to race for wins moving forward. While I enjoy racing everywhere we go, Bristol is one of those places that standout for most drivers.


    First Time for New Qualifying Rules

    NASCAR made changes to the qualifying rules during the week, and they will be tested during Friday’s qualifying session. Gone are slower cars trying to cool down their engines during the first session, when the entire field is on the track.

    Teams will be allowed one cool-down unit connected through either a left-side or right-side hood flap/cowl flap to cool the engine. The hood must continue to remain closed. Plugging in the generator will not be allowed. Two crew members will be allowed over the wall to support the car and driver during qualifying.

    Perhaps the most significant change is that cool-down laps will not be permitted.


    Stewart-Haas Racing Under the Gun

    This four-car team has struggled mightily thus far this season. Harvick stands 14th in points. Tony Stewart is 27th. Kurt Busch is 28th. And Danica Patrick is 33rd. Harvick’s win is the only top-10 finish for the organization thus far. 

    Remarkably, this past Sunday in Las Vegas, Patrick’s 21st-place finish was the best of the four. Kurt Busch has five wins here and could turn his season around with a win. Stewart and Harvick both have a win apiece at Bristol but plenty of top-10s between them—Stewart (eight) and Harvick (12). Stewart said:

    It’s a hard race to win. You look at guys like Rusty Wallace who had so much success and won so many races there, it shows you how good you have to be to win and win there consistently. It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day.


    Familiar Faces at the Top of the Points

    A quick glance at the top 10 heading into Bristol reveals no surprises. Points leader Earnhardt Jr. has a slim one-point lead over Keselowski. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is third, followed by Logano and Gordon rounding out the top five.

    Carl Edwards, who gets closer to visiting Victory Lane every weekend (Bristol is a good track for him with two wins) is sixth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. 

    It's a good bet that at Chase time in September, the top 10 will look very much like it currently looks.

Drivers to Watch

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    Denny Hamlin

    Hamlin would like us all to remember that he was he guy who won nearly everything at Daytona just about a month ago. Then, his team left Florida and apparently left the handle there as well. Bristol is just the place for the FedEx team to rebound back into the spotlight. Starting from the pole is a step in the right direction.


    Kyle Busch

    Tied with his brother Kurt and Gordon with five wins here, Busch has gotten off to a comparatively slow start this season. Bristol could change all of that. Tenth in points, Busch knows it doesn’t matter where you sit in points, it's all about wins now, and he knows where Victory Lane is here. Busch stated:

    Bristol is one of my favorite tracks. I enjoy running around Bristol. It’s just a fun track—a half-mile, high-banked concrete track. It’s certainly a crazy race track and there’s not many of them out there that are like it.


    Jeff Gordon

    This veteran has raced more laps and led more laps (2,713) on this concrete oval than the rest of the field. He also has five wins (’95,’96,’97,’98 and '02). He’s one of the best when it comes to communicating with his crew chief (Alan Gustafson), and that will help when the handling starts to go away on race day. And you can be sure that he’ll be ready to take the gloves off in the closing laps.


    Kurt Busch

    Busch has a history of success at Bristol starting with his first career Sprint Cup win in the Food City 500 in March 2002.

    The win came in only his third start at Bristol, making him the driver with the fewest starts at Bristol ever to record his first win. Busch is one of four drivers to win three consecutive races at the half-mile, high-banked oval. (Fred Lorenzen was the first, winning the fall race in 1963 and following that up with a season sweep in 1964.) Busch said: 

    It’s a track that you have to be confident enough to attack and not be afraid of it. The car speaks to me at Bristol and tells me what it needs, then we go make the changes. When we make changes to the car at Bristol, typically they are all good ones.


    Matt Kenseth

    Kenseth has scored top 10s in two of the first three races. After a series-high seven victories last year, Kenseth could nab his first this season—as well as the likely Chase berth that comes with it—with another strong run at Bristol.

    He has three wins at Bristol, the last coming in an end-of-race battle with Kasey Kahne last August. Kenseth has led laps in each of the last five Bristol races—combining for 414 laps led, the most of any driver during that span.

And These Drivers, Too

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    Kasey Kahne

    Last year’s race winner has gotten off to his typically sluggish start to the season. He sits 15th in points. Starting now, however, this team has to either score a few top-five finishes or win a race if they expect to be racing in September and have it mean something.


    Kevin Harvick

    With one win and 12 top-10 finishes at Bristol, "Happy Harvick" would like nothing better than to prove that his Phoenix win wasn’t a one time affair for this team and that he and the team are not going to rest on their laurels all the way to Chicago. Harvick’s aggressive driving style works well at Bristol, a place where the “chrome horn” is another tool in the toolbox for a veteran driver such as Harvick.


    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Junior has a good record at Bristol, with one win and 14 top-10s. And he is, after all, the points leader and you can imagine that he expects to remain so after the checkered flag falls.

    But, there’s also a bit of extra pressure being the top dog, especially when you’ve got Keselowski barking at your heels. Can this team handle the pressure? You have to wonder if the loss in Vegas on the final lap is still haunting Earnhardt Jr. and his team, too.


    Joey Logano

    Not the best short-track racer, but not the worst either, Logano has the advantage of sitting behind the wheel of a Penske Ford. He has one pole here (3/2005) and a best finish of fifth, which came last season. Who knows? He might have had a few more top fives if he’d started racing for Penske sooner.


    Carl Edwards 

    With two wins, four top fives and seven top 10s, you can count Bristol as one of Edwards’ better tracks. He is one of only three drivers in NASCAR history to have won in all three of NASCAR’s major divisions at Bristol. Edwards is one of only four drivers to accomplish the career sweep at any NASCAR track.

Qualifying Notes

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    Hamlin Wins Pole

    Hamlin won the pole for the 54th Annual Food City 500 with a track-qualifying record lap of 14.761 seconds, 129.991 mph. Hamlin told the media after qualifying was finished:

    "It’s fast—it’s faster than I ever imagined going around this track," Hamlin told the media after qualifying was finished. "Every new rule change we have just makes these cars go a little bit faster."  

    His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch held the previous record with 129.535 mph/14.813 seconds.

    Hamlin ran the least number of laps of any qualifier—two. This is Hamlin’s first pole and second top-10 start in 2014. This is his second pole in 17 races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

    Keselowski (second) posted his third top-10 start of 2014 and his fifth in nine races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

    Kenseth (third) posted his 12th top-10 start at Bristol Motor Speedway. It is his second in four races this season.

Mother Nature Bound to Step in

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    Mother Nature is expected to put a damper on the Sprint Cup show on Sunday. The forecast is predicting a 70 percent chance of rain on Sunday and a 50 percent chance on Monday. 

    No complaining, please. It could be snowing.

    Bristol is notorious for having ugly weather for its spring race weekend. In 2006 (above), the Nationwide race had to run under yellow for several laps and was eventually red-flagged on Lap 32 when whiteout conditions prevailed.

    NASCAR prefers to run the race on the day it is scheduled and rarely calls a postponement early, preferring to wait out the weather. There have been race days in the past when it was pouring down at sunrise and then beautiful at race time.

    And keep in mind how great the racing was after the lengthy rain delay at Daytona.

    And then there’s the fabled NASCAR “vortex effect” but don’t get me started on that.

And the Winner Is:

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    Kurt Busch

    The Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver needs a win this weekend more than all the other 42 drivers in the field—combined. Busch's 2014 season is off to a rough start.

    And you can be sure he’s already had team owner Gene Haas tell him, “Don’t make me look like a jackass for hiring you.” As the story goes, Haas offered Busch a ride at SHR before telling his partner Tony Stewart.

    He’s been fast in practice. He’s won five Cup races at Bristol. And he’s got 14 top-10 finishes. This is the race that this team can win and take the pressure off of Busch and crew chief Daniel Knost for the rest of the season. So they can get to know each other better.