2014 NASCAR at Bristol II: Preview, Prediction of Irwin Tools Night Race
It’s back to Bristol, baby!
Year after year, voted by the fans as the most sought-after ticket on the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, the late-summer Saturday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, is often the most rambunctious, most talked-about event of the regular season.
Short-track racing means short fuses and hot tempers as the action gets up close and personal on the Speedway’s all-concrete, high-banked half-mile.
Saturday night short-track racing is what defined many of the drivers in the current Cup field. They love to come here.
“It reminds me of the movie Gladiator,” said Clint Bowyer, who sits two seats next to the Chase cutoff. “You know someone’s going to agitate you. You walk in and the fans are right on you. It’s an incredible atmosphere.”
This is 500 15-second laps at an average speed of more than 85 miles per hour. It’s extremely tough for man (or woman) and machine.
“Bristol is one of the more physically demanding tracks that isn’t very forgiving and there’s a fine line between going fast and getting stuck in the fence, so it’s all about finding that balance,” said defending race winner Matt Kenseth.
You can expect Kenseth and 42 of his closest friends to put on a real rock 'em, sock 'em party this Saturday night when the green flag flies.
Kevin Harvick won the pole for the 54th annual Irwin Tools Night Race with a lap of 14.607 seconds, 131.362 mph. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver shattered the track record by more than a tenth of a second—a record set just this past March by Denny Hamlin (14.761 seconds).
It was Harvick’s fifth pole of 2014 and his first in 28 Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Chase contender admitted that his pole run was no easy feat.
“I think it is just so fast and the line that you have to run, to run fast, is so easy to get out of the groove, I think it’s very hard to hit it right every time,” said Harvick in a post-qualifying interview.
Starting alongside Harvick on the front row is Jeff Gordon, who lost the pole by a mere eight-thousandths of a second with a lap of 14.615 seconds.
“It just shows you how good our cars and our team is right now,” said Gordon in a post-qualifying interview.
Carl Edwards, who won the spring race here in March, starts third. Five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch starts fourth alongside of Joey Logano who starts fifth.
The top nine starters are separated by less than a tenth of a second.
Justin Allgaier was the highest qualifying rookie. He’ll start 19th. Kyle Larson, Casey Mears and Aric Almirola had problems during qualifying and were unable to record a qualifying attempt and will start at the rear of the field.
Notable starts: Jimmie Johnson (6th), Kurt Busch (7th), Marcos Ambrose (10th), Kasey Kahne (12th), Matt Kenseth (16th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th) and Danica Patrick (24th).
Still Bristol After All These Years
Fans are split on whether or not they like the new style of racing at Bristol that began when the track was repaved in 2007.
The story of the Bristol track surface is a bit like Goldilocks'.
Prior to the '07 repave, racing at Bristol was defined as single-file, one-groove racing. A driver often had to use his front bumper or fender to move another driver out of the way to advance up through the field.
The result was often angry drivers, frustrated crew chiefs who had to deal with damaged cars and jubilant fans who watched as their least-favorite driver got the “chrome horn” treatment and ended up either turned around or in the wall.
This was too narrow a groove.
Then came the repave in 2007. There were multiple racing grooves, making more options for passing and fewer hot tempers. The drivers were OK with the new surface, but the fans were furious. They wanted some of the old style mixed with some of the new. They wanted more contact.
This was too wide a groove.
In 2012, in response to fan feedback, the very outside surface of the track that runs along the retaining wall was lowered slightly, making for yet another change in the racing style. This new surface made for multiple racing grooves and made it bit more difficult to pass.
This was just right.
You can see by the photo taken during the March Sprint Cup race that there is indeed multiple racing grooves, although the preferred line, especially during the later part of the race, is the lower one.
Which style of racing do you prefer?
All Eyes on Edwards
The winner of this year’s spring race at Bristol, Carl Edwards, made news this week when it was finally announced that he would move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015.
His Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion was good in March but not great. It was best on long runs, which came in handy in the waning laps of the race when there were multiple cautions.
Will Edwards have the car as good as it was in March? Will he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig end their time together with a championship for Jack Roush?
Emotions Will Test New Rules
This race will be the first real opportunity to exercise the recently announced rules that keep drivers from climbing out of the car following a wreck.
The new mandate doesn’t force a driver to remain in his or her vehicle if there is a fire. But under all other circumstances, he or she must stay seated until the safety crew arrives.
The new rules don’t (and won’t) change the possibility of fighting or arguing in the infield or on pit road. It wouldn’t be Bristol without a bit of pushing and shoving going down. Emotions will be turned way up as the countdown toward the start of the Chase is only three weekends away.
Blue Oval Comeback?
The last Sprint Cup race won by a Ford driver was back in July, when Brad Keselowski won at New Hampshire on July 13. Since then, it’s been all the Bowtie Brigade all the time in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.
Chevy drivers won at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen and last week at Michigan (where they also won in June).
Keselowski has been vocal about the disparity between the Ford and Chevrolet horsepower, with the Blue Oval getting the short stick.
"It's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else," Keselowski said after finishing third at Michigan International Speedway in June.
Bristol is an equalizer. At this track it’s about setup and driver. If you can get off the corner faster than your competition, you’re going to do well no matter what make of car you’re driving.
Bristol ranks as the manufacturer’s second-most successful track with 34 victories, so maybe Ford can break its mini-drought on Saturday night.
It’s the Final Countdown
No, we're not talking about that very memorable song from the 1980s, but it is quite apropos, when you remember that after Bristol, only two races remain before the Chase.
Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Bowyer and Greg Biffle are all in danger of losing their seat at the big kid’s table should a new winner emerge on Saturday night. Among them, only Kenseth has won at Bristol (’05, ’06, ’13).
Track position will be key, and if you go a lap down at Bristol, it’s usually easy to make it up with fresh tires. But go four or more down to the leader and your evening might just be over.
And lest we forget…Kasey Kahne, Dillon and Kyle Larson all sit just outside the Chase cutoff. Kahne won the spring race last year.
It's time for "Bad Brad" to show up again. You remember him? He was the driver who walked with a swagger after winning both races at Loudon. It’s been a difficult summer for the Miller Lite boys. Only one top-10 finish since that weekend sweep in June isn’t exactly what Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe had in mind heading into the Chase.
Keselowski led 40 laps in the spring race at Bristol and got hamstrung by track position. This duo won’t let that happen again.
Arguably the hottest driver in the series at the moment, Jeff Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led squad look more like the No. 48 team than the No. 24 team. Gordon’s drive and desire are totally in command right now, and this veteran driver isn’t about to let anything get in the way of his fifth title.
The race winner here in the spring, Edwards had a difficult race early, but his car got much better in the second half of the race. Emotions will be running high with this squad for the rest of the season. He has likely given his “let’s go out on top” speech to the team. Hopefully it'll abide by his wishes.
Defending race winner Kenseth and his Jason Ratcliff-led team aren’t exactly limping their way into the Chase, but a win would have this group standing up tall and proud. Three top-10s since Daytona in July and a third-place finish at Dover in June, which is essentially Bristol on steroids, are all positives for a team looking for every positive that it can find.
This team is primed and ready for the Chase. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have had a great summer with four top-10s in a row since Loudon. They’ve got the best equipment and one of the toughest drivers to beat behind the wheel. If it eliminated a few mistakes along the way this season, this team could easily have five wins and not just three.
Since his runner-up finish at the Brickyard, Busch’s luck has been nothing but bad. A blown engine at Pocono started a trio of disastrous races that he would just as soon forget. He gets the nod here because you cannot, you simply cannot talk about Bristol without having the track's five-time winner (that’s just in the Cup Series) Busch in the mix.
The night race could be the turnaround this Dave Rogers-led team needs before the start of the Chase.
Dark-Horse Driver: Marcos Ambrose
There are three or four drivers who could fall into the dark-horse slot this weekend, but Marcos Ambrose has to be the pick.
Bristol historically has been one of his better tracks. He keeps edging closer to scoring his first Sprint Cup Series oval victory, and Bristol is his kind of place.
Ambrose came from the Australian V8 Supercar Series, the kind of series where you have to bare knuckle your way to the front with aggressive moves and no-holds-barred racing.
Bristol is just his style.
“It's a track and race that really proves how much mettle you have as a driver,” said Ambrose in a pre-race team media release. “That's played into my hands. I can really muscle the car and race with it.”
His career stats show that when he unloads with a decent race car, meaning one that qualifies well, he’ll deliver a top-10 finish. In March, he finished fifth after starting fifth.
“This team gave me a good car in March and we had good strategy,” Ambrose added. “We know what we need to do. Our cars have been good here. If you are in it in the final 100 laps, you have a chance to win.”
He likes his chances, and so do I.
And the Winner Is...
Take a look at these two guys in the photo (above).
To the unknowing, if they weren’t wearing uniforms, they might very well look like two people you’d not want to meet up with in a dark alley.
It's actually Gustafson, crew chief for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team, and Gordon, looking quite fearsome.
That’s the way NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contenders are supposed to look.
Right now, four-time Cup champion Gordon may be delivering some of the most spirited driving of his career. With every lap there’s a drive and determination at a level that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
Gordon's sudden resurgence could be his way to ultimately end his career on a high note, writes Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
But regularly running up front this year — Gordon is the series points leader — has given Gordon a spark some of his fans weren't sure they'd ever see again. After all, the 43-year-old might only drive for another couple seasons (he's battled back problems for years).
And while his look is one of serious competition with a side order of danger, Gordon is having the time of his life at the race track.
“It’s a lot of fun going to the track right now, and this week is no exception,” said Gordon in his pre-race media release. “I love racing at Bristol and we’re really looking forward to this Saturday night’s race.”
Winning a race in the Sprint Cup Series is tough enough. But two in a row? Why not? If there is a driver in the Sprint Cup series right now who can do it, it's five-time Bristol winner Gordon.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis