by Micah Roberts
We saw NASCAR open “Pandora’s Box” last week with their lack of punishment on Carl Edwards for punting Brad Keselowski in Atlanta. It was good a decision on NASCAR’s part to hold true to their statements made before the season started that NASCAR would loosen things up and let the drivers show more personality and emotion on the track.
The faster tracks aren’t typically the type of places where drivers send a message at, but even with looming fines and penalties, the short tracks have always been somewhat of a drivers’ kangaroo court. With seemingly no repercussions other than probation, like Edwards received for his admitted punt, there looks to be a lot of loose cannons on the track just waiting to show off how bad they can be with their form of justice.
Bristol used to be one of the more volatile tracks on tour where multiple drivers were bumped out of the way as they all fought for the all important low line of position. Since the re-paving for the fall race in 2007, things haven't been as wild as they used to be because drivers can race equally fast high or low.
Now, if a driver won’t move for a faster car behind him, the faster car can just move up high for the pass and not lose much speed in the process. It has eliminated the so-called ”love taps” and has also shrunk the amount of bouts following the race, which many times were just as entertaining as the race itself.
One of the drivers who should flourish under the new proven policy of NASCAR is Las Vegan Kyle Busch. For the last two seasons he’s been NASCAR’s whipping boy with multiple trips to the trailer, which is like being sent to the principal’s office in grade school. Busch has had a tangle with just about everyone on the track during his short career, including his own brother during an All-Star race.
The combination of not running as well as he’d like and also the multiple tongue-lashings from NASCAR has quieted him down somewhat, but you have to believe that he is just waiting for his chance to shine in the new NASCAR.
For the last two seasons, Busch has been one of the only drivers to liven things up. He’s played that villain that every era of NASCAR needs and he somewhat relishes in it. But it’s hard to play that role lately because he isn’t winning, nor is he coming close.
Thus far into the season, Busch doesn’t have one top-10 finish on tracks that he typically does well at. He still sits No. 15 in points, but that isn’t good enough or acceptable for Busch. In his last two seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing he’s had a win by this juncture as well as multiple top-5 finishes.
All that early season momentum has usually translated well coming into Bristol. Last year he won both Bristol races, sweeping the season for the first time since his brother did it in 2003. He is Bristol’s active leader in career average finish at 10.2 among all drivers with at least three races on the track.
The driver who has been almost as consistent as Busch since the changes to the track has been Denny Hamlin who has a streak of three straight top-5 finishes along with a sixth-place finish in his last four starts. But Hamlin is in the same boat as Busch coming in; no top-10 finishes in any of the four races thus far.
Carl Edwards has been the talk of NASCAR world over the last week. He won the first race on the new surface in 2007 and followed that night race with another in 2008. However, as the changes to his team sent Edwards from being close to winning every week in 2008 to not winning at all in 2009. Last season Edwards was very average at Bristol and based on the way things have gone thus far, it doesn’t look to change.
Because the track runs somewhat like a mini-Dover, and because he’s started so uncharacteristically fast, we have to look at Jimmie Johnson as a candidate to have maybe his best run ever at Bristol. It’s one of the few tracks Johnson has yet to win on among his 49 career wins. He swept Dover last season and finished eighth and third last season at Bristol.
During Mark Martin’s part time schedule as was easing into retirement, he had skipped Bristol for two seasons. When he rolled up last year he came strong with a sixth and second. Look for Martin to be a strong contender Sunday.
The Childress group figures to be just as good as ever at Bristol and continue their strong run through the standings. Jeff Burton won this race in 2008 and his two side kicks, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, were almost as good the same year. It was an off year for the entire organization last year, but they all look good to go based on the first four races. They should all have good cars this week with each capable of winning.
TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #33 Clint Bowyer (18/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
4) #29 Kevin Harvick (14/1)
5) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)