Sunday, April 17, 2016

Joe Gibbs Racing going to be tough to beat at Bristol

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers stacked in starting lineup.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered the Bristol weekend as NASCAR’s hottest team with Kyle Busch dominating the past two weeks, and based on what happened in Saturday’s final practices, Busch’s main competition to win Sunday’s Food City 500 probably will come from teammates.

Busch gets the top rating based in part because of his five career wins on the high-banked half-mile layout, even though he’s had eight starts since his last victory there in 2011. In July, Busch won three straight races — and four of five — and his team currently looks just as dominant.

During Saturday’s early practice, Busch had the fastest lap (126.37 mph) while also showing speed on longer runs with the fastest 10-consecutive lap average. In the final 55-minute practice, he was fifth-fastest, with three teammates showing faster speeds, led by Denny Hamlin, who had the top speed at 126.129 mph. Hamlin was also fastest (128.666 mph) in Friday’s practice while in qualifying trim.

Busch is the 5-1 favorite based mostly on his current success with a hint of his Bristol past aiding in the number, but his teammates look so strong that it severely lessens any value Busch might have with odds to win.

All five Gibbs cars start from a top-eight position, a good sign one of them will win. In 88 of the 110 Bristol races, the winner has came from a top-10 start position, including eight of the past nine. Four Gibbs cars start in the top five, which has produced 64 winners at Bristol.

So while Busch is the main story, Hamlin (10-1), Matt Kenseth (7-1), pole-sitter Carl Edwards (8-1) and Martin Truex Jr. (15-1) are capable of the stealing the show. They represent good value laying prices in driver vs. driver matchups. Only Hamlin, who won at Bristol in 2012, presents value in odds to win.

Chevrolet sluggish lately at Bristol
Another reason Gibbs cars have such a huge edge is because Chevrolet has been ordinary at Bristol in recent years. They have won a track record 43 times but only twice on the past 15 races — none in the past five. The usual weekly favorites — Jimmie Johnson (7-1) and Kevin Harvick (6-1) — have only two wins between them in 58 Bristol starts. Johnson’s victory was in 2010 and Harvick’s in 2005.

Top contender to crash Gibbs party
Wins usually come in bunches at Bristol — 12 have won back-to-back — and Joey Logano fits that criteria to join the group, having won last fall and in two of the past three. He didn’t practice as well as the Gibbs cars, but will start third as the only non-Gibbs car in the top five.

Kyle Larson fast in practice
Larson (40-1) has been teasing us the past two seasons with strong practices that don’t translate well to race day, but during Saturday’s final session, it was hard not to be impressed with his Chevy having the best 10-consecutive lap average, just ahead of Busch. In his first three Bristol races, Larson was 10th, 12th and seventh before finishing 40 last fall.

Can a rookie win?
The last driver to win in his first Cup start at Bristol was Dale Earnhardt in 1979. Chase Elliott (25-1) makes his Cup debut Sunday at Bristol and was impressive in Saturday’s practices, finishing with the second-fastest lap in both sessions. Still, with the edge Gibbs has, Logano figuring to run well and Chevrolet not elite there anymore, 25-1 isn’t much value.

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