Handicapping Bristol races not as simple as the old days

Saturday night’s race under the Bristol lights will be the 100th run on what is known as the world’s fastest half-mile. For the first 92 races, picking a winner of the race was relatively simple. In most cases, you’d fare very well just by taking the driver who won the previous Bristol race run or take a random pick of any former Cup champion.

All throughout history there has been a succession of winners that won year after year, ranging from likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch. All former champions and all multiple winners, they gobbled up wins in bunches and no one could touch them during their runs.
That type of consistency all changed somewhat when Bristol repaved their track in the summer of 2007, taking what was 36 degrees of banking and changing it to a multi-grooved progressive banking track that begins at about 24 degrees. No longer are drivers fighting for that all-important bottom line because passes now can be made on the outside. Drivers aren’t battling for position as much now and, over the last seven Bristol races run with the new surface, we haven’t seen the type of fireworks and feuds that NASCAR fans have been accustomed to at Bristol, making it one of the hardest tickets to get in sports.  
This weekend’s race will be the eighth with the new surface, the seventh with the Car of Tomorrow and the first with the new spoiler since going to the COT. The new spoiler doesn’t figure to make as much difference as it would at one of NASCAR’s larger tracks, but it still is another recently changed component that has made handicapping Bristol tougher than ever.
In the last seven Bristol races there have been only four drivers to win, but each of the drivers’ first wins over that span was their first ever there. Kyle Busch has won three times, once on the old surface and sweeping the 2009 season. Carl Edwards won this fall race in back-to-back years in 2007-08, with Jeff Burton taking the checkers in the spring of 2008, his first win on the track in 30 starts.
The biggest sign that the new track runs drastically different from the old was Jimmie Johnson winning this year’s spring race. Always the gentleman on the track, Johnson never had what it took to gain position on the old track, which meant getting mean and nasty. The track now runs like a miniature Dover, a place that Johnson can race and succeed without ruffling feathers. All the aforementioned drivers, like Waltrip and Earnhardt who had success on the old track, did so with a menacing attacking mode that fostered both fear and respect from their fellow drivers at Bristol.
So now we’re back to the handicapping drawing board, where the formula this week is based on the spring Bristol race, a little bit of the Dover race — a track also similar because of the concrete surface — mixed in with some of the driver’s chassis selections, how the team is performing lately, and, of course, practice results from Friday.
After brewing it all together, we get Johnson on top of three Roush cars, Tony Stewart, and the Busch brothers. It looks very similar to the top-nine finishers from the spring race, but there is a little more involved in solving the formula even though the shortcut takes you to the answer quicker.
For the three Roush drivers, they all showed up within the top eight at Bristol and Dover this year. All three were very strong in practice and all three have a terrific recent past history at Bristol. Edwards and Biffle are each bringing their Dover chassis with Kenseth’s car unannounced by the team. As far as recent history goes, no team is running better collectively over the last five races than the Roush group. They’ve got everything pointed in their favor this week.
Yet, Johnson still tops the charts. He’s got his Bristol win under his belt and he looked outstanding in practice. He’ll be starting from the pole which is always a great place to begin on a short track.  He’ll also be using a strong chassis that he most recently finished sixth with at Michigan in June and won with at Las Vegas in February. He hasn’t had a top-five finish in six races, which doesn’t bode well in the formula, but he looks to have a set-up close to the dominant car from the spring race.    
Tony Stewart had a better practice and qualifying session than normal and will be using the same car that finished runner-up in the spring race. While his team was in the midst of struggling to begin the year, two of Stewart’s best runs came at Bristol and a ninth place at Dover. Stewart has put it all together now and has finished in the top-10 for five consecutive races leading up to this week.
Kyle Busch didn’t have a very good practice, but so much more has to factor into his equation because of his recent history. Three wins in seven Bristol races is pretty good. His 5.7 average finish at Bristol while driving the COT stands alone, with the next best coming in at 9.3 per race. He finished ninth during the spring race, after practicing much worse than he did Friday, and also happened to win at Dover in May. It all looks pretty clear that Busch is currently the Concrete King!
Kurt Busch didn’t have a very good practice Friday. either, but he gets major consideration for this race just because of the car he’s using this week, which is the same that finished third in March. Busch didn’t practice well for that race either — though not as bad as Friday — and managed to lead multiple times during the race for a race-best 273 laps. Busch was a five-time winner on the old surface and his best run on the new surface came this spring.
Jeff Gordon gets consideration because of his great practice sessions Friday. He’s got one of the better cars this week, even though qualifying 26th doesn’t necessarily say so. As far as recent history goes, Gordon doesn’t look as good as his car does. He has five wins at Bristol, but the last came in 2002.

Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car — or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.

Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Irwin Tools Night Race
Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn.
Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010 — 4:46 p.m. (PDT)
Rating  Driver                           Odds     Practice 1  Practice 2  Qualifying   Bristol*
1. Jimmie Johnson                     6/1            7th              4th              1st             1st 
First Bristol win in 17 tries came in the spring; using sixth-place Michigan chassis this week.
2. Carl Edwards                         10/1          36th            2nd             2nd            6th
Two-time Bristol winner, with both coming after 2007 repaving. Using Dover car this week.
3. Tony Stewart                          10/1          21st           14th              4th            2nd
2001 Bristol winner; using same car that led with seven laps to go finishing runner-up in spring.
4. Jeff Gordon                             12/1           4th              5th             26th          14th
Five-time Bristol winner with last victory in 2002; career average finish of 11.7 in 35 starts.
5. Greg Biffle                               10/1           8th            32nd            21st           4th
Two straight fourth-place finishes at Bristol; using sixth place Dover chassis this week.
6. Matt Kenseth                           20/1         24th             6th              14th           5th
Two-time Bristol winner with the last coming in 2006; career average finish of 12.7 in 21 starts.
7. Kyle Busch                               6/1          28th            20th             19th           9th
Three-time Bristol winner with an average finish of 5.7 in seven starts with the new Car of Tomorrow. 
8. Ryan Newman                       40/1          25th            1st                6th           16th
Average finish of 8.8 in last four Bristol starts; using same chassis from the spring race.
9. Jamie McMurray                    35/1          14th             7th               7th             8th
Great average speeds in both Friday practices. Five top-10 finishes in 15 Bristol starts.
10. Kurt Busch                             7/1           26th           23rd              20th           3rd
The five-time Bristol winner didn’t practice well; using same chassis that led 278 laps in the spring.
Note: Only two scheduled practice sessions at Bristol with the first being two-hours long.
* Results from the March 21, 2010 Bristol race.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former race and sports book director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He currently writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at MM.Roberts7@Gmail.com.
KYLE BUSCH ON WHAT MAKES HIM SO GOOD AT BRISTOL: “I’m not exactly sure what makes me so good at Bristol. I’ve just had a lot of success there, but I’ve also had some misfortune there, too. Ever since I got through my rookie year, I’ve just taken a liking to the place. Of course, I’ve been able to get some help from my brother. He’s always been really, really good there. But when they changed the track to this current surface, I just really took to it right away. I really liked it and I’ve been fast there, but also I’ve had great race cars from Joe Gibbs Racing. I’ve been able to win the last two Camping World Truck Series races there, too, so it’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there. You really have to be on your game because (if) you make one mistake or someone else makes one mistake, like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there with a car with a flat tire coming down the track and essentially ending our day, that’s it. Hopefully, we can keep that good luck going there in the Sprint Cup Series this weekend with our Doublemint Toyota.”
KEVIN HARVICK ON HAVING NO PRESSURE AND GOALS FOR THE NEXT THREE RACES: "I think our top priorities are to try and win every week up to the Chase. I really think that over the last several weeks we’ve developed a sense that we should race this way every week, because that’s really what you’re going to have to do in the Chase. We’ve put ourselves in a position to at least have a chance to win for the last several races, and we got a win last weekend in Michigan. Everything is going well and we just have to continue to do that over the last 10 weeks of the season."
JIMMIE JOHNSON ON HAVING MORE CONFIDENCE AT BRISTOL AFTER WINNING THERE IN SPRING: "We ran so well there in the spring, even last year, we had a great spring and fall race. That night race has always been one of my favorites. We look forward to being competitive and hopefully going back to victory lane there. It’s a great race track; I’ve always loved watching races there. I’m glad to actually enjoy racing on that track now."
CARL EDWARDS ON RACING AT BRISTOL: "The new surface at Bristol is extremely competitive. Now there are three lines and you can run anywhere on the race track. It used to be everyone was fighting for the bottom of the race track and now everybody can run side by side. It makes it more competitive in that you just can’t get away from somebody. They can always hound you. Your car has to be perfect. You have to qualify well and it is hard to pass. It is a grueling race because there is a lot that can happen. Going into Bristol with a big points cushion allows a driver be more aggressive there. If not, we have to race smart and conservatively there and get as many points as we can. Bristol is the battle, but the war is The Chase. We need to be in The Chase."
JEFF GORDON ON HAVING FIVE WINS AT BRISTOL OVER HIS CAREER: “Well, those stats are great. That’s the old Bristol is the way I look at it. The new Bristol with the track configuration changes, even though they’re slight, they definitely have taken a little bit of the performance away from our DuPont Chevrolet. So we’ve been searching to get that back ever since. I feel like we’re consistently making gains on it when we come here. Each race we learn. As strong as the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) was the last time we were here, hopefully we can step it up even a good bit more. We’re always excited to come to Bristol. We love this track. We know what a fan-favorite it is. I think among the drivers, it’s a place you come to where you’re always looking forward to as well. It’s just a really cool place to race.”
Compliled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Services
·         Groundbreaking for Bristol International Speedway, as Bristol Motor Speedway was originally known, took place in 1960. The track was an exact half-mile.
·         First NASCAR Sprint Cup race was July 30, 1961.
·         In the fall of 1969, the track was reshaped and re-measured to .533-miles.
·         The name changed to Bristol International Raceway in 1978.
·         The first night race was held in the fall of 1978.
·         The surface was changed from asphalt to concrete in 1992.
·         The name changed to Bristol Motor Speedway in May 1996.
·         The track was resurfaced between races in 2007.
·         There have been 99 NASCAR Sprint Cup races since the first race there in 1961, two races each season.
·         All races have been scheduled for 500 laps, except for both races in 1976 and the second in 1977, which were 400 laps.
·         Fred Lorenzen won the first pole.
·         The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was won by Jack Smith (with relief from Johnny Allen).
·         There have been 43 different pole winners, led by Cale Yarborough and Mark Martin (nine). Martinswept both poles at Bristol last season.
·         38 different drivers have won, led by Darrell Waltrip (12).
·         Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon each have five wins, most among active drivers.
·         The race winner has started from the pole 22 times, the most productive starting position. The last driver to win from the pole was Carl Edwards, in the night race of 2008.
·         80 of 99 races have been won from a top-10 starting position, including 52 from the first four spots.
·         The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 38th, by Elliott Sadler in 2001.
·         Last year’s night race had a margin of victory of .098 seconds, the second-closest MOV at Bristol since the advent of electronic scoring in May of 1993.
·         Four of the last five, and eight of the last 10, Bristol races had a margin of victory under one second.
NASCAR in Tennessee
·         There have been 160 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Tennessee.
·         100 drivers all-time in NASCAR’s three national series have their home state recorded as Tennessee.
·         There have been 12 race winners from Tennessee in NASCAR’s three national series:
Driver    NSCS    NNS    NCWTS
Darrell Waltrip    84    13    0
Sterling Marlin    10    2    0
Bobby Hamilton    4    1    10
Joe Lee Johnson    2    0    0
Paul Lewis    1    0    0
Bobby Hamilton Jr.    0    5    0
Jeff Purvis    0    4    0
L.D. Ottinger    0    3    0
Mike Alexander    0    2    0
Casey Atwood    0    2    0
Brad Teague    0    1    0
Chad Chaffin    0    0    2
Bristol Motor Speedway Data
Race #: 24 of 36 (8-21-10)
Track Size: .533 miles
·     Race Length: 500 laps/266.5 miles
·     Banking/Corners: 26 to 30 degrees
·     Banking/Straights: 4 to 9 degrees

Driver Rating at Bristol
Kyle Busch                   103.0
Greg Biffle                     101.2
Jeff Gordon                    99.4
Matt Kenseth                 97.5
Kurt Busch                    96.1
Tony Stewart                 95.9
Denny Hamlin                95.0
Marcos Ambrose           93.4
Kevin Harvick                 91.5
Mark Martin                   89.9
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-2010 races (11 total) at Bristol.

Qualifying/Race Data
2009 pole winner: Mark Martin, 124.484 mph, 15.414 seconds
2009 race winner: Kyle Busch, 84.820 mph, 8-22-09)
Track qualifying record: Ryan Newman (128.709 mph, 14.908 seconds, 3-21-03)
Track race record: Charlie Glotzbach (101.074 mph, 7-11-71)

Estimated Pit Window: Every 120-130 laps, based on fuel mileage.

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