The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions - Bristol: Flaring Tempers And Gordon's Last Stand by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday August 23, 2013

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After a summer stretch that included a few too many less-than-stellar big intermediate track races, the Sprint Cup Series will take a much needed trip this weekend to the greatest short track on the planet: the infamous Bristol Motor Speedway. No, it’s still not quite the Bristol of old, but after the 2012 repave of the track, Bristol has regained some of its bite, as the previous two races at the track have demonstrated. The beating, banging, and hard racing we all expect out of Bristol will be on display Saturday night, albeit in different ways than we may have come to expect.

Meanwhile, NASCAR’s playoff picture is getting crazier by the week. With Joey Logano’s win last week, the wildcard race is wide open heading into a wildcard of a race at Bristol. As such, “expect the unexpected” will be the theme of the weekend, as the tiniest bit of Bristol bite could send a Chase hopeful’s dreams down the toilet. Just might who that Chase hopeful (or hopefuls?) be? That’s a burning question that none of our Chase contenders will want to answer.

After some humdrum intermediate track racing, NASCAR heads for the beating, banging, and excitement of Bristol this weekend.

1. So…just how much of this beating and banging can we expect?

Here’s the bad news: The 2012 repave of Bristol that was supposed to turn the racing back to the way it was before the 2007 repave did not work as intended. Instead of forcing all of the drivers to run in a train around the bottom of the track, it had the opposite effect: everyone ran around the top instead. Here’s the great news: that’s not a bad thing by any means.

The reality is that post-2012 repave Bristol has regained much of the beating, banging, good racing, and excitement that the track lost after the 2007 repave. The racing is just a bit different from a stylistic standpoint now. The problem with the 2007-2012 iteration of Bristol was that there were two clearly distinct grooves around the track that eliminated the need for drivers to beat and bang on one another to get to a so-called “preferred line”. The 2012 repave changed this. By grinding the top side of the track, it narrowed the racing groove such that instead of being 3 grooves wide, it is now only about a groove and a half wide. Depending on how the track is rubbered in, those 1.5 grooves can be around the middle of the track (usually when the track is less rubbered in, like it was in much of the 2013 spring race) or it can migrate to around the top of the track (usually after a lot of rubber has been laid down, like in the 2012 night race). Either way, the 2012 repave narrowed up the racing enough to make the drivers have to actually fight for the preferred line around the track….and when all of the drivers are fighting over limited on-track real estate, you end up with beating and banging.

Overall, the narrowness of “new-new Bristol” has brought excitement back to the track in the past two events. Don’t expect that to change in the 2013 edition of the Irwin Tools Night Race.

2. Is Jeff Gordon finally going to make his move?

By most accounts, 2013 has been one of Jeff Gordon’s worst seasons to date. In fact, Gordon has been on a steady decline ever since he got thoroughly whipped by Jimmie Johnson in a head to head duel in the 2007 Chase for the Cup. That year, the proverbial torch of being the sport’s dominant figure was passed from Gordon to Johnson, and ever since then, Gordon hasn’t had much to smile about.

Perhaps it’s his age catching up with him (Gordon just turned 42). Perhaps he is feeling the long-term impact of previous injuries. Perhaps he just hasn’t adapted well to recent changes in the sport. Whatever the case, Gordon and his team have not been up to par in 2013, and with only 3 weeks remaining before the Chase, Gordon has very little time to make something happen.

Enter Bristol Motor Speedway, traditionally one of Gordon’s very best race tracks and the site of one of his strongest performances in 2013 (he was fighting for the lead when he cut a tire in the Spring race). One thing we have learned about the Gordon of late is that he has clearly lost a step on the high-speed, high-danger intermediate tracks that dominate the circuit. Gordon has even hinted in recent interviews that he is somewhat unable or unwilling (perhaps due to previous injuries?) to push the car to the absolute limit as is required on such tracks in the “no equipment conservation, qualifying laps for 400 miles” era of NASCAR that we live in. His results relative to his teammates on such tracks in 2013 is reflective of this. It is for these reasons that Gordon is likely licking his chops at the thought of a trip to Bristol. A technical, low-speed, experience-reliant, equipment-conservation-oriented track such as Bristol is the type of track that Gordon can and does still thrive on.

The question is whether Gordon will be able to step up. His sterling performances at short track events early this season show that he can absolutely still get it done on these kinds of race tracks. Thus, if Gordon is going to make the 2013 Chase, he will have to capitalize at one of his best tracks and capture an elusive win this weekend. Considering how many guys around him in points have wins, he’ll have to nab at least one or two before the cutoff to have any chance at making the Chase. We’ve seen him step up in situations like this before (Richmond 2012 anyone?), and he’ll have to do it once again to avoid missing the Chase for the second time in his career.

All told, it’s do or die time for Jeff Gordon. Plain and simple.

3. What will the tire situation be?

One of the most influential aspects of the 2012 running of the Irwin Tools Night Race was the manner in which tire wear (or the lack thereof) and pit strategy affected the outcome of race. In that race, tires did not fall off all that much, and there were a great many cautions throughout the night. These two factors led to a situation in which teams got on wildly divergent pit strategies. This led to some tense moments throughout the race in which the faster cars were forced to pick their way through traffic in the midst of tire and race conditions that made passing incredibly difficult. Denny Hamlin’s team nailed their strategy, which, in turn, helped get them close to the front for the final stint of the race en route to their win.

We saw some of this same stuff in the Spring Bristol race as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Due to the difficulty of passing on the new Bristol surface, teams would take chances on tire strategy in order to get the front throughout the race. With many cautions expected to fly on Saturday night, this sort of tire strategy is going to rear its head once again.

As such, savvy crew chiefs that make the right calls on tire strategy will likely be rewarded at the end of the race…provided that their drivers don’t get wrecked. Be sure to keep an eye on this throughout the race on Saturday night.

4. Who is the favorite (or favorites?) heading into the weekend?

Unlike the past two weeks, forecasting the finishing order for this week’s race will not be quite so easy. The series does not visit short tracks very often, which means that they are more difficult to predict than intermediate track events due to the smaller sample size. On top of that, we’ve only had two races on the new Bristol surface, which only further convolutes the picture. All that being said, a few drivers appear to stand out above the rest in terms of potential Bristol performance.
The most tempting pick heading into the weekend would obviously be Kyle Busch. Since 2007, Busch has won more Bristol races than any other driver (5), and has led a whopping 1,396 laps in that time frame. Even with the 2012 resurfacing of the track, Busch’s production remained on point. Busch finished 6th and 2nd respectfully in the post-2012 repave events, and enters the weekend with a great deal of momentum to boot. However, he is not my pick for this weekend’s race.

That distinction belongs to a man named Kasey Kahne. In the two races on the newly ground down track surface, Kahne has scored more points than any other driver on the new surface (83), won the spring race, and finished 9th in last year’s edition of this event. He ought to be hungry, desperate, and ready to fight for a win given his bad luck as of late, a mindset that figures to be a winning combination on a night when the intensity level figures to be ratcheted up a notch. If you’re looking for a bona-fide favorite, Kahne would be it.

As far as darkhorse drivers to watch, the Penske tandem of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would be good picks to fill out your fantasy lineup. Logano is probably the hottest driver in the sport right now, and will be carrying a boatload of momentum to a track where he has seen recent success (he has scored the 7th most points across the past two Bristol races). Keselowski has been solid of late as well, and given his traditional aptitude for Bristol (he has two wins and 3 top 5s at the track since 2011), he would be a smart and safe pick for a good finish.

Like I said earlier, Bristol is still a bit of a wildcard. Anything can happen here and with the way the strategy has played out in recent Bristol events, any number of drivers could grab the victory. But at the end of the day, the most recent Bristol winner, Kasey Kahne, is still the favorite to win the 2013 Irwin Tools Night Race.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Irwin Tools Night Race:
1. 5-Kasey Kahne
2. 22-Joey Logano
3. 18-Kyle Busch
4. 78-Kurt Busch
5. 24-Jeff Gordon
6. 2-Brad Keselowski
7. 55-Brian Vickers
8. 48-Jimmie Johnson
9. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
10. 15-Clint Bowyer

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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08/23/2013 07:37 AM

Bristol started to lose it’s luster when the ‘chase’ happened and drivers started to tip toe around each other. The repave just sealed the fate of a track that once could be relied on to have the most exciting races of the season.

08/23/2013 08:00 AM

The “points racing” is what’s killing Bristol…in addition to the track itself….and the car….and the tires, etc. Only need to tune in between football commercials and at the end of the race to watch the green-white-checkered finish.

My pick is the 48 to win this one. He’ll probably have that car that can pass up front with the seemingly extra HP’s again. Amazing what that team can do when needed. LOL

08/23/2013 12:39 PM

Sal nailed it. Gordon is done. Stick a fork in him. He needs to get out of a race car and be a full time Daddy. He has the money and has paid his dues. Retire Jeff before you bust your ass for good.

08/23/2013 02:00 PM

Well said about “The Chase”, it brought the fair weathered Kardashian fan who came and went. To the real race fans (the ones King Brian has a dislike for)its a gimmick and has caused drivers to play nice and point race, I don’t blame them. The blame belongs with Nascar Ivory Tower bunch in Daytona who haven’t a clue how so many fans detest “The Chase”, and that “The Chase” is one of the biggest problem with their empire.

Kevin in SoCal
08/23/2013 02:51 PM

I guess you all think that watching JJ lead by 70-100 points all year is way more exciting than the race to be in the top ten. I’ll take the Chase and its race to get in over watching one guy stroke all year.

08/23/2013 05:06 PM

If we dumped the chase and made first place worth twice as much as second, we might see some racing again. Otherwise we are doomed to watching people drive conservatively for points. Its really boring as hell these days with the exception of the road races and short tracks and even those could be better if Nascar paid attention.