August is a peculiar month for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Typically known for companion races with the Sprint Cup Series, the NXS entered the month with three standalone events on the schedule. Primarily an oval tour, the series planned to run three road courses – the only right turns on the schedule – in the span of four weeks.
Going into the penultimate race of the month, the NXS stars are in the midst of that road course stretch right now. Having already run dramatic races at Watkins Glen International and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the series is granted a reprieve this week in the form of an oval race.
Drama might just stick around, though one week after Regan Smith kicked up some dirt in his Mid-Ohio triumph over Alex Tagliani. The series is heading to Bristol Motor Speedway, a place where contact is not just encouraged but readily accepted.
Located in the heart of Tennessee, Bristol (or The Last Great Coliseum as its walls note) is a half-mile concrete oval known for tight, intense racing and post-race fireworks. Bristol contains the DNA of NASCAR on every inch of its surface. The Cup Series began running there in 1961. The NXS joined Cup beginning in their inaugural season of 1982 and the two divisions have gone on to run annual races ever since.
One peek at the list of former winners in the NXS reveals a Who’s Who of NASCAR legends. Phil Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and more superstars of the tour have all made their way to Victory Lane in the 33-year history of NXS races at the track. Survive the 15 seconds of chaos per lap, take home the trophy and you’re well on your way to moving up the NASCAR ladder.
A stacked 40-car field makes up the entry list for Saturday’s event. Four previous winners – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler and Ryan Blaney – will look to claim another piece of Bristol glory while 36 others will look to make their way to Victory Lane for the first time.
Busch, the winningest driver in NXS history, enters as the favorite for Saturday’s race after winning six of the last 10 events at the track. The Nevada native scored his first NXS victory while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2006, but it wasn’t until he made his way to Joe Gibbs Racing that Busch began to dominate, winning three straight races two separate times from 2010 to ’14.
Busch’s chief competitors figure to be Blaney and Harvick. Blaney enters as the defending winner after passing Busch on a late restart to take last season’s Food City 300. He also drives for the right team; Team Penske has won three of the last six races here, including the April 18 Drive to Stop Diabetes 300, with Blaney and Joey Logano.
Harvick, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, has five career NXS victories at the half-mile track. However, the two-time NXS champion hasn’t earned a victory at Bristol since 2009. He’ll look to give JR Motorsports its first trophy in Tennessee since Brad Keselowski’s lone triumph in 2008.
Hidden beneath the battle for the win is an opportunity for the championship points battle to tighten. Chris Buescher has held a stranglehold on the points lead throughout the summer months, overcoming a tough July that saw him go without a top-10 finish by posting results of third and fourth on the road courses.
Buescher’s right-turn ability has kept him separated from the pack, but in the concrete jungle of Bristol, Roush Fenway Racing’s top driver finds himself trailing his two closest rivals for the championship in terms of past success. In his four starts at Bristol, Ty Dillon has rattled off four straight top 10s, including two finishes inside the top five. Dillon’s 5.5 average finish at the track trails only Daniel Suarez (2.0, one start) and Blaney (4.0, three starts). Defending NXS champion Chase Elliott’s stats aren’t much worse than Dillon’s. In three starts, the Georgia native has managed three top 10s, including a third-place finish in last year’s August race in which Elliott led 59 laps.
Dillon, 23, and Elliott, 19, entered the season as championship favorites. However, multiple incidents have left the two drivers 24 and 25 points, respectively, behind Buescher in the championship battle in the final months of the 2015 NXS season.
Surviving Friday’s race will be key for title contenders. NXS events at Bristol have averaged 8.57 cautions per race since 2006, the most of any active track on the series tour. Should one of the championship hopefuls fall victim to an early crash, they could lose as many as 44 points to their competitors.
The NXS will return to right turns and road-course ringers next Saturday at Road America, but first comes a night filled with bumps, rising tempers and trading paint.