1. Will Bristol be its usual wild-card self?
The Bristol Motor Speedway night race has a long-standing reputation as being an event where anything can happen. For the most part, anyone can win at Bristol. The combination of large attrition rates, slow speeds, passing difficulties and lack of aerodynamic necessities make Bristol an equalizer of sorts.
But will the race live up to its wild-card reputation?
In recent years, Bristol has been hit or miss in terms of fulfilling those wishes. Last year’s race was a tame one by the track’s standards, but the 2012 and 2013 races were rough ‘n’ tumble wreckfests where the field shuffled constantly throughout the race. It’s sort of a crapshoot as to what you’re going to get at Bristol these days, but given the high prestige and visibility of the event, the quality of the race tends to be a big story preceding the event.
Ultimately, the biggest deciding factor in how the race plays out will be the relative width of the groove. In last year’s race, the groove widened out, and what traditionally is a one-groove race around the top became a more gentlemanly two-groove race with more room to spread out. Generally speaking, Bristol races tend to be at their wildest when the groove stays narrow, leading to bumping and banging as drivers fight over limited real estate.
Based on the spring race, my guess is that the groove will widen out to some degree.
2. Will a return of the rainbow scheme provide a jolt for Jeff Gordon?
What started as a decent-at-best season has taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks for Jeff Gordon. The four-time Sprint Cup champion has seemingly been in a malaise all season long, never seriously challenging for race wins and generally being an eighth-place driver at best on most weeks. However, for as mediocre as the No. 24 has been this year, Bristol appears to be a chance for the team to turn their fortunes around.
For all of my readers who are Team 24 fans, I’m quite sure you know why. Gordon will be running a special Rainbow Warriors paint scheme this week, the very scheme that Gordon famously piloted during his rise to fame in the ‘90s. A return of the historic rainbow colors will be a great moment for both the team and the sport as a whole, but can it actually provide the team with the jolt it so desperately needs?
That will be an intriguing question to ask as we head into the weekend. Gordon needs a boost now more than any other time this season. A rough summer stretch for he and Hendrick Motorsports has left him 13th in points, still winless and devoid of momentum.
While he hasn’t won at Bristol since 2002, Gordon still runs well at the facility, and it is conceivable that the morale boost of the rainbow scheme combined with a Gordon-friendly racetrack could be a recipe for success on Saturday night.
3. Can Joe Gibbs Racing continue their domination?
In case you haven’t noticed, JGR has been on fire as of late. Between Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the team has won an astounding five out of the last seven Sprint Cup races, and has done so under three different rules packages. JGR simply has an advantage right now, and given that Kenseth won the spring race at Bristol, there is reason to believe that the team will be strong again this weekend.
That being said, let’s not forget what track we are visiting on Saturday. Bristol, as mentioned earlier, is a wild-card track of the highest order. Bristol is a short track, and short tracks are all about driver and setup, so that puts everyone on the series on relatively equal footing. And of course, unusual circumstances, like unavoidable big wrecks and retaliation, are more common here than at normal racetracks. Bristol is known as one of the hardest tracks to win at for a reason.
In other words, don’t expect the JGR cars to simply waltz easily into victory lane like they have in recent weeks.
4. Can off-track stability lead to on-track success for Danica Patrick?
The biggest news of the week came out Tuesday afternoon, when Stewart-Haas Racing announced that it had reached a multi-year deal with health food company Nature’s Bakery to sponsor Danica Patrick for 28 races every year for the foreseeable future. The team also announced a new multi-year deal for Patrick that will lock her in with SHR for what will reportedly be three years at least.
In other words, for the first time all year, Patrick no longer has any off-track distractions. Her future in the sport is set, her team is strong and there are no more excuses. Currently sitting 21st in points, Patrick is having a decent-enough season and finally is racing at a semi-competitive level. Could this announcement be what she needs to finally start competing for wins?
We’ll find out starting this weekend. In Patrick’s abbreviated NASCAR career, short tracks have been the places where she has shined the brightest. In the spring race at Bristol, Patrick managed a ninth-place finish, easily one of her best runs of 2015. Bristol is a good track for her, and if she stays out of trouble, it is conceivable that she could put together a competitive race on Saturday night.