(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Four Burning Questions at Bristol: Will Bristol Live Up to Its Lofty Reputation?

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.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Could this be what we see on Saturday night?(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

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 race track could be a recipe for success on Saturday night.

3. Can Joe Gibbs Racing continue their domination?

In case you haven’t noticed, Joe Gibbs Racing 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 race tracks. 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 Stewart-Haas Racing for what will reportedly be three years at least.

In other words, for the first time all year, Danica 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.

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About Matt Stallknecht

Matt Stallknecht
Promoted to editor in 2014, Matt fights off rogue commas from our writing staff after rounding himself into a “young gun” racing expert. For the past two seasons, he’s penned the popular Four Burning Questions column (Weekends) highlighting the upcoming NASCAR race weekend. As an author for our open-wheel section, Matt also contributes to Open-Wheel Wednesdays and a substantial amount of race coverage and analysis. Matt, a native of Central New York also balances his duites with a full-time college course load. He’s a Senior at Le Moyne college this Fall.

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    So all the years of Danica being subpar, she was the victim of “distractions” i.e a contract year? She must have been looking far into the future at the expense of her on track performance…very worried. SMH.

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    Sadly, the Bristol night race has become a casualty of the Chase. Ditto Richmond. Let’s hope it doesn’t ruin Darlington.

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    Will Bristol live up to its former reputation? I sincerely doubt it.

    Will the retro-rainbow scheme help Gordon? Well I’d like to think so but it is the car under him, not the paint job that is the problem. So it is unlikely IMO.

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    bristol now suckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkks

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    I know you people will jump all over me but it’s ok I love you all anyway. Anyway here goes. If I were a major corporation looking for maximum advertising exposure I would sponsor Danica but not (your favorite driver here). Everyone, even non NASCAR fans (which is closer to everyone with each passing day) knows Danica. No one is watching NASCAR right now so sponsoring any other driver with the possible exception of Jeff Gordon or Junior is about as useful as undersea billboards. Like it or not, binders is binders.

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      I despise auto correct! Bidnes is Bidnes.

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      Yeah, we know Ted Bundy too and the Kardashians. I happen to find Danica offensive so I won’t buy their product (for the record they are not sold where I live) however, her being a spokes person means nothing to me if the product sucks or it doesn’t. I buy a product for a variety of reasons, none of which is because someone is on a billboard, a cutout at the store or a commercial. I don’t feel the need to support anybody that way, as they make millions more than me and mine do. Plus, until someone could quantify actual dollar in the bank based on ROI, I call it all bologna. Thanks JohnQ for the question!