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(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

NASCAR 101: The Cup Series Returns to the Short Tracks

The Paperclip. The World’s Fastest Half-Mile. The Action Track. Three very distinct short tracks, yet some drivers in the 2018 season conquered each track’s challenges.

Though the races at Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond resulted in three different winners, quite a few drivers placed in the top 10 in at least four out of the six races.

One of those winners (who won both Richmond races and the first Bristol race) is Kyle Busch. I can probably guess what you are thinking. “Not him again, we’ve heard enough already.” Well, whether you like him or not, Busch is a wheelman. It’s simply incredible what he’s accomplished so far. He may have defeated three of the six short-track races last year, but in one race, the venerated night race at Bristol, he did have some problems where he finished three laps down in 20th.

In the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race, Busch started just off the front row in third. He was, unfortunately, involved in a wreck on Lap 2, but was able to continue and work his way into the top five until he spun out from a flat tire. Even after all his troubles, he surely looked like he would have another top 10 finish, but he fell to 20th at the checkers.

The only driver to conclude all six short track races in the top 10 of the 2018 season was Kevin HarvickThe man come to known as “Happy” (as well as “The Closer”) certainly had a happy 2018 year, even though he didn’t win the championship. Harvick won eight races last season: Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover, Kansas, Loudon, Michigan (second race), and Texas (second race). Notice that no short tracks were among those eight. To finish each Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond race in the top 10 and not win is definitely something to ponder. The second Richmond race was his best short track of 2018, where he finished second (to none other than Kyle Busch).

A trio of other drivers finished five of the six races in the top 10: Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano. Bowyer, the 2018 STP 500 grandfather clock winner at Martinsville Speedway, completed five straight short track races in the top 10, but finished outside the top 10 at the second Martinsville race (in 21st). He started out with a strong car, on the front row with Kyle Busch, but couldn’t sweep Martinsville last year. Bowyer has struggled so far this year but perhaps he will find success soon.

Elliott didn’t win any of the short tracks, but he performed very well. The 2018 Watkins Glen winner’s highest finishing position at the short tracks was second (to who else but Kyle Busch), at the first Richmond race. He helped prove the Chevrolets could compete on the short tracks with the Penske and Stewart-Haas Fords and the Joe Gibbs Toyotas.

Logano won the 2018 First Data 500 at Martinsville in the Fall in a memorable way: via a bump and run. Martin Truex Jr. raced hard with Logano and successfully cleared him, but Logano knew there was much more at stake, and needed to do something to guarantee his spot in the final four at Homestead, and moved Truex out of the preferred groove to take the win away from the then-depending champ. Truex understandably didn’t enjoy the way Logano raced him. As for the other short track races, Logano’s only race outside the top 10 was the second Richmond race.

Three drivers finished four of the six short tracks in the top 10 last season: Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski. Larson earned two second-place finishes, both at Bristol, as well as two seventh-place finishes at Richmond. He finished outside of the top 10 at Martinsville last year. Though he performed well on these short tracks, he did not win a race at all in 2018. Maybe he will turn that around this year.

Johnson also didn’t win in 2018, but the short tracks have historically been good for him. At Martinsville, he’s won nine times and finished in the top 10 24 times in 34 starts. That is an incredible track history. Johnson has two wins at Bristol and three at Richmond. He may not be the current short track king, but he certainly is a legend.

Keselowski won three straight races at Darlington, Indianapolis, and the second Las Vegas race last fall, but was only able to have top short-track finish of fifth at the Martinsville playoff race. He does have good history, similar to Johnson: he’s won once at Richmond, twice at Bristol, and once at Martinsville. The Penske driver has a strong team, and is sure to win another short track race, whether this year or sometime after.

Other notable drivers who did pretty well last season are Kurt Busch (the night Bristol race winner), Truex Jr. (three out of six top 10 finishes), Daniel Suarez (twice), and Aric Almirola (also twice). Of those four drivers, Kurt Busch is probably one of the hotter drivers on the circuit right now, and we will soon see whether the coming short tracks will be kind to him.

Will we see a new winner at Martinsville, Bristol, or Richmond this year? Anything can happen in NASCAR. I say, wait and see.

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