Following Easter break, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series return to action this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Here are some thoughts going into the second short track race of the year.
1. Joe Gibbs Racing has won at least one race a year at Bristol Motor Speedway in seven of the past eight seasons. Can they break their winless streak this weekend? If yes, who do you think will do it?
Jim: JGR has had its struggles so far this season, but Bristol is a place that generally proves a great equalizer. I suspect a strong run from Kyle Busch, who has had a great deal of success at Bristol, but I also believe Matt Kenseth will be a factor. He’s won there twice since joining JGR in the 2013 season, with the most recent coming in the 2015 spring race.
Lee: Kyle Busch, absolutely. With five wins, Busch is tied with his brother Kurt for the most victories among current drivers even though Kyle accomplished the task in nine fewer starts. Four of those five wins were earned since moving to Gibbs and after the track was reconfigured. Since BMS attempted to repair the track in the summer of 2012, the No. 18 car has not been nearly as stout. All three of his teammates — Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards last year in the No. 19 — have been to Victory Lane. Now, it’s time for Rowdy to return.
Nick: Although I don’t think JGR will get that much-needed win this weekend, their best shot is without a doubt Kyle Busch. He and his brother Kurt share the record for most wins there among active drivers at five … it’s just been one of those tracks both Busch brothers have excelled at in the past.
Tim: I think it can easily happen and I think Kyle Busch will get it done this weekend. He’s been close already a couple of times to getting a win this year and his past record at Bristol certainly makes him one of the favorites to be in Victory Lane on Sunday.
2. Kasey Kahne won at Bristol in 2013. He’s won at Pocono and Atlanta in 2014 and hasn’t won since. Could he surprise the field this weekend and pick up his second win of his career at BMS?
Jim: Right now, I just don’t see Kahne suddenly throwing himself into the racing-winning picture. He’s 17th in the series standings with one top-five and two top-10s in the first seven races of the season and has led just a total of seven laps since the season began. While he seemed to get out of the gate fast this season, his best finish since Atlanta has been 14th.
Lee: No, the team — and Kahne — simply are not running well enough. While Kahne’s win (2013) came since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, one of five victories for 37-year-old driver in the No. 5 Chevy, he’s led just seven laps in 2017. All seven of Kahne’s laps led were in the Daytona 500. Sure, Kahne won with the current layout of the track — and finished second later that year — but after an eight-place finish in spring 2014, Kahne has only finished on the lead lap twice.
Nick: Not impossible, but I just don’t see it happening. Kahne and company need to improve their program before they can even think about seriously going for victories.
Tim: I don’t know if it’s the car number, team or driver, but that team just seems to still be struggling. While I think Kahne has the talent to win races – and win regularly – in the series, I just don’t think it will happen this weekend or anytime soon. Kahne has never really lived up to the lofty and probably unrealistic expectations for him when he arrived in NASCAR over a decade ago.
3. Kyle Larson’s average start at BMS is 22 and average finish has been 21. Can he break through this weekend at BMS and score his third top-10 and first top-five finish there?
Jim: This weekend will be a big test for Larson and his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team. So far this season, they have shown they have speed everywhere the series has stopped and he has been able to take advantage, even more so than Hendrick Motorsports, where CGR gets its engines. For Larson, conquering Bristol may be more about his own issues with the track and the type of racing it produces, but having a fast car never hurts. I expect another strong finish.
Lee: Absolutely. Larson’s cars are better. He has more confidence. And with the current forecast, Larson, the points leader, will likely start on the pole whenever the green flag flies and have the best pit box. Larson has six starts at Bristol. In his first three races, his average finish was 9.66 and he led 90 laps in the spring race in 2015. If he can stay on the lead lap, Young Money will persevere.
Nick: Right now, we could go to any track on the schedule and Kyle Larson would be a favorite. That No. 42 is on it, but Bristol is a place where he’s enjoyed success at in the past, even when the team was struggling to find their footing. He is absolutely a threat.
Tim: I think we’ll see Larson battle Kyle Busch in the Cup finish on Sunday much like we saw between these two drivers a few years ago in an NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Bristol. Larson could have easily bumped Busch and got the win that day. We’ll see if he’s a little more aggressive on Sunday because he has the Cup equipment now to get a win at Bristol.
4. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has an average finish of 10th at Bristol Motor Speedway. What’s the likelihood of him scoring a top-10 finish and what do you think makes him so good at the fast half-mile.
Jim: Roush Fenway Racing and Stenhouse in particular have gotten off to a strong start this season, including a 10th place finish at Martinsville, Va., which he admits is his worst track. Given his previous success at Bristol, this could be his most productive race yet of the 2017 season and he may even find himself in the thick of challenging for a win – something RFR has captured in the Cup series since the 2014 season.
Lee: With three top fives and an average finish of 10.6, Bristol is by far Stenhouse’s best track. He’s been running at the finish in all eight starts and has six lead-lap finishes. Certainly, his short-track background plays to his favor at Thunder Valley. Now, he has to lead laps and win.
Nick: Bristol is the only non-plate track I could see Roush winning at this year and that’s because of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He just gets that place and has a solid record there dating back to his rookie season. In 155 Cup starts, Stenhouse has two second-place finishes and both have come at the half-mile.
Tim: Historically this has been Stenhouse’s best track and he came from the short track world when he started driving in NASCAR. I think he can get his first Cup win at Bristol and he’s been running well this season; I just don’t think it will happen this weekend.
5. Can a NASCAR Xfinity Series regular win this Saturday or will a Cup driver take the win?
Jim: We’ve seen Xfinity regulars win at Bristol in the past and there are more talented regulars than ever in the field this season. I think Cup drivers entered may still have the edge but I would not be surprised to see a JR Motorsports driver (Elliott Sadler, William Byron of Justin Allgaier) in Victory Lane at the end of the day.
Lee: Justin Allgaier wants to go back-to-back in the Dash4Cash contest and could certainly pull that off this weekend at Bristol where he won this race in 2010. In his last four NXS starts at BMS, Allgaier has three top-five finishes and his worst result was eighth. Since moving to JR Motorsports, Allgaier’s average is 3.5.
Nick: The best chance for an Xfinity regular to triumph comes from the JR Motorsports camp, but I don’t think they’ll prevail over Kyle Larson.
Tim: I think any of the Xfinity regulars that drive for JR Motorsports – Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier or William Byron can win this Saturday at Bristol. It could also be a good payday for Allgaier if he can win another Dash for Cash race.