It all starts with the dropping of the green flag unleashing the fury of 43 high powered racing engines.
That’s 43 cars flying around a half mile concrete oval, literally inches from each other, until the 500th mile is completed. The elements of physical endurance and mental focus are sky high during this race. Drivers have to negotiate a left hand turn about every four to six seconds. They have to maintain a sharp awareness of track position while avoiding hitting the rear bumper in front of him. They have to find a way to quickly calm themselves down when they find themselves on the receiving end of a bumper hit. This is a race where road rage is more the norm than the exception. This is Bristol. It is the birthplace of the bump and run. With it’s unique grandstands placement it’s NASCAR’s answer to racing in a coliseum. It’s also NASCAR’s answer to “March Madness.” It’s the one event that NASCAR Sprint Cup fans look forward to each and every year.
For many years now the first Sprint Cup race of the season at the Bristol Motor Speedway has been known as the Food City 500. This year the race is named the Jeff Byrd 500, presented by Food City. Jeff Byrd was the long time, highly respected and well loved, President and General Manager of the Bristol Motor Speedway. Sadly, he passed away this past October. The executives at Food City were only too happy to forgo their long time entitlement rights to this race in honor of their long time friend and associate. On race day Sunday Byrd’s wife of 36 years, Claudia, along with son Christian and daughter Belton Caldwell will be on hand as the official Grand Marshalls. A tip of the racing hat goes to Food City for this very special gesture.
With only three races in the record books of the still young NASCAR Sprint Cup season, it may seem too early to discuss the series’ championship point standings and the prospects of drivers making the ten man roster for the Chase. But NASCAR’s re calibrated points system, 43 to one, is beginning to display some rather interesting scenarios worthy of Monday morning water cooler conversations.
Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are currently tied for first in the standings, at 113 points each, although Stewart is listed as the number one seed because he had the highest finish last weekend at Las Vegas. Stewart last points lead dates back to September of 2009. Compared to previous seasons, he seems to be surging to the top unusually early. Stewart is noted for getting hot during the hot summer months. In other words, where’s there’s “Smoke” there’s heat.
Stewart is a former winner at Bristol and understands the fast way around there. He also hedged his bet a little this past Monday by testing a newly prepared short track car at the Little Rock, a one half mile oval, located at the North Carolina based Rockingham Motor Speedway.
As an owner-driver he has also been monitoring the progress of his Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Ryan Newman who has elevated his points status from 20th to fifth during the course of the last two races.
In this modern era it’s almost impossible to say the name Bristol Motor Speedway without eventually adding the name Kurt Busch to the conversation. He’s a five time winner at the track and a heavy favorite to park his Penske Racing Dodge in victory lane this Sunday. Busch is off to a strong start in 2011 after winning the non points Budweiser Shootout and a Gatorade Duel event. Like Stewart, Busch also tested a newly prepped short track car earlier this week at the Gresham Motorsports Park half mile oval in South Carolina.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards is a perfect example of how NASCAR’s new 43 to 1 point configuration can work for or against you. Edwards left Daytona on top of the points standings. But a crash, that ruined a strong performance at Phoenix, had him leaving Arizona 12th in the standings. He rebounded with a win last Sunday at Las Vegas and that effort moved him back to third only seven points from the top.
The same cannot be said about his Roush Fenway team mates although, in all fairness, it appears that Matt Kenseth may be on the rebound. The driver of the #17 Ford has moved from 31st to 23d to 16th over the course of the last three races.
But it’s Roush driver Greg Biffle, a solid pre season favorite to make the Chase, that has a lot of Sprint Cup observers scratching their heads. Biffle has been hampered by bad luck so far this season, including pit road miscues last Sunday in Las Vegas with the new vented fuel can. He remains mired down at 31st in the points. It’s way too early to write this team off as a Chase participant, but Biffle needs to make quick work of digging himself out of this hole. By the way, a new gas man will be fueling his car this Sunday at Bristol.
One of the true surprises early on in the season is the fact that Paul Menard is the highest rated driver, 6th in the standings, among the four teams from Richard Childress Racing. His finishes have been consistent and there’s has been a highly noticeable improvement from behind the wheel. It also seems that those snide remarks from seasons past, such as “he’s driving his daddy’s checkbook,” are drying up and rightfully so.
Meanwhile his Richard Childress Racing team mates, all three of them pre season Chase favorites; seem to be busy digging themselves out of holes. Clint Bowyer seems to be on a points roller coaster and over the past three races has moved from 16th to 21st to 18th.
The sight of RCR’s Kevin Harvick blowing an engine so early in the Daytona race stunned everyone and left the driver with an initial start of 37th in the standings. Harvick appears to be on the rebound and has worked his way to 20th
RCR’s Jeff Burton also started the season with an expired engine at Daytona and has experienced nothing but problems since. The pre season Chase favorite is languishing at 32nd in the points. It’s also way too early to write this team off but the time to get out the hole is now. That process could begin at Bristol where Burton is a former winner.
Denny Hamlin, eighth in the current points, leads the charge for Joe Gibbs Racing after starting the season 19th in the standings.
Meanwhile team mate Kyle Busch will be on the rebound after falling from the points lead all the way to 14th following an engine failure at Las Vegas. Here’s yet another example of how the new points configuration can work for or against you. Bristol is the perfect place for Busch to launch that return to the top. He’s a four time winner there including sweeping all three of NASCAR’s national touring series events during the same weekend last year.
After leaving Daytona 22nd in the points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leading the Hendrick Motorsports efforts after consistent performances moved him to tenth in the standings much to the delight of the Junior Nation. Actually he tied for tenth with HMS team mate Mark Martin.
Following a somewhat dubious beginning at Daytona, five time HMS champion Jimmie Johnson is moving forward and has leaped from 25th to 12th in the points after three events. However four-time HMS champion will be in the rebound mode at Bristol Sunday. After winning the Phoenix event, Gordon jumped from 26th to 5th in the standings. An unfortunate crash last Sunday in Las Vegas sent Gordon plummeting backwards to 19th. But Bristol is an excellent rebound track for him. He’s also a five time winner there.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN
So, who’s going to elevate their points status and who’s going to take a fast ride down the sliding board at Bristol? The answer to that question may be in some rather strong hints from “The Las Vegas Insider”, (LVI), and their driver odds rankings for next Sunday’s race.
To no real surprise Kyle Busch sits on top of those rankings at 4 to 1 odds. The Rowdy one is a four time winner and amazed everyone last August when he swept the Bristol victory lane with a very large broom after winning three races there within a period of 48 hours. He’s joined at 4 to1 by Jimmie Johnson the defending race winner from last year. The highly productive Carl Edwards, who has won three of his last five starts, is also a rock solid consideration at 5 to 1. Edwards is also a two time winner at Bristol. Yet another rock solid wager is Jeff Gordon, at 6 to 1, a five time winner at Bristol. At 9 to 1 is Kurt Busch the other five-time Bristol winner. This might turn into an excellent long shot consideration. The elder Busch brother always seems to be very strong at this track.
In the middle section of “The Las Vegas Insider’s” rankings you will find former Bristol winner Tony Stewart along with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick at 10 to 1. Clint Bowyer, another former Bristol winner, is ranked at 14 to 1 while two time race winner Matt Kenseth is right behind him at 16 to 1. The duo of Greg Biffle and Mark Martin are rated at 18 to 1. Martin’s presence here is especially interesting because he could turn out to be a rather lucrative long shot wager. Martin is a two time Bristol winner who also holds the track record for top five finishes, 16, as well as top tens, 23. Martin is also strong there on qualifying day. He holds the track record for winning the pole nine times. Completing the middle section of this week’s ranking is a quartet of drivers, at 25 to 1, that includes Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and former Bristol winner Jeff Burton.
If you’re seriously into long shot wagers, the type of bets that are considered more tax write offs than frequent winners, then you may want to take a look at the “LVI’s” lower tier for Bristol. It starts with Kasey Kahne and former race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr at 30 to 1. They are followed by Ryan Newman and David Reutimann-35 to 1, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr-40 to 1, David Ragan-60 to 1, A J Allmendinger-75 to 1, Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard-100 to 1, Marcus Ambrose-150 to 1 and the duo of Bobby Labonte and Regan Smith at 200 to 1. Any driver not listed on the official list are rated at 50 to 1 odds for the Bristol race.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their races. The fact of the matter is this track has a 50 year reputation of producing some very crazy highlights and betting on the outcome of a Bristol race might be even crazier.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
The Jeff Byrd 500, presented by Food City, is 500 grueling laps, 266.5 miles, around the Bristol Motor Speedway’s 0.533 mile concrete covered oval.
The race has 44 entries vying for the 43 starting positions. Nine of those entries are on the go or go home list. These teams are not guaranteed a starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have rely on qualifying speed to make the race. The lone exception from this group is driver Bill Elliott who has a past champion’s provisional available.
The speedway has progressive banking in all four turns measuring 24 to 30 degrees. The two straight-aways are banked 4 to 9 degrees. Bristol is physically demanding on the drivers because the front and back straight-aways are only 650 long which means the left hand turns come fast and frequent. Adding to the driver stress level is fact that the track is only 43 feet wide which often creates some interesting traffic situations.
The Bristol Motor Speedway has the distinction of being the only track on the NASCAR circuit that employs the use of two pit roads. There are 22 pit stalls facing the front stretch and 21 stalls located on the backstretch. Making this situation even more interesting is the fact that the pit stalls only measure 25.5 feet long by 15.5 feet long. The pit road speed is 30 MPH.
The Bristol Motor Speedway is also unique because this short track has 160,000 seats that are arranged coliseum style, meaning the seats completely circle the track.
The track was built on a former dairy farm by three local businessmen who, only a daily basis, drew plans for the speedway on envelopes and brown paper bags. The track officially opened in 1960.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held at Bristol in 1961 and was officially won by Jack Smith although it was relief driver Johnny Allen who actually drove the car under the checkers. Since that time there has been 100 Sprint Cup points races that has sent 38 different winners to victory lane. The win list is led by Darrell Waltrip who conquered Bristol 12 times during his career. Chevrolet leads the manufacturers win column with 42 followed by Ford-33, Dodge-6 and Toyota-3. There are 17 additional wins by manufacturers no longer active in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
A track with the reputation of Bristol is certainly going to breed yellow caution flags. The track record is 20 cautions in one race set three different times with the most recent being in August of 2003. The track record for fewest cautions is an unbelievable zero dating back all the way to July of 1971.
The most lead changes during a Bristol race is 40 set in April of 1991. The record for the fewest lead changes, zero, dates back to March of 1973 when race winner Cale Yarborough led all 500 laps. The fewest laps led by a race winner is one when “Fearless” Fred Lorenzen led the final circuit back in 1964.
The track qualifying record, 14.908 seconds/128.709 MPH, was set by Ryan Newman in March of 2003. In any form of short track racing qualifying is extremely important. Since 1961 22% of the Bristol races have been won from the pole position. 58% have won from the top five starting spots while 80% of the trips to victory lane have originated from the top ten starting berths.
Weather should be ideal for racing conditions this weekend. The forecast for the Bristol-Thunder Valley area calls for sunny skies and 70 degrees on Friday along with partly cloudy conditions, with daytime highs of 72 degrees, on Saturday and Sunday.
The Jeff Byrd 500, presented by Food City, will be broadcast live by Fox Sports beginning with the pre race show at 12:30 pm eastern time. The replay of the race will be on Wednesday, March 23d, on the SPEED Channel at 12 pm eastern.