Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR: Circuit Moves to Iconic Bristol Motor Speedway

Especially in recent years there has been one last name in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series fans are fast to associate with the iconic Bristol Motor Speedway: Busch.

Brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch have won 14 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at the track since 2002. Kurt, a six-time winner, is defending champion of Saturday night’s always eagerly-anticipated Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at 7:30 p.m. ET.

His younger brother Kyle is an eight-time Bristol winner and hoisted the trophy at the track’s April race earlier this year. He has won three of the last four Bristol races and is the winningest active driver at the venue.

The last time a driver NOT named Busch won was in the spring of 2017 when Jimmie Johnson earned his second career Bristol victory.

The half-mile, high-banked venue is easily one of NASCAR’s most popular tracks – for driver and fan alike. And the success for the Busch family there makes them simultaneously the odds-on favorites and the drivers to beat.

They immediately established a connection and ease with the facility. Kurt Busch won four times in a five-race span over the 2002-04 seasons while driving for team owner Jack Roush and he’s won twice more for two different teams – in 2006 with Team Penske and 2018 with Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished runner-up to his younger brother Kyle in April – in what was Kurt’s Bristol debut driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kyle Busch, 34, shows up to Bristol with plenty of motivation to hoist another trophy and is, by popular opinion, the absolute driver to beat. A four-time winner in 2019, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota holds a 20-point edge over Joey Logano with three races remaining to crown the regular season champion. But it’s been 10 races since Busch last visited Victory Lane this season – at Pocono Raceway on June 2.

Victory has essentially been a way of competition for Kyle at Bristol, however. He won four races in a five-race stretch between 2009-11 and three races in a four-race stretch from 2017-19. He has 11 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 28 starts and has led 2,304 laps – tops among all competitors.

In fact, Kyle Busch holds a very distinctive – perhaps never to be matched – mark of winning in all three NASCAR national series at Bristol in a single weekend. In both 2010 and 2017 he swept the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Monster Energy Series races.

“I remember watching when I was a kid – I wasn’t there racing, yet – watching Kurt win his first race at Bristol and then having the epic battle with Jimmy Spencer there,’’ Kyle Busch said. “That was a lot of fun to watch and see how Kurt was able to get his first win there and, of course, the years that I’ve been able to put cars in Victory Lane or wishing I could go back and get a few more of those wins that I missed out on – I’d have a heck of a lot more than just eight.’’

Charging into Playoff contention
Four drivers – Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson – are vying for the final two Playoff positions on points with three regular season races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field.

Newman sits in 15th with a 10-point advantage over Clint Bowyer in the 16th and final Playoff transfer position. Bowyer holds a six-point edge over 17th place Suarez and a 12-point edge on Johnson in 18th. The four positions – from Newman to Johnson – are separated by 22 points.

The four drivers arrive in Bristol for the second race of the 2019 season with very different records. Although, in a strange twist of results, they finished consecutively in April – seventh through 10th – Bowyer then Suarez then Newman then Johnson.

Of the four, only the seven-time Cup champion Johnson has won at the .533-mile Bristol bullring previously. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has two victories, 12 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 35 starts at the track. His most recent win was in the spring of 2017. He has only one finish outside the top-10 in the last six Bristol races – an 11th-place in the 2017 fall race. Johnson’s win in 2017 was the last time a driver not named Busch visited Victory Lane. Brothers Kyle and Kurt have won the last four Bristol races.

Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, has an impressive 19 top-10 finishes in 35 starts but has never won at Bristol. In fact, for all those top-10 efforts, he has only a pair of top-five showings. However, he is trending upward with top-10 finishes in six of the previous nine races and three of the last four. He was 12th in this summer race last year. And Newman is coming off a 12th-place finish at Michigan on Sunday and has five top-10 finishes in a six-race summer stretch between Michigan-1 and New Hampshire last month.

Although he’s never won at Bristol, Bowyer has certainly run well at the track of late. He was runner-up to Johnson in 2017 and has led substantial laps in the last two races there. He led 120 laps and finished sixth in this night race last year and led 24 laps en route to a seventh-place finish in April’s race. He’s finished in the top-10 of four of the last five races and has 14 top-10 and seven top-five efforts in 27 career starts there.

Bristol’s good vibe will be welcome for the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this weekend after a season-worst showing of 37th at Michigan last weekend. Bowyer’s had only one top-10 (sixth place at Kentucky) in the last nine Cup races.

Daniel Suarez, 27, has only five Bristol starts but earned his best showing in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this April – an eighth-place finish. He’s never finished worse than 18th at Bristol. He moves back into championship contention – surpassing Johnson in the standings – following a fifth-place finish at Michigan last weekend. Suarez is on track to turn in a “career year” – his three top-five finishes already equals his best season total and his eight top-10 efforts through 23 races is on good pace to equal or surpass his career high mark of 12 established in his 2017 rookie season.

Harvick’s timing could be golden
No doubt perennial championship favorite Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Team were starting to miss their frequent visits to Victory Lane. By the time the Monster Energy Cup Series made its second trip to Bristol, Tenn. for the “Night Race” summer highlight last year, Harvick had already hoisted seven trophies.

He picked up his second trophy of the 2019 season last week at Michigan – the second in the last four weeks – a sign perhaps the 2014 Cup champion will get a well-timed boost to his Playoff launch.

Harvick is a two-time Bristol winner – first in 2005 and the last victory coming in this 2016 August race. He was eighth in the first Bristol stop of the season. And the other two races to close out the regular season also look promising to give him a positive Playoff sendoff.

He won at next week’s stop, the notoriously tough Darlington (S.C.) Raceway from the pole position in his 2014 championship year and has finished in the top-10 in half his starts – 11 times in 22 races. Harvick is also a former winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – earning the victory from pole position in 2003. He has 12 top-10 finishes in 18 Indianapolis starts.

“So, we’ve had a lot of things that we’ve had to overcome to get to this point,’’ Harvick said. “But it’s kind of like last year – we started off on fire, we won eight races and then didn’t win the championship. In the end, you want to win that championship and hopefully we’re peaking at the right time.”

Wins come in spades
Kyle and Kurt Busch’s amazing 14 wins at Bristol Motor Speedway is indicative of the character of this track. Judging by the list of winners, once a driver gets the nuance of this one-of-a-kind venue, he tends to have success. And then more success.

Of the seven active Cup drivers with Bristol victories – six of them have won multiple times. Kyle Busch leads the series with eight wins, followed by his older brother Kurt (six) who is the defending winner this weekend. Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have all won twice here. The only other former winner in the field this weekend is Denny Hamlin, who won in the summer of 2012.

Noticeably absent from that list is 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. – a four-race winner already in 2019 that has only a pair of top-five and three top-10 finishes in 27 Bristol starts. The Cup veteran reminds it isn’t for a lack of trying.

“The Bristol night race is one that every driver wants to win,’’ Truex acknowledged. “It’s a big weekend for [his sponsor] Bass Pro Shops sponsoring the race, so we want to do our best to have a good run for them.

“If you look at the stats, Bristol hasn’t been one of our better tracks, but we’ve had so many crazy things happen over the years that cost us good finishes. Like last year, we were racing for the lead in the last 100 laps and get wrecked. Then in the spring this year, we made our way to the top five and were in a good spot but had a loose wheel.

“Our team has been improving at Bristol and we’ve got some nice momentum from the past month or so that gives me confidence we can run up front this weekend and hopefully put it all together to have a good finish.’’

Competition update
Two-thirds of the way through the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season the competition highlights demonstrate a decided uptick in the season’s most telling race statistics.

There have been 11 Busch Pole winners representing five race organizations through the first 23 races. Hendrick Motorsports has won the most poles (7). William Byron and Chase Elliott have three each and Jimmie Johnson has one.

There have been 10 different race winners from six organizations. Joe Gibbs Racing leads this statistic with 11 victories. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have four wins apiece and Denny Hamlin has three.

And, the numbers show, racing itself has been close. The average Margin of Victory through the first 23 races is 1.209-seconds and 14 of the 23 races have been decided by less than 1-second (60.8 percent).

The average number of lead changes (17.74) is the most during the same opening 23 races of a season since 2015 (18.0). In a year-over-year comparison, green flag passes for the lead are up 41.1 percent from 2018.

Five races – at Las Vegas, Bristol, Tenn.-1, Kansas-1, Chicago and Kentucky – have produced a record number of green flag passes for the lead.

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