Bristol buoys chances for new NASCAR winners

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, looks on after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee.
Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, looks on after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee. Getty Images

Once again, teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing seem to have already built up an edge on their competition this season.

But there remains a big equalizer.

And it comes on one of the Sprint Cup Series’ smallest tracks – Bristol Motor Speedway.

The last six races at the .533-mile highly banked concrete oval have produced six different winners.

Matt Kenseth, who will start from the pole in Sunday’s Food City 500, hopes to break that streak and one other.

Kenseth won the August race at Bristol in 2013 but has since been immersed in a 51-race winless streak in the Cup series.

Although Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have struggled somewhat to keep pace with Hendrick and SHR, particularly on the Cup series’ intermediate tracks, the odds are far more even at Bristol.

“Certainly, when we get to short tracks they’re less dependent on aerodynamics and even the engine to a certain extent,” said Kenseth, who has three wins at Bristol in his career.

“If you feel like you have a deficit in those areas then it doesn’t make as big of a difference at a short track, but I’m not so sure that we have a deficit in those areas. I think each track is important and you try to make as much of a difference as you can everywhere.”

Under NASCAR’s current championship Chase format – which for all practical purposes locks race winners into the Chase – it doesn’t matter where you win, only that you do in the season’s first 26 races.

So while Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson already have three wins between them on intermediate tracks – which make up the bulk of the season schedule – a victory at Bristol will lock a driver in the Chase just as easily.

And rather than topping the competition with a better engine or sleeker aerodynamics, nudging the car in front of you out of the way could work equally well.

“Bristol serves as a clean sheet of paper for teams because its characteristics aren’t relative to any other track they’ve competed on yet this season,” said Fox TV analyst and former crew chief, Larry McReynolds.

“Although Martinsville is also a half-mile track, the two aren’t relatable. If a team has been struggling the first part of the season, whether in the aero, chassis or horsepower departments, they get a fresh start at Bristol because these categories don’t matter nearly as much as mechanical grip does.

“Some teams might get a chance at redemption this weekend.”

There is plenty of evidence available looking at the results of this race one year ago.

Roush Fenway Racing has struggled the past two seasons, especially on NASCAR’s bigger tracks. But RFR drivers Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. swept the top two finishing positions last spring.

It was the first of Edwards’ two Cup races of the season – the other would come on the road course at Sonoma, Calif. – and it still serves as Stenhouse’s career-best finish.

Of course, that doesn’t mean NASCAR’s strongest teams are locked out of Victory Lane at Bristol.

Last summer at Bristol, Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – who combined for 11 wins on the season – finished first and second in the race.

Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon lead all drivers in the race with five victories each at Bristol and both are still searching for their first win of the 2015 season.

“It’s tough at that place because it’s so fast for a short track and you can get dizzy there pretty quickly,” Busch said.

“It’s a physical track but it’s also mentally taxing, and you really have to be on your game when it comes to the concentration that is required to run well at Bristol.”

And win.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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