The fourth installment of the NASCAR season brings the NASCAR elite to a short track for the first time in 2012. That's right...while Phoenix is only a mile long, the sheer width of some spots on the track do not give it the feeling and intimacy of a classic short track.
If anything, Bristol is the quintessential short track on the NASCAR circuit. It is banked fairly steeply on the turns, though there is some debate as to how steep that is. NASCAR driver Ryan Newman, holder of a bachelor's degree in engineering, once had his team measure the banks and found them to be angled at no more than 25 degrees. The track itself claims some of the banking is 30 degrees.
Whatever the case, everyone is playing on an equal field because they all have to maneuver the same tiny space. But when it comes to short track racing, all drivers are not equal.
In three races so far in 2012, there have been three different winners. Bristol is bound to spawn a fourth new visitor to Victory Lane. This is not to count out 2012 race winners Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart. All three could churn up a performance worthy of a second win of the season.
However, there are two drivers that should be considered ahead of the aforementioned three. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, without a doubt, must be considered as serious contenders in this race.
The reasons are essentially separate, but are somewhat linked. Simply put, Busch has no real competiton in terms of statistics at this track. He has won here at all levels, even sweeping an entire weekend once by winning the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races, then grabbing the checkered flag at the Irwin Tools Night Race in 2010. Busch is the only driver to accomplish the weekend trifecta sweep (at any track) in NASCAR history. With that track record, there isn't much reason to doubt that he is primed for, at the very least, a top-five finish this year.
Johnson has also won this race in the past, gaining his first victory at "The World's Fastest Half Mile" in 2010. But, that is not the reason he should be considered a favorite. Rather, he has just looked so solid the past couple of weeks that it is hard to imagine him not continuing his impressive run. After sputtering in Daytona, Johnson was able to rip off a fourth-place finish in Phoenix, then followed that up with a second-place showing in Las Vegas. Like Busch, anything less than a top-five finish would be a disappointment for him. Keep in mind that crew chief Chad Knaus will still be in the pit box for this race, pending a final appeal for penalties awarded the team at Daytona for a failed inspection.
Points leader Greg Biffle has never won at Bristol, though he is very strong here. His average finish of 11.8 is second only to Busch's 9.1. The way he has been running this year, this weekend may be his best shot to break that streak. If not that, surely he would be more than happy with a fourth consecutive third-place finish to stay on top of the point standings. His poor showing of 31st the last time he fired up the engine in Thunder Valley was a complete anomaly.
Other notables here are Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Gordon, in particular, has quietly put together two solid runs the last two weeks and could be considered a dark horse to win, if it is even possible to consider a five-time Bristol winner a dark horse. Granted, he has not won at Bristol since 2002.
Paul Menard raced very well at this event last year, though it may have been just a stroke of luck. Look for him to see if he can reprise his top-five form from a year ago.
It may sound as though I'm only highlighting the usual suspects to win this race. That is not the case. This particular race has a habit of fortelling who will make the NASCAR postseason. The last five winners have all done so, and the chances are solid that this trend will continue.
After all, it's Bristol, baby! Cue the driver intro music.