The fourth race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season goes Sunday, with the running of the Food City 500 (1 PM ET, Fox) and the presence of Kyle Busch overshadows this race. It’s not because Busch is off to a blazing start—he’s only 17th in the point standings. Nor is it because he’s a dominant figure in racing—he’s missed the Top 10 each of the last two years and never come close to a championship. But Busch owns Bristol Motor Speedway, and now he’s got the pole for Sunday.
There are two races run at Bristol each year, and Busch has won four of the last eight. He might not be a dominant figure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series overall, but he sure is at this track. The circuit comes to Bristol at the right time for him. Busch’s season got off to a disastrous start in Daytona, with a wreck and a 34th-place finish. It got a little better in Phoenix the week after, when he came in 23rd. Then he ran an excellent race in Las Vegas, placing fourth. Busch still has work to do repairing the point damage from Daytona and Sunday’s Bristol race fits perfectly into his gradual ascent with each passing week.
The pole position is of no small importance at Bristol. It’s a shorter track, which makes it tougher to pass and to come back on. “Position is everything,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “There’s a lot of bumping and grinding.”
Bill added that the close-quarters racing makes it an ideal environment for drivers to take revenge on someone. It reminds me of a scene in the 1992 movie Far & Away. An Irish immigrant, played by Tom Cruise (who mastered the brogue beautifully) is running in the 1893 Oklahoma Land Rush, where the settlers rode horses to the plots of land they were going to claim. The antagonist to Cruise comes up to him the day before to warn him ominously—“there’ll be a lot of confusion in the race tomorrow lad. Someone could get shot.” I digress, but the obvious corollary to our original topic is that the drivers have opportunity to get away with some stuff in a tight, bump-and-grind race.
Bush’s record at Bristol are reflected in the betting lines for Sunday. He’s one of three drivers going off at 7-1, with only Jimmie Johnson’s price being shorter. You don’t normally see Busch in this kind of rarefied air, but the record says he’s the driver to watch on Sunday.
HAMLIN SPEAKS OUT
Denny Hamlin is a little lighter in the wallet. He drew a $25,000 fine from NASCAR for his criticism of the Generation Six car. “He says you can race in a single file line,” Bill said, in explaining the driver’s criticisms. Bill was non-committal on the substance of Hamlin’s criticism, but he (Bill) firmly criticized NASCAR for the fine. “They want drivers to speak their minds and then fine them if they don’t like it,” he lamented. Whether NASCAR has something to hide I don’t know, but the decision to slap Hamlin with a fine does at least give the appearance of corporate insecurity.
Speaking of something to hide, I wish I could hide last year’s previews of the two NASCAR races at Bristol last year. When I hear “Bristol”, I think Connecticut and the home of ESPN. And in researching the track, I never noticed that it’s actually in Tennessee. This year’s research brought it to light. My apologies to the good people of Tennessee.
THE BETTING LINE
Johnson, as mentioned is the betting line favorite. Busch is joined by Hamlin and Brad Keselowski at 7-1. Then there’s a sharp drop to 12-1, where Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and last week’s winner Matt Kenseth are sitting. Of the “name” drivers, Stewart is the one who still needs to get untracked, as he’s 16 points outside the top 10. Danica Patrick has fallen hard in the last couple weeks, dropping to 30th overall.