NASCAR picks pack: Keselowski has shot to snag third straight Bristol victory

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: August 25, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 7:43 p.m. ET

WHERE: Bristol Motor Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 0.533-mile short track

BROADCAST: ABC | RACE LENGTH: 500 laps, 267 miles

The lowdown

In the eyes of the non-racing world, the stereotypical fan goes to races to see accidents. While that is largely untrue, it would seem to have been reinforced this spring at Bristol. For most of its existence, this half-mile bullring in northern Tennessee was host to some of the most incredible beating and banging on the circuit. It was a one-groove track on which the best way to pass was to knock the car in front out of the way.

In an effort to develop a second racing line, Bristol implemented progressive banking in 2007 and it had the intended effect. Given the option of passing or wrecking, drivers chose to race cleanly, but a vocal number of fans became bored with the new style of competition. Track officials succumbed to the pressure and reconfigured the course for the second time in five years to remove much of the top lane and return this to a single-groove circuit.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact this redesign will have on competition, but the night race at Bristol has always been one of the most exciting events on the schedule. There is something magical about watching 43 lacquered beauties dance around a track the size of two city blocks in less than 15 seconds whether they are bumping into one another or artfully jockeying for position.

With the Chase looming only three weeks away, the pressure is building and three of the final five races of the season will be or have been contested on wild-card tracks. Two weeks ago, fans saw one of the most exciting final laps in the history of road courses, but the short tracks have the capacity to offer that level of action every time the cars make a circuit.

Danger lurks around every corner, especially now that drivers do not know what to expect. There is a phenomenon known as the "Law of Unintended Consequences," and fans who clamored for the old style Bristol should be aware that when an accident happens on a track this size, even their favorite driver is not safe.

10 best drivers at Bristol

Over the past six races at Bristol, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 6.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 11.56 in 25 attempts

Kenseth's public persona is that of a dispassionate, laid-back racer. He can get riled up in the cockpit of his Ford, but he has a way of channeling that emotion into intense focus and prefers to respond to injustices with his right foot. That has served him well at Bristol. He lays in wait while other drivers tear up their equipment and then slowly stalks the leader. While long streaks of top 10s have become increasingly difficult to achieve at Bristol during the age of parity, he enters the weekend with six consecutive top 10s. His most recent victory came in the 2006 night race, but he was close to adding a third this spring with a runner-up finish to Brad Keselowski in the Food City 500.

2. Jamie McMurray
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 9.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 17.11 in 19 attempts

McMurray made a name for himself two years ago by winning the 2010 Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Charlotte's fall race in a single season and on the strength of that performance, he became known as a driver who liked to strut on NASCAR's biggest stages. Bristol is more akin to an off-Broadway performance, but it has always been kind to him as well, particularly in Chip Ganassi Racing equipment. He started his career with that team by finishing 11th or better in his first four attempts on this track. Since rejoining Ganassi in 2010, he has finished in the top 10 in four of five races on this bullring and the only time he failed to finish that well was because of crash damage last spring.

3. Kyle Busch
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 9.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 10.60 in 15 attempts

The wild-card battle will be extremely interesting this week because both Busch and Newman have been strong at Bristol during the past several years; in fact, they are tied this week in terms of their six-race average finish. And yet, there are enough unknowns to make this a compelling battle. Newman has been more consistent, but Busch has shown more raw power. He won four of five races held at Bristol from 2009 through spring 2011, but his last two efforts ended in disappointing results outside the top 10. This spring, he crashed and finished 32nd. He has rebounded in the past, however, and after finishing outside the top 25 in his first two attempts, he immediately strung four top 10s together and won one of his five Bristol Cup races.

3. Ryan Newman
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 9.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 16.48 in 21 attempts

Newman has been the model of consistency at Bristol. In his 21-race career, he has earned only one top five, but he has top 10s in nearly 60 percent of his starts. When he misses the single digits, it is either by slim margins or because of crash damage. He enters the weekend with eight consecutive results of 16th or better and the only time he failed to crack the top 15 over that span was attributable to an earlier accident. Even so, he finished on the same lap as the leader that day. The last time he failed to make the distance at Bristol was in the 2008 Food City 500, which means he will almost certainly be around in the closing stages of the race to put pressure on Busch.

5. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 10.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 14.57 in 21 attempts

Johnson had some sporadically strong runs at the beginning of his Bristol career, but the light switch did not seem to flick on until spring 2009. In the Food City 500, he qualified third and raced with the leaders most of the afternoon to finish third. He finished eighth that fall and won his first and only Bristol race the following spring. Later that year, he won his first pole, but crashed 85 laps from the end of the race. That is the only time in his last seven attempts on this track that he failed to crack the top 10 and after disappointing finishes at Pocono and Michigan, he will be focused on running strong to develop some momentum before the Chase.

6. Kurt Busch
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 10.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 13.13 in 23 attempts

Short tracks reward driver skill over raw horsepower and that means this could be a good week for Busch. Unfortunately, it is also very easy to get into trouble on a half-mile track that starts 43 cars and that is going to be a challenge for the impassioned and embattled driver. Busch has suffered engine failure three times this year and that has been out of his control. He has also crashed in nine races and those might have been prevented if he backed off the throttle until the team had a chance to work on his car. NASCAR's new body style is durable, but even it can only take so much of a beating and Busch already has five DNFs to his credit in 2012.

7. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 10.40 in 5 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 10.40 in 5 attempts

Bristol is a rhythm track and once drivers learn how to go fast on these courses, they often string together long streaks of top 10s. Keselowski's first top-10 finish on this short course was a victory in last year's edition of the Irwin Tools Night Race and it had to catch the competition by surprise. That might have been a fluke, but he proved it was not by qualifying fifth for the Food City 500 and spending 389 of the 500 laps among the top five. He has not been quite as impressive on other courses less than a mile in length, but he is one of only two drivers -- along with Clint Bowyer -- to sweep the top-10 so far this season on that track type.

8. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 11.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 11.84 in 19 attempts

Biffle is coming off a win at Michigan and full of confidence. He also has enough top 10s in his last six races at Bristol to make him one of the 10 best, but his success this week is far from assured. Biffle finished fourth in back-to-back races on this track in 2009-10. His next pair of efforts ended in eighth-place finishes, but he suffered a setback in last year's edition of the Irwin Tools Night Race. Early in the race, he cut a tire under green flag conditions and lost multiple laps getting it changed. He was not able to overcome the deficit and finished 31st. That has been part of a generally anemic short-track career for the past year and he has not scored a top 10 on this track type in his latest eight attempts.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 11.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 11.80 in 25 attempts

Junior owes his position among the top 10 to consistency. In his last seven races at Bristol, he has only two top-10 finishes, but his worst effort was a respectable 16th. Nearly all of his strong runs and all but one of his seven career top fives came while he raced for the family team prior to 2008. He does have one very interesting tendency, however, and he is almost guaranteed to improve his position from the start of the race. Earnhardt has finished better than he started at Bristol in his last 17 attempts. Sometimes this is only a marginal improvement like his 15th-place finish this spring after starting 18th, but more often it is a slow steady progression through the field such as his victory in 2004 from a position 30th on the grid.

10. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 12.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 19.31 in 13 attempts

Truex's turnaround at Bristol was as dramatic as that of Keselowski. With slightly different circumstances in either of the last two races, the No. 56 might have one of those two victories, but he finished second to the No. 2 Dodge last fall and was third this spring. Even though he failed to win, what makes his reversal of fortune so dramatic is that it is preceded by a much longer list of races in which he struggled. Truex failed to crack the top 10 in his first 11 starts and had only two top 15s. He is further proof of why it is so difficult to handicap NASCAR races.

OTHERS OF NOTE

14. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 17.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 12.39 in 23 attempts

Harvick has made no secret of the fact that he has not been happy in the cockpit of his Chevrolet, so Richard Childress Racing made a crew chief change at the beginning of the week. Now is the time in order to give Harvick and Gil Martin a chance to redevelop their chemistry before the Chase begins at Chicagoland, but they should not be judged by their performance at Bristol. At the beginning of his career, this was one of Harvick's best tracks with a victory and seven top 10s in his first nine races. He has scored only one top 10 in his latest seven attempts, however, and has finished on the same lap as the leader only three times.

19. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 19.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 15.85 in 13 attempts

It seems unlikely that Hamlin can lose 33 points in the next three races and drop outside the top 10 in the standings, but the media is already starting to speculate about what might happen if he does. Even a remote possibility of having to fall back on the wild-card spot is enough to add pressure to a driver who is already beleaguered by bad luck. And Bristol is not the ideal place to come when in need of a strong run. Hamlin is known as a strong short-track driver, but that is largely because the other two short courses on the schedule are flat and he is at his best negotiating minimally banked corners. Bristol has not been overly kind to him in the past and probably will not be this weekend either.

20. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 20.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 17.30 in 27 attempts

Stewart had intermittently strong runs at the beginning of his Bristol career and they notably all came in the night race in August. In his rookie season, he won the pole for that event and finished fifth. The next year he finished second, and his only Bristol victory came under the lights in his third season. He mostly lost the handle after that and struggled at the end of his Joe Gibbs Racing career. He hasn't been much better at Bristol in his own equipment. In seven starts, he earned only one top 10. The good news is that was a runner-up finish in the 2010 Food City 500.

22. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Bristol: 21.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Bristol: 17.17 in 13 attempts

By the numbers, Bowyer would seem to be the least likely driver among the top 10 in points to score a top-10 finish at Bristol. Numbers can be deceiving, however, because this driver has defied the odds on quite a few occasions in 2012. His fourth-place finish this spring is one of only two top 10s at Bristol in his last seven races and during that span he was much more likely to finish outside the top 20. He is one of only two drivers who have swept the top 10 on short tracks this season and back in 2007 and 2008, he had a perfect record at Bristol as well.

All Drivers: Last six races at Bristol
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Matt Kenseth6.17 (6)22. Clint Bowyer21.67 (6)
2. Jamie McMurray 9.17 (6)23. Joey Logano21.83 (6)
3. Kyle Busch9.67 (6)24. David Ragan22.33 (6)
3. Ryan Newman9.67 (6)25. Reed Sorenson25.33 (3)
5. Jimmie Johnson10.00 (6)26. Regan Smith26.17 (6)
6. Kurt Busch10.17 (6)27. Travis Kvapil 27.40 (5)
7. Brad Keselowski10.40 (5)28. David Gilliland27.50 (6)
8. Greg Biffle 11.33 (6)29. Casey Mears 27.83 (6)
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.83 (6)30. Bobby Labonte28.33 (6)
10. Martin Truex Jr.12.17 (6)31. David Stremme28.50 (4)
11. Carl Edwards 14.00 (6)32. Scott Speed30.25 (4)
12. Jeff Burton14.17 (6)33. Sam Hornish Jr.30.67 (3)
13. Jeff Gordon16.67 (6)34. Aric Almirola35.00 (3)
14. Kevin Harvick17.00 (6)35. Landon Cassill36.00 (3)
15. Brian Vickers 17.80 (5)36. Dave Blaney37.17 (6)
16. Paul Menard18.00 (6)37. Ken Schrader38.50 (2)
17. Juan Pablo Montoya18.17 (6)38. Michael McDowell39.00 (4)
18. Marcos Ambrose19.50 (6)39. JJ Yeley40.50 (4)
19. Denny Hamlin19.67 (6)40. Mike Bliss 40.67 (3)
20. Tony Stewart20.50 (6)41. Scott Riggs41.50 (2)
21. Kasey Kahne 20.67 (6)42. Joe Nemechek41.67 (6)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 20 (2003 Sharpie 500, 1997 Food City 500, 1989 Valleydale Meats 500)

Fewest caution flags: 0 (1971 Volunteer 500)

Average number of caution flags per race: 8.8

Final Caution, last five races:
March 2012: Lap 479 of 500 - 1-car accident in turn 3, (Tony Stewart)
August 2011: Lap 415 of 500 - 1-car accident in turn 3, (Kyle Busch)
March 2011: Lap 459 of 500 - Oil
August 2010: Lap 410 of 500 - Debris on backstretch
March 2010: Lap 484 of 500 - Debris in turn 2

Most caution laps: 167 (1965 Volunteer 500)

Fewest caution laps: 0 (1971 Volunteer 500)

Average number of caution laps per race: 62.3

Leading the way

Most leaders: 16 (1989 Valleydale Meats 500)

Fewest leaders: 1 (1973 Southeastern 500)

Average number of leaders: 6.5

Most lead changes: 40 (1991 Valleydale Meats 500)

Fewest lead changes: 0 (1973 Southeastern 500)

Average number of lead changes: 12.7

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Bristol (starting position):
March 2012: Brad Keselowski (5th)
August 2011: Brad Keselowski (8th)
March 2011:Kyle Busch (12th)
August 2010: Kyle Busch (19th)
March 2010: Jimmie Johnson (4th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 38th - Elliott Sadler (March 2001)

A race at Bristol has been won by the pole sitter 22 times and from the front row 34 times in 103 races.

Active winners at Bristol

Kyle Busch (5)
Kurt Busch (5)
Jeff Gordon (5)
Matt Kenseth (2)
Mark Martin (2)
Carl Edwards (2)
Brad Keselowski (2)
Tony Stewart (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Jimmie Johnson (1)
Jeff Burton (1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)

First time winners at Bristol

Elliott Sadler (2001 Food City 500)
Kurt Busch (2002 Food City 500)
Rusty Wallace (1986 Valleydale 500)
Ernie Irvan (1990 Busch 500)
Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1979 Southeastern 500)

Out of harm's way

No place on the track is safe at Bristol, but the closer a driver gets to the front of the pack, the less likely it is that someone is going to make a mistake ahead of them. Here is a look at approximately how many laps drivers have spent racing in the top five; this data has been manually entered into a database from NASCAR.com's TrackPass.

Laps in the top five at Bristol (last three years)
DriverTop-five lapsPossible lapsPercentage
Jimmie Johnson 1,960 3,000 65%
Kyle Busch 1,159 3,000 39%
Kurt Busch 1,120 3,000 37%
Matt Kenseth 991 3,000 33%
Brad Keselowski 958 2,500 38%
Jeff Gordon 891 3,000 30%
Mark Martin 678 2,500 27%
Greg Biffle 671 3,000 22%
Jamie McMurray 627 3,000 21%
Ryan Newman 615 3,000 21%
Carl Edwards 613 3,000 20%
Juan Pablo Montoya 583 3,000 19%
Clint Bowyer 531 3,000 18%
Martin Truex Jr 527 3,000 18%
Brian Vickers 355 2,500 14%
Kevin Harvick 349 3,000 12%
Jeff Burton 321 3,000 11%
Dale Earnhardt Jr 292 3,000 10%
Kasey Kahne 254 3,000 8%
Marcos Ambrose 169 3,000 6%
Tony Stewart 152 3,000 5%
Joey Logano 101 3,000 3%
Paul Menard 93 3,000 3%
Regan Smith 88 3,000 3%
Denny Hamlin 65 3,000 2%
David Gilliland 40 3,000 1%
Scott Speed 16 2,000 1%
Casey Mears 4 3,000 0%
Travis Kvapil 4 2,500 0%
Dave Blaney 3 2,500 0%
David Stremme 2 2,000 0%
JJ Yeley 2 1,000 0%
Aric Almirola 1 1,000 0%

Short tracks (since 2009)

NASCAR's three short tracks are all distinct, but they share one commonality -- jamming 43 cars on a course less than a mile in length is a recipe for excitement. Some drivers have a knack for navigating the tight confines. Here is a comparison of how everyone in the field this week has fared at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond since 2009.

DriverCombined Avg.Combined AttemptsBristolMartinsvilleRichmond
Denny Hamlin9.052117.144.006.00
Kyle Busch9.33218.4317.142.43
Jimmie Johnson10.00219.006.0015.00
Ryan Newman10.43219.2911.1410.86
Jeff Gordon11.812114.867.7112.86
Carl Edwards12.952114.1414.2910.43
Matt Kenseth14.332110.0015.8617.14
Kevin Harvick14.382118.8611.8612.43
Dale Earnhardt Jr14.622112.1410.1421.57
Mark Martin14.631919.3312.6712.29
Kurt Busch14.952110.2919.5715.00
Jeff Burton15.142113.2915.8616.29
Brad Keselowski15.191610.4013.4020.67
Tony Stewart15.292120.0014.8611.00
Jamie McMurray15.572113.1417.0016.57
Clint Bowyer15.572120.4315.2911.00
Juan Pablo Montoya15.862116.8616.7114.00
Greg Biffle18.192115.2920.7118.57
Brian Vickers18.711719.6719.1717.00
Joey Logano18.952124.1415.1417.57
Marcos Ambrose19.002118.1422.7116.14
Martin Truex Jr19.762114.1420.5724.57
Kasey Kahne21.432118.4326.2919.57
David Ragan21.482123.0021.0020.43
Paul Menard23.382119.0023.2927.86
Casey Mears24.752127.2925.3321.71
Regan Smith25.711726.1724.6026.17
Sam Hornish Jr25.751230.7527.0019.50
Bobby Labonte26.862127.4325.2927.86
Reed Sorenson27.501224.7530.0027.75
Ken Schrader28.86738.5023.25-
Travis Kvapil29.241725.8330.8331.40
Stephen Leicht29.502--29.50
Aric Almirola30.33935.0026.75-
David Gilliland30.762128.7132.2931.29
David Stremme31.061626.6032.0034.00
Landon Cassill33.001136.0034.7529.00
Scott Speed33.531729.8034.5035.67
Dave Blaney35.052138.0035.2931.86
Mike Bliss38.901140.6735.0039.40
Michael McDowell40.191639.0039.8341.33
Joe Nemechek40.812141.5740.2940.57
JJ Yeley40.821140.5039.2543.33
Scott Riggs41.50842.3336.0044.33
Josh Wise41.504-42.50-

Beaver's Best Bets for Bristol

Winner: Brad Keselowski. He came within 10 laps of proving me right last week, so it is time to double down. Keselowski takes his third consecutive Bristol win this week.

Dark horse top 10: Jamie McMurray. There are horses for courses and the No. 1 has a proven track record at Bristol.

Don't bet on it: Denny Hamlin. His troubles will continue for one more week. But don't worry, he will rebound at Richmond and enter the Chase with a modicum of momentum.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

NASCAR's parity rules, free passes, wave arounds and the improved durability of the new body style has contributed to more cars on the lead lap. That makes Bristol unpredictable because a mistake late in the race has such greater consequences than in the past, but what is truly going to make the Irwin Tools Night Race a toss up is the reconfigured corners.

1. Brad Keselowski
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Kyle Busch
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Martin Truex Jr.
6. Ryan Newman
7. Jamie McMurray
8. Marcos Ambrose
9. Carl Edwards
10. Jeff Burton

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Not only did Keselowski come within 10 laps of winning last week, three other top-10 picks came within one position of finishing precisely where I projected they would. I could have used the bonus points for those exact matches, because three drivers predicted to finish in the top 10 blew engines and robbed me of a great points weekend.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Brad Keselowski25
2.Matt Kenseth17-1
3.Tony Stewart32-1
4.Dale Earnhardt Jr.410
5.Kyle Busch13-1
6.Jimmie Johnson27-1
7.Jeff Gordon28-1
8.Clint Bowyer75
9.Ryan Newman85
10.Paul Menard95

Total points for Bristol = 25 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 23.1 points (13 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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