By Jared Turner
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been a campaign dominated in large part by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.
That dominance could begin to erode in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Then again, there’s reason to believe it may just continue.
Gibbs and Penske cars have combined to win 12 of the past 15 races in Thunder Valley, with Gibbs drivers leading the way with eight victories.
Four of JGR’s eight Bristol wins are courtesy of reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who has to be considered one of the favorites entering Saturday night’s 500-lapper around the high-banked .533-mile track.
“I’m not exactly sure what makes me so good at Bristol,” said Busch, who actually owns a total of five Bristol wins, the first coming in 2007 with Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve just had a lot of success there, but I’ve also had some misfortune there, too. Ever since I got through my rookie year, I’ve just taken a liking to the place. … I’ve been fast there, but also I’ve had great race cars from Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there.”
Busch, however, is only cautiously optimistic about his chances of getting a win this weekend. That’s because his most recent Bristol triumph came all the way back in the spring of 2011. Since then, NASCAR’s top series has switched to a different generation race car, and Bristol’s layout has undergone some alterations.
“We haven’t been as good since they made the changes in 2012 there, but we have been gaining on it and I’m hoping we can get back to form there this weekend,” Busch said. “You really have to be on your game at Bristol. You make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake, that’s it. We’re hoping things will fall in place this weekend with our Camry and we get to Victory Lane.”
If a Gibbs or Penske driver doesn’t prevail on Saturday night, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick could be the driver who stands in the way. Harvick, the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion, won at Bristol in the spring of 2005 but has never come out on top in the night race – an event widely considered one of the most unpredictable and prestigious on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
“The Bristol night race is one that has always been circled on everybody’s list as a race that they want to win,” Harvick said. “I think when you look at Bristol, it’s probably become harder than it used to be to pass, just for the fact that you run up against the wall. Plus, you add that short-track element. It’s hot and it’s frustrating, as well, just because it’s hard to pass and you know that you have to make time. It usually ends up that you have guys who run into each other and then we all get mad. It can definitely be a place where the tempers flare.”
This will be the final Bristol night race for Tony Stewart, one of Harvick’s SHR teammates. Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, picked up his lone Bristol win in the 2001 August night race.
No wonder Stewart, who is retiring at season’s end, calls this “a hard race to win.”
“It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day,” he said. “You would think being a short-track race that if you have a great car you can get there, but normally one small mistake will take that opportunity away from you. Seems like you have better odds of something happening that keeps from you winning than you do of actually winning.”