Roundtable tackles Danica, Bristol and NASCAR's ratings resurgence
Racing writers Lars Anderson, Cory McCartney, Bruce Martin, Brant James and Tim Tuttle weigh in on the season so far and the Cup's next stop at Bristol. (Send comments to email@example.com)
Can Danica Patrick repeat her Las Vegas success at Bristol?
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Anderson It won't be easy. I had a long talk with Patrick (pictured right) the day after her impressive fourth place run at Vegas, and she emphasized that she's feeling more comfortable in her Nationwide car, which is showing on the track. That being said, she's never before raced a stock car on a short track. Given her inexperience at venues like Bristol, which is a .533-mile oval, a top-20 finish on Saturday would be considered a moral victory for Patrick. James No. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile track with room to work and a margin for error. She's raced many times on that type of track in IndyCar and NASCAR. Bristol Motor Speedway is a half-mile bull ring that will test her ability to push, be pushed, get off corners and work brakes. She will have developed some of the skills necessary for this type of racing on IndyCar street circuits, but the physicality of it is a whole new beast her first time on a short track in a stock car.Martin Not a chance. Even Patrick admitted that on Sunday during the IZOD IndyCar Series Media Day at Barber Motorsports Park. Patrick said her goal is simply to finish at Bristol -- it doesn't matter what place in the standings. In fact, she has been warned by fellow drivers that the dizzying pace at the high-banked "Cereal Bowl" will leave her confused whether she's going into Turn 1 or entering Turn 3 because the track is completely surrounded by grandstands. The only way she will know for sure, according to Patrick, is to locate the flagstand on the frontstretch. Finishing fourth at a 1.5-mile oval is one thing because a driver can stay out of trouble. But fourth at Bristol is a matter of survival.Tuttle No. Patrick has never driven on anything like .533-mile high-banked Bristol in her career. It will be her first Nationwide race on a track less than a mile and she'll be racing against drivers, both Nationwide regulars and Sprint Cup, who grew up on short tracks and know how to run in close quarters and use their bumpers. Patrick is going back to elementary school in her NASCAR education. She'll do well to finish in the top 25. McCartney Uh, no. There's no downplaying Danica's history-making run at Las Vegas, but that track was tailor-made for it. Of her 15 Nationwide starts, seven have come on intermediate tracks and that was her second go-round on Las Vegas' wide surface. Bristol is an entirely different monster with its tight corners and tighter racing. There's a reason why she said she's hoping she just doesn't finish more than 10 laps down.
Who will win at Bristol and why?
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Anderson Kurt Busch -- Bristol has long been Busch's best track on the circuit. He's won here five times. To find out why I think Busch will reach Victory Lane, check out my column on SI.com Friday. James Kyle Busch -- Big brother is having way too much fun right now, and it's time for the younger Busch (pictured right) to assert himself. His sweep of the Trucks, Nationwide and Cup dates last summer at Bristol validated what was already statistically verifiable: He is the best active driver at Bristol, having amassed a series-best 1,670 points there the past 10 races, with four wins.Martin Kyle Busch -- He achieved the three-race sweep last August so he knows how to win on NASCAR's most demanding short track. He has been fast in the three previous races this season, but a blown engine at Las Vegas dropped him out two weeks ago. But this is a different race at a venue that fits Busch's rowdy racing style, so he looks like a great pick to win again on Sunday. Busch has four wins, including a sweep of the 2009 Cup contests. He also has six top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in 12 Bristol starts.Tuttle Kyle Busch -- Whether with former crew chiefs Alan Gustafson, Steve Addington and current top-of-the-box leader Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch has won three of the past four and four of the past eight at Bristol. He led 283 laps in his victory last August. Busch also has a second-place in that stretch in which he led 415 laps. Busch knows what he wants out of his car and he's mastered driving Bristol. McCartney Kyle Busch -- In all he has four wins and nine top 10s in 12 career Cup starts, plus we all remember that bit of history Rowdy made in August with an unprecedented sweep at the bullring. Simply put, on a track where the tight quarters can lead to chaos, Busch is as safe a bet as it gets.
Biggest storyline heading into Bristol?
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Anderson Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. keep his solid start to the season going? -- Currently 10th in points, Earnhardt (pictured right) already has two top-10 finishes. Considering that Earnhardt had a grand total of eight top-10s in 36 races last year, this constitutes an excellent beginning for him. He has shown impressive patience and perseverance this season, overcoming pit road issues and mechanical problems in the last two races to bring his No. 88 Chevy home in the top 10. This needs to continue for Earnhardt to qualify for his first Chase since 2008. James NASCAR's back, baby! -- Well, television ratings and attendance figures have been encouraging so far, and NASCAR and its many dependents are all but ringing church bells and releasing balloons in celebration. After three years of constant ill news about the economy and its impact on fans, the industry is feeling better about itself. Martin Is it already too late for Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton to get back into contention for the top 10 in the standings? -- Biffle is 31st in the standings and Burton is 32nd. Both are 53 points out of the lead and historically, drivers that far out of it have trouble getting back into position to make the Chase in September. Not only is it the amount of points they are behind but the number of drivers they have to get past to climb out of that deep of a hole. Tuttle Can Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano pick themselves off the deck and start climbing into Chase contention? -- Three races into the season, their Chase chances are in trouble. Logano is 30th, Biffle 31st and Burton 32nd in a new point system where making up ground is more difficult. They still have 23 races to turn their seasons around, but they need to start making progress at Bristol. McCartney The return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- So far, so good for Rick Hendrick's crew chief shuffle that teamed Junior with erstwhile Jeff Gordon pit boss Steve Letarte. Earnhardt finally looks like he's enjoying himself again and it's showing on the track where he's inside the top 10 in points. Is he back? Ending his 95-race winless drought would go a long way toward convincing doubters, but for the first time in years, Junior Nation has something it hasn't had: hope.
Biggest storyline to emerge this Cup season?
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Anderson The rise in TV ratings and attendance -- For several years NASCAR's fan base has been diminishing, but it's starting to look like the worst of times are over with the increase in attendance and tv ratings from last year. Will this upward momentum continue? Stay tuned. James Racing has been a little manic a little early. -- It could be a subconscious reaction by drivers to the new single-increment point system, or they could all just be losing their collective minds. Multiple wrecks have collected many quality cars, but it must be exciting because ...Martin Ratings are up -- Television ratings are up over recent years. The first three races this season have had great storylines from Trevor Bayne?s amazing victory in the Daytona 500 to Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak with his victory at Phoenix to Carl Edwards snatching victory away from Tony Stewart at Las Vegas. With an upswing of momentum, NASCAR probably wishes it had a race this past weekend rather than the first scheduled off-weekend of the season. But television ratings should remain high at Bristol because it?s usually filled with lots of action, crashed race cars and frayed tempers. Tuttle The championship looks more wide open than in the past five years. -- Jimmie Johnson (pictured right) looks more vulnerable after a mediocre 16th-place run at Las Vegas, former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are off to strong starts, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch will undoubtedly win races and challenge in the points and Jeff Gordon has a new lease on life after winning Phoenix. There's no favorite three races into the season. McCartney The impact of the new points system -- Sure it's simplified, but a system that awards last place 2.3 percent of the points first place receives has made drivers pay dearly for bad finishes. Just look at the standings, where annual Chase contenders Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton sit 31st and 32nd, respectively. Is it too early for these two to forget points and try to get in through one of the new wild card spots?
Breakout star of the season so far?
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Anderson Trevor Bayne -- At 20 years and one day old, Bayne last month became the youngest driver ever to win the Daytona 500. I doubt he'll have another top-10 run this season, but in the aftermath of his dramatic win Bayne acquitted himself well. Telegenic and articulate, Bayne for that one day looked like a young Jeff Gordon. His future is wonderfully bright. James A.J. Allmendinger -- The former open wheel star has never finished higher than 19th (last season) in part of three previous attempted full Sprint Cup seasons, but is making -- at this very early juncture -- a breakout in the storied No. 43 Ford. That Allmendinger has put himself in such position with finishes of 11th, ninth and 19th is arguably more encouraging than a win and two throwaway results.Martin Paul Menard -- Few expected Menard to be sixth in points after three races this season but the son of billionaire John Menard has proved he is capable of driving a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. He is just 17 points out of the Cup lead and seven points out of fifth place. Menard has had a solid start to the season and has stayed out of trouble. The question is can he continue that trend? Tuttle Trevor Bayne -- Barely age 20, becomes the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 in his second Sprint Cup start driving for NASCAR's second oldest team, the beloved-by-fans Wood Brothers. It's a story too good to be true, but it's in the record book. Bayne became a folk hero in a single race, a Daytona 500 that nobody who saw it will ever forget. A star was born. McCartney A.J. Allmendinger -- As I detailed last week, Allmendinger has a new level of confidence in himself and Richard Petty Motorsports. The former open-wheel driver has shown steady improvement over the last there years, currently sitting ninth in the standings and he's starting to put it together on the intermediate tracks that make up the brunt of the schedule. Don't be surprised if he stays in contention for the Chase.
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