March 20, 2010

After a momentary pause for breath last weekend, we're back to the serious stuff this Sunday at one of the very best tracks in the sport: Bristol Motor Speedway. Thunder Valley, as it's known, is a half-mile (well, 0.533-mile) concrete bullring with 26-30 degrees of banking in the corners, so there's little-to-no-room for error at any point during the 500-lap race. Just the slightest slip can wreak havoc not just on your own ride, but those of your competitors, as well.

With two straight weeks of short-track racing before we break once again for Easter, those with a proclivity toward bumping and banging will be looking to make up some points in the overall standing. We'll start this week with just one of those folks, the newly engaged Truck Series owner himself ...

Kyle Busch: It's not been the greatest of starts for Kyle. With no top 10s and an average finish of 17th, old Rowdy has been anything but, well, Rowdy in 2010. But Bristol is a track the younger Busch brother knows and loves, so expect to see the driver of the #18 Toyota Camry challenge for the win this weekend on the high banks at the "world's fastest half mile." He won both races at Bristol last season -- leading 378 of the 503 laps in the Spring event -- and has an average finish of 10.2 in 10 races at the track shaped like a cereal bowl. He might not make it 3-for-3 on Sunday, but my bet is he's top-five at the very least.

By the numbers: Busch has led the field for 935 of his 4,887 total laps at Bristol.

Denny Hamlin: Being picked as the presumptive champ (or at least presumptive challenger to Jimmie Johnson) has not worked out so well for Hamlin this season, who has yet to record a top 10 in 2010. But he excels at the short tracks, and in his last four races at Bristol, he's finished 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 5th. Outside of the night race in 2007 where an engine failure saw Hamlin finish 43rd, his lowest other finishing position in eight starts was 14th. True, it's been a slow start to the season for the Joe Gibbs Racing boys, but this might be the weekend when the team starts to turn it all around.

By the numbers: Hamlin has an average starting position of 23.0, but an average finishing position of 11.6.

Greg Biffle: The Biff has had a great start to the season, with four straight top-10 runs to open up this year. Expect this trend to continue on the high banks, where the 9-year Cup racer has secured five top-5 and eight top-10 efforts in 14 attempts. Never a flashy guy on the track, Biffle tends to knuckle down and get the job done, while employing that laconic sense of humor off it. And after a tough 2010 for Roush Fenway Racing (despite Biff making the Chase), the early signs this year are that the team has righted the ship and corrected the flaws that were so evident in 2009.

By the numbers: Biff led 76 laps in the 2009 night race on his way to a 4th-place finish.

Kevin Harvick: Points leader after four races, Happy Harvick turned a car that was akin to a dump truck at Atlanta into a 9th-place finish that felt almost as good as a victory. With four straight top-10s and an average finish of 12.3 in 18 starts, I'm predicting that streak stretches to five on Sunday. Like Biffle, Harvick suffered through a very trying 2009, his worst full season at Cup level with questions being asked (repeatedly) about his future plans -- his contract expires at the end of the year. But if he continues to run as well as he has in 2010, the contract issues might very well disappear as quickly as they emerged.

By the numbers: Harvick has just one career victory at Bristol -- back in the Spring race of 2005 -- driving in the GM Goodwrench colors made so famous by the late, great Dale Earnhardt.

Marcos Ambrose: Hands up ... who can guess who has the best average finish of any driver at Bristol? Yep, it's the amiable Australian himself, Ambrose. He finished 10th in his first Sprint Cup level run and 3rd in the night race and has shown more than capable of dealing with a track with no margin for error. Can he keep this streak going this weekend? Quite possibly. The trouble with Bristol, though, is that a good day can turn bad quick, but if Ambrose can stay (relatively) out of trouble look for the man from down under to get it done Sunday.

By the numbers: Two of Ambrose's 8 career top-10s (51 races) have come at Bristol.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Bristol is statistically Junior's best track, where he has an average finish of 11.6 in 20 previous attempts. With one win, seven top-5s and 11 top-10s and 743 laps led at the fabled half-mile bullring, Earnhardt has shown consistently that he knows how best to navigate the treacherous high banks. Activate him this week with that in mind, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

By the numbers: Junior has just one DNF at Bristol -- coming in his Bristol debut back in 2000 -- when he finished one place ahead of his father.

Who'll win? Kyle Busch. I'm backing Busch Junior to take the checkers this weekend and kick-start his 2010 season in his customary mannger.

Next Up: Martinsville

The circus travels from the high banks of Bristol to the flat as a pancake paper-clip track that is Martinsville for the 123rd Cup race at the famous old Virginia circuit.

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