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Bass Pro Shops Preview
After a week off from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, we've got the perfect stage set for a reboot where some intensity is sure to unfold in Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The half-mile bullring, coupled with the lights on and wild fans -- a few of them liquored-up -- makes the scene the perfect place to start the final 14 races of the season. No more off weeks for the rest of the season. It's go-time for every driver involved that has hopes for winning a championship.

We can say that 20 drivers have sights set on winning the title and in reality maybe only 10 can actually win. Only four races remain before the Chase with five positions available -- four if Chris Beuscher finishes within the top-30 after Richmond (he's 3-points behind 30th-place David Ragan).

The type of racing at Bristol has changed -- some say for the worse -- since they altered the track layout in 2007, but drivers still get pumped for the atmosphere, especially for the night race.

“Yes. Bristol is one of those tracks I get a little extra pumped up for," said five-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch. "For me, I think that feeling gets a little stronger when you’re talking about the night race at Bristol. There’s just something special about that race. I knew it before I ever made it to the big-league level of the Sprint Cup Series but, the first time I was able to experience the night race as a competitor, it’s almost indescribable. It’s a place that gives you a big adrenaline rush. You can literally feel the energy around the track from the competitors and the fans who are just excited for 500 laps of racing at Bristol. There’s really nothing quite like it.”

The first thing we want to do in handicapping the race is check out the Bristol results from April where Carl Edwards led 276 of the 500 laps starting from the pole. It was a dominating performance and kind of a prelude of what was about to happen the rest of the year at all tracks. Chevrolet had won three of the first five races, but then only twice in the next 17. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have won 11 of the 22 races this season. Surprisingly, Hendrick Motorsports hasn't won a race since Jimmie Johnson won his second and final race of the season at Fontana in March.

So from that perspective, you have to start with JGR cars again. They're all in the Chase, they all have raced well at Bristol over their career and they're all looking to tack on more wins. Kyle Busch is a five-time winner at Bristol, Matt Kenseth has won four times, including twice in the last six. Edwards also has four wins, twice in the last five. Denny Hamlin captured his only Bristol win in 2012 and was third last August.

"We’ve had a number of wins there," said Edwards. "Dave (Rogers) and I and our team’s first win of the season was there. We’re going back with what we think is a better plan, a better car, and hopefully we can go qualify well again and put the STANLEY Toyota in Victory Lane. Bristol is 500 laps of insanity with the groove being up by the fence. You’ve really got to plan your passes. You’ve got to work traffic. Hopefully we can start up front, stay up front and play the game the right way. We’ve been having a lot of fun. This race is one of the ones we look forward to as an opportunity to have a good time and win another trophy before the Chase starts.”

A better plan and a better care for Edwards? Wow, that could be bad news for the rest of the field. The last driver to sweep a season at Bristol was Kyle Busch in 2009.

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It's hard to suggest another team will win this race, but if you had to take two guesses to derail Toyota, Team Penske's Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would be the best candidates. Logano has won the past two August night races at Bristol and Keselowski won two straight there in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

After those two Fords, and the five JGR Toyotas, the pickings are slim. Kevin Harvick will be considered one of the favorites just because he's so consistent with a series-leading 17 top-10 finishes, but he still has only one win on the year -- in the fourth race of season at Phoenix -- and his only Bristol win came in 2005 with the older layout when there was only one groove. The old layout provided much better racing because every driver was fighting for that inside line. Fans obviously agree as the Bristol Night Race is no longer the hardest ticket to get in the series.

Kurt Busch is a five-time winner at Bristol, but hasn't won there since 2006. He was third in the April race leading 41 laps. Of all the drivers outside of the Penske and Gibbs cars, he probably offers the best value on the board. But you're not going to get better than 12/1 odds and he's only won once this year. It's tough beating all those Gibbs cars.

Beyond looking at who has done what at Bristol over the years, we can also reference Dover's 1-mile high banked concrete layout. Bristol is only a half-mile, but it's also concrete and high-banked making the set-up requirements similar for crew chiefs. Kenseth won that race in May just prior to the Charlotte All-Star race. Kyle Larson was second -- leading 85 laps, Chase Elliott third, Kasey Kahne fourth and Kurt Busch fifth. Keselowski was sixth and Harvick led a race-high 117 laps before finishing a lap down in 15th.

There's enough reason to suggest Kurt Busch again who is using that same chassis this week from Bristol and Dover, but what about Elliott who also finished fourth at Bristol? He's got the Hendrick drought going against him and he's also finished 13th or worse in his last seven starts after having 11 top-10s in the first 15 races. His current form isn't so hot, which makes him a pass. Larson, who is trying to qualify for the Chase, might be a decent look at 25-to-1 odds to win this week.

So we've broken down a few things and everything still points to the Gibbs cars.

Good luck and enjoy the race!

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
2) #19 Carl Edwards (8/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (12/1)

  
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