This isn't going to end well, is it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
If rubbin' is racin', well, we haven't seen a heck of a lot of racin' yet this season.
But hey, this is Bristol: 'racin' the way it oughta be,' as the tagline goes.
Sure, hope so.
And looks who's center stage this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway: Denny Hamlin, who won a sizzler here last August, on that 'new' track layout.
Haven't heard anything lately about that apology NASCAR executives owe Hamlin. Maybe here Friday, before 3:40 p.m. EDT pole quals for Sunday's Food City 500 (1 p.m.)...
Last time at this high-banked half-mile, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart were swapping the lead and crashing....with Smoke so steamed that he threw his helmet at Kenseth's car.
Now that's racing.
Wonder how much Smoke's helmet went for on e-Bay?
Kenseth's performance down the stretch Sunday at Las Vegas was brilliant, one of the best performances of his career -- holding off the faster Kasey Kahne for his 25th tour win.
Bristol Motor Speedway, one of the wonders of the sporting world (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That victory was Toyota's 50th since joining the Sprint Cup tour in 2007.
So, over that six-year span, what's the scorecard look like?
Toyota, 50 wins.
Ford, 39 wins.
Dodge, 23 wins.
Chevrolet, 107 wins.
So Chevy has almost as many Cup tour victories as all three rivals combined?
If the playing field is level, that six-year span says something about who's doing their homework and who isn't.
Bristol brings out the fire in a driver's eyes, doesn't it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Okay, back 'er down a little, and give Toyota a first-year break (the brand went 0-for-36 in 2007, while Chevrolet won 26 events).
Since Toyota's first tour victory, Atlanta, spring 2008, what's the scorecard?
Looks like somebody may need a smaller restrictor plate.....
Tony Stewart (14) was dueling Matt Kenseth side by side last August, and, uh, well, er..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Three races into this 36-race season may not be the best point to start writing teams off....but a few things are evident:
Uh, a biggie: guess who's atop the point standings?
Yep, Jimmie 'Five-time' Johnson.
And Johnson has about 60 points on three men expected to be title contender, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. (One point is generally the difference in one finishing position.)
Another biggie: Kurt Busch is not off to a rousing start. Daytona was rough, with how many crashes? Phoenix and Las Vegas....
So let's crunch a few more numbers, to find the average finishing positions for drivers on the top-six owner-teams. (Adding total points so far for each team driver, dividing by the numbers of driver-teams.) That gives us an indication of how powerful overall each owner's teams really are.
Rick Hendrick, no surprise, has the best average finishing positions so far: 11th.
That's just a nose ahead of Roger Penske's 11th average too.
Jack Roush's three teams are averaging 13th place finishes.
Joe Gibbs' men are averaging 15th place finishes.
Michael Waltrip's men are averaging 17th place finishes.
The bottom two at the moment -- Tony Stewart's three teams, averaging just 25th place finishes, and Richard Childress' four teams (including Kurt Busch), averaging 27ths.
Brad Keselowski knows how to lock 'n load (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It's been a year and a half since Busch's last tour win, at Dover.
As tough as Busch has been here over the years, this could be an early-season make-or-break race.
"Bristol has really changed over the years," Busch says. "I loved the old Bristol; but this is the new Bristol. You have to adapt to whatever the track is asking for.
"Another thing about Bristol is you have to protect your car and wait for the right opportunity to pass. You learn over the years when to make passes and when you can’t. A misstep at Bristol could have a costly outcome. We've seen it many times."
The game plan: "To contend for the win you want to be in position by lap 350."
The season so far: "The first three races haven't gone the way we anticipated," he concedes. "We had strong cars the first two races, but not good finishes. In Las Vegas we were off from the get-go, but managed to salvage a top-20."
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis were the first ones last August to figure out the new layout, after track owner Bruton Smith -- miffed at the spring race action and crowd -- had the top groove ground down to a much lower angle. Smith figured that grind job would force drivers to run the two lower lanes. But Francis and Kahne found the rougher concrete up high actually made for faster racing.
How the layout will work this time is anyone's guess.
Denny Hamlin, who won Bristol last August, likes to play it like Mr. Cool, but at the moment NASCAR execs have him a little fired up (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
St. Patrick's Day is Sunday....wonder if that might be a good omen for any of these drivers? Danica Patrick, perhaps?
Probably not Danica. She hasn't fared well since Daytona, crashing at Phoenix and finishing miles and miles behind at Las Vegas. And she crashed here last spring, in her only Cup start. However she did run a respectable ninth in last summer's Nationwide race.
If the numbers tell the story, then this 500 should be Kyle Busch's. He and brother Kurt and Jeff Gordon have the most wins among active drivers, five each.
Somehow though, there is the sense that the man to keep an eye on here is Denny Hamlin. Nothing like having a point to prove to make a man get up on the wheel.....
Reviewing Las Vegas, Round Three for these 2013s:
-- Some teams clearly had the package right, like Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
-- Some teams were out to lunch, like Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle.
So drivers and crews have seen three decidedly different tracks so far, with the new stocker. And Bristol will be a fourth.
Since NASCAR's $25,000 fine on Hamlin for his brief analysis of the 2013s, drivers and teams have nothing but praise, publicly, for the cars, obviously fearing drawing fines themselves.
The debate over the sensibility -- or perhaps non-sensibility -- of NASCAR fining a driver for merely offering an opinion has become a major story this season.
It's not really clear what Daytona's sports bosses really had in mind with the fine, but judging from fans' comments in social media like Twitter and Facebook, fans clearly don't like being treated like idiots. A straight-up apology by NASCAR might be the only way to clear the smoke.
However NASCAR executives have said very little since imposing the fine, and until they straighten out the whole situation it is clear that this sport's credibility and the drivers' credibility will remain in serious jeopardy.
Got a real good feeling this is going to be a really good season for Kasey Kahne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)