Loading scores...
Clint Bowyer
Getty Images
Statistically Speaking

Battling the bull rings: short track success

by Dan Beaver
Updated On: January 4, 2020, 5:08 pm ET

The path to the NASCAR Cup series is paved with short tracks. Heck, sometimes there isn’t any pavement at all as some of the best drivers in the senior series cut their teeth on dirt tracks.

More than 90 percent of the time, drivers who make it to the top level paid their dues on bullrings.

Short tracks were once the dominant track type in NASCAR, but with the introduction of big money sponsors in the 1970s the trend changed to larger tracks. Fans have clamored for more short track racing, but in 2020 drivers will return to their roots only six times.

The short tracks of Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Richmond Raceway are each unique from one another, but they share a commonality in that drivers have to be able to navigate traffic without tearing up their equipment. One phrase often associated with this form of racing is “Cautious Aggression” because one cannot afford to get hung up behind a competitor when the leader is circling the track in 15 to 20 seconds.


Over the past three years, four drivers have earned an average finish of better-than 10th in the 18 races on this track type. Their names are familiar and they are among the best on virtually every type of course.

In allocation management games, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Joey Logano might be best saved for unrestricted, intermediate speedways – but in straight up Pick ‘Ems or weekly contests, they are hard to ignore on this course type.

Busch has been close to flawless on short track during the past three years. He has the best top-five record in the field with one in every three race attempts. But that is only half the story. Six victories encompassing all three tracks makes him hard to pass over especially when one considers that he has another four top-three results to compliment that.

Busch’s most recent win on the short tracks came last spring at Bristol.

Busch is not perfect, however. During the last three seasons he has failed to crack the top 10 at least once each year. Often it is because he got frustrated some time during the event and created an incident that cost him track position – like this fall at Martinsville when he finished 14th in the First Data 500.

Looking at the longer picture of the three-year average, Harvick matches Busch in terms of top-10 finishes (14 each) and is slightly better in regard to top-15s (16 compared to Busch’s 15). During the 2018 season, Harvick was the only active driver who swept the top 10; three of these finishes were top-fives. That should have made him one of the top choices in 2019, but in six races he cracked the top five only once and was outside the top 10 twice. One of these was for a broken clutch at Bristol.

In 2019, Denny Hamlin was the only driver to sweep the top 10 on short tracks. Better yet, he was in the top five in all six races as well as during the final event of the 2018 season. That gives him a recent average of 3.57 in the past seven races. He is widely considered a flat track master and both Martinsville and Richmond have minimal banking, but his sole victory in the past three years on a track less than a mile in length came at Bristol this fall.

Hamlin ran down and passed Matt DiBenedetto in the closing laps of the Night Race at Bristol. No one expected DiBenedetto to contend for the victory, but a solid run could easily have been predicted because he finished 12th there in the spring. The driver of the No. 95 added another top-15 at Richmond later in the fall and ended with a 16th. Last year Paul Menard earned a pair of short track top-10s with the Wood Brothers, so DiBenedetto should be watched closely in that same equipment.

Clint Bowyer came close to matching Hamlin’s feat of sweeping the top 10. He entered the First Data 500 with five results of eighth or better on the short tracks. It appeared Bowyer would continue his perfect streak when he qualified seventh. That was until he broke a track bar and was forced to retire on Lap 449 at Martinsville to add to a disappointing playoff.

Martinsville proved to be Bowyer’s undoing two years in a row because he entered the 2018 First Data 500 with a perfect streak of top-10s as well before finishing 21st. Still, Bowyer has to be one of the top values on this track type with 11 top-10s in his last 13 attempts.

Brad Keselowski has been inconsistent during his career on short tracks, but he should be watched closely in 2020 because of how he performed in the last two seasons. After scoring three top-fives versus two results outside the top 25 in 2017, he upped his total to four top-10s in 2018. One other result was a 16th. Last year he really found his rhythm with four top-fives, another top-10, and a worst result of 18th. The highlight of this performance was his victory in the STP 500 that came with a perfect Driver Rating.

Of course, one cannot conclude talking about short track racing without mentioning Martin Truex Jr. He has been getting closer and closer to Victory Lane with each passing season and came within a straightaway of getting his first win at Martinsville in 2018 before Logano knocked him out of the groove.

Truex made up for that near-miss early in 2019 by winning the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond. In fact, he swept Victory Lane on that .75-mile short track. His best was yet to come. Truex did not allow anyone to get close to him at Martinsville in the fall and won his third short track race of the season with a perfect Driver Rating. One should note, however, that his two efforts at Bristol ended in results outside the top 10.

Of course previous success is not always a guarantee. Alex Bowman started his Hendrick Motorsports career with a great record on this track type. He finished in the top 10 three times in 2018 and was 12th once. His worst results on courses less than a mile in length that season were still in the top 20 and that gave him an average of 11.17. Last year he failed to crack the top 10 a single time and finished outside the top 20 on three occasions to earn an average of 20.33.

 

3-Year Avg. Fin
Short tracks

Driver

Avg. Fin

Avg. Start

Starts

Kyle Busch

6.94

10.83

18

Denny Hamlin

7.89

8.56

18

Joey Logano

8.11

8.50

18

Kevin Harvick

9.50

11.06

18

Brad Keselowski

10.44

9.67

18

Clint Bowyer

10.67

10.94

18

Martin Truex Jr.

11.22

8.50

18

Ryan Newman

12.22

18.44

18

Jimmie Johnson

12.44

19.39

18

Chase Elliott

12.50

9.06

18

Kurt Busch

12.67

11.22

18

Kyle Larson

13.89

7.39

18

Daniel Suarez

14.78

18.17

18

Alex Bowman

15.75

14.58

12

Ryan Blaney

16.72

8.83

18

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

17.94

15.11

18

Austin Dillon

18.28

21.39

18

William Byron

19.17

15.08

12

Erik Jones

19.28

13.00

18

Aric Almirola

19.78

13.89

18

Paul Menard

19.78

19.78

18

Ryan Preece

21.33

21.00

6

Ty Dillon

22.44

26.67

18

David Ragan

22.61

25.28

18

Bubba Wallace

23.08

25.33

12

Daniel Hemric

23.14

21.43

7

Chris Buescher

23.28

21.83

18

Matt DiBenedetto

23.72

24.22

18

Matt Tifft

26.40

29.80

5

Michael McDowell

27.11

21.61

18

Corey LaJoie

28.60

31.93

15

Landon Cassill

29.44

31.56

18

JJ Yeley

30.43

35.14

7

Ross Chastain

30.67

31.33

12

Bayley Currey

31.50

30.00

2

Quin Houff

32.75

33.50

4

Jeb Burton

33.00

34.00

3

Kyle Weatherman

33.00

38.00

2

Reed Sorenson

33.58

34.67

12

Gray Gaulding

33.67

33.33

12

BJ McLeod

33.80

36.50

5

Joey Gase

34.25

35.50

4

Timmy Hill

35.44

37.38

9

 

See Also
Road Courses
Pocono and Indy

Dan Beaver

Dan Beaver has been covering fantasy NASCAR for more than 20 years with a little help from his >650,000 record database. He can be found on Twitter @FantasyRace.