The eighth race of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule takes us to the Eastern Tennessee Mountains for some good old fashioned short track racing at Bristol Motor Speedway where Sunday’s Food City 500 should have several legitimate candidates to win.
The track itself isn’t all about the driver like the other short track at Martinsville, but the .533-mile concrete oval with variable banking of 24-to-30 degrees certainly gives more drivers a chance to excel than any 1.5-mile oval. Although, that Texas mess last week had quite a few new names popping up near the front through attrition as wrecks took out some elite drivers.
Kyle Busch would hang on to win at Texas for his first win of the season and it was about time. Here’s what we’ve got from him in his last five starts: one victory, three runner-ups, and one third-place. I still think Kevin Harvick will continue to be the man to beat on the 1.5s, but Bristol is Kyle Busch country which is why he’s the favorite this week.
Need some evidence why? How about because he’s Bristol’s active leader with six wins and 2,115 laps led. He won there the last time the series visited in the fall, and maybe most important is that Busch is a streaky racer. His wins come in bunches. Busch also has nine Bristol wins in the Xfinity Series and six more in the Truck Series. The Las Vegan has the track figured out better than anyone, and that’s under both layouts; the oldie with a single groove on the bottom and the current two equal grooves high and low.
Harvick has two career Bristol wins, one on each of the layouts, but lately, he’s been having his best run on the track with a 4.2 average finish over his past five starts, which includes his fall 2016 win. He leads all active drivers with 12 top-five finishes during his 34 career starts. He’s also got five Xfinity Series wins, but his most famous X moment came at Bristol in 2002 when Greg Biffle wrecked him. Harvick then jumped on the top of Biffle’s car and came flying down WWE style and started wringing Biffle’s neck.
It’s the type of heated off track post-race action Bristol was famous for. We need more of that in today’s climate of empty seats at every stop. Harvick also has a 2011 Truck Series win.
It’s quite possible we’ll see a Busch-Harvick 1-2 quinella for the fourth time this season, but there are a few drivers who should be given serious consideration beginning with Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones, who was leading late last week at Texas. He won the Bristol spring Xfinity race the past two seasons and then last fall in his second career Cup start he took No. 77 to a runner-up finish. He started from the pole and led a race-high 260 laps. The No. 20 he drives this season is better than the No. 77. He really knows this track well.
Kurt Busch is a five-time winner, but the last W came in 2006 under the old layout. He finished fifth last fall and was third in the spring of 2016. His car is almost as good as Stewart Haas Racing teammate Harvick and there are worse things to blow $5 on than a wager on him at 30-to-1 odds or higher.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doesn’t get much mention outside of plate races, but his team has things figured out at Bristol where he has a 10.8 average finish, which is best among active drivers with more than three starts. He’s been runner-up twice. He’ll have giant odds to lure you in for a wager.
Jimmie Johnson won this race last season. It was only the second Bristol win of his career spanning 32 starts. This is a place he could steal a victory despite a car not as good as the new breed of elites in the series. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott has an 11th-place average. Elliott’s best effort was a fourth his rookie season.
Denny Hamlin was 10th at Bristol last spring and third in the fall. His only win there came in 2012. All the JGR cars should be fast. Kyle Larson in his Chip Ganassi Camaro also had two top-10s last season there, including leading a race-high 212 laps in the spring. Martinsville winner Clint Bowyer, from SHR, has seven top-5’s at Bristol, including runner-up last spring.