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Food City 500 Preview: World's Fastest Half-Mile

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

With the West Coast swing complete, we head back East this week and return to the roots of NASCAR, short track racing. We take a trip to the "World's Fastest Half Mile" at Bristol Motor Speedway for this weekend's Food City 500. Bristol's half-mile oval with 36 degree corner banking makes it one of the most unique tracks on the circuit. This bull ring will not only test driver's skill but their patience as well. Trading paint and short tempers are the norm at BMS. When you put 43 hot-blooded competitors in this half-mile mixing bowl, contact and hard racing are a foregone conclusion. So avoiding a poor qualifying run and bad starting spot on the grid is very important. Much like the super speedways, you don't want to be in the eye of the storm when things go wrong. The teams that can pull off the right handling setup and qualify up front will likely stay out of the fray in this 500-lap event. You don't want to battle the handicap of starting beyond mid-pack and having to navigate the field as the leader is bearing down on the rear of the field. The corners of the speedway's turns were grinded prior to last season's August race and we saw a definite return to the beating and banging that this track is known for. With the new Gen-6 car in play this Sunday, there are some unknowns but it's probably safe to say we'll see some contact and hot tempers at the completion of 500 laps at BMS.

Since this is the first of the season's short track races, we'll have to ride some historical data as well as the current hot streaks to get a feel for this weekend's top drivers. The recent Phoenix race was a quasi-short track event, but nothing at all like the action we'll see this Sunday afternoon. Recent statistics at Bristol Motor Speedway will be an invaluable tool in evaluating our driver lineup. That information combined with who has the hot hand right now will be our primary indicators. The loop stats in the table below span the last eight years or 16 races at the Tennessee short track. This will be a dependable set of data to judge the best of the short track drivers in the series.

AVGQUALITYFASTESTLAPSLAPS INDRIVER
DRIVERFINISHPASSESLAPSLEDTOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch10.33795561,3755,310102.3
Jeff Gordon12.04273383176,584100.7
Matt Kenseth11.64513808866,41299.8
Brad Keselowski13.71621353471,67697.4
Greg Biffle12.13652923805,84896.2
Jimmie Johnson14.73364557615,68193.8
Kurt Busch15.33942643505,17292.0
Denny Hamlin14.83073373523,83589.8
Kevin Harvick14.02902371984,74589.7
Carl Edwards13.32942903455,20888.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.9363177514,78787.9
Tony Stewart17.13003037724,29187.7
Ryan Newman17.0359146575,22786.9
Jeff Burton16.53612482674,40486.2
Mark Martin19.71851912433,00886.0
Kasey Kahne17.83112853473,81783.6
Marcos Ambrose16.52238312,26682.0
Martin Truex Jr.18.74041861123,59181.8
Clint Bowyer17.0289192823,57781.5
Juan Pablo Montoya17.824593293,05179.0


No single manufacturer or race team completely dominates Bristol Motor Speedway. In fact, we've seen three different manufacturers in victory lane in the last six BMS races. However, we've seen Toyota nose into the lead with recent dominance of three victories in the last five. When the series last visited Bristol in August of last year it was Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin outsmarting the field and holding off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson to take his first victory at the half-mile oval. This makes three wins in the last five starts at Bristol Motor Speedway for the JGR camp. Kyle Busch claimed the other two Gibb's victories in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The other camp to give Toyota the most challenge at Bristol Motor Speedway is Penske Racing's Fords. Our reigning champion, Brad Keselowski, won back-to-back races at the high banks between the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012. Considering that these three drivers alone have a combined eight victories at this track, they'll be the center of our attention this weekend. The other driver that will draw a lot of scrutiny on Sunday will likely be Jimmie Johnson. He won this event in 2010 for his first career Bristol win, and he led a significant chunk of last year's Bristol fall event before finishing second. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has always been a better performer in the spring event at this bullring. A driver who could reestablish himself in Bristol lore this weekend is Carl Edwards. He is a two-time Bristol winner with his last victory at the Tennessee short track coming in 2008. With Edwards climbing back to his perch of excellence so far in 2013, it would not be surprising at all to see the No. 99 Ford at the lead of the pack at BMS this Sunday. We'll layout the streaking drivers and the short track experts and give you the drivers to dominate your fantasy league at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch
As winner of four of the last eight Bristol races, the Joe Gibbs Racing star enters this week's event as the heavy odds favorite. Busch won both events at BMS in 2009, and he split the four 2010 and 2011 events even. With close to 1,400 career laps led and five victories at this short track, Busch is the man to beat. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota sports the most dominant electronic scoring stats of any driver in the field at this half-mile oval. Busch had a strong Top 5 run at Las Vegas last week, so the time could be right to see him victory lane for the first time this season.

Brad Keselowski
Keselowski has been one of the prime challengers to Kyle Busch's Bristol dominance in the last couple seasons. The Penske Racing star has two victories in the last three races at BMS, and he's led a lot of laps in a short span of time at the Tennessee short track. The driver of the No. 2 Ford led 232 laps in this event one year ago and won from fifth starting spot on the grid. Keselowski has had strong race cars to this point in the season, so this visit to Bristol Motor Speedway is very well timed. Short tracks are among his best ovals in the series.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's one career victory at this short track shouldn't be discounted. The loop stats tell what we believe is the untold story of the Hendrick Motorsports star's success at the Tennessee bull ring. Johnson has spent the last four seasons building much of that Bristol resume. He won this event in 2010 and collected Top-5 finishes in three of the last four BMS events. Johnson's 789 career laps led at the high banks of Bristol have come mostly in his last eight starts at the track. Whatever prevented the five-time champion from succeeding at Bristol earlier in his career is clearly no longer a factor.

Carl Edwards
The star driver of the No. 99 Ford is a two-time Bristol winner. In fact, he is the last Ford driver to roll into victory lane at this historic short track. Edwards has his own impressive resume at the Tennessee short track. In addition to his two wins, he has two career pole positions and four Top-5 finishes at the upper East Tennessee oval. With close to 350 career laps led at BMS, we're used to seeing Edwards race up front here among the leaders. The Roush Fenway Racing star has already visited victory lane once this season, so win number two could be as soon as this Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Denny Hamlin
Speaking of drivers that are good at short tracks, we can't exclude Hamlin from that list. The 2013 season has gotten off to a decent start for the No. 11 Toyota team. The Joe Gibbs Racing star picked up his first Bristol win in last August's Irwin Tools Night Race, and that was his seventh career Top 10 at the track. With seven victories and 28 Top-10 finishes in 43 Sprint Cup Series short track starts; you can see the reason for our optimism in Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway. His 50 percent Top 10 rate at BMS is certainly above average among active drivers.

Greg Biffle
With a driver rating of 96.2 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Biffle is among the elite performers at this Tennessee short track. The veteran driver has been one of the more successful drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in recent years at this half-mile oval. Biffle has never won at Bristol's half-mile oval, but it's a regular occurrence to see him racing with the leaders at this short track. He's cracked the Top 10 in four of his last seven trips to the Tennessee bullring. Biffle led a combined 82 laps in last season's two Bristol events and his career 55 percent Top 10 rate at the track is worthy of recognition.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick is a one-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway and he owns over 400 laps led at the World's Fastest Half-Mile. The Richard Childress Racing veteran boasts 12 Top-10 finishes in 24 career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a respectable 50 percent Top 10 rate. Harvick is another of the drivers who tends to fare better in the spring Bristol race than the late-summer night race at this famous short track, so we'd consider that another endorsement for the No. 29 Chevrolet team. He enters this weekend coming off the Top 10 run at Las Vegas, so Harvick is clearly on a roll coming to upper East Tennessee this Sunday.

Matt Kenseth
The Joe Gibbs Racing star's impressive loop stats at Bristol Motor Speedway have netted him some impressive finishing stats over the years at the half-mile oval. Kenseth is a two-time winner at Bristol and he sports 17 career Top 10s at the famous short track. Kenseth led 45 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago. That helped to extend his Top 10 streak at Bristol Motor Speedway to six straight. Kenseth has been an incredibly consistent performer at this famous bullring. His move to Joe Gibbs Racing over the off-season only bolster's his value at the half-mile oval.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Bristol who can provide a solid finish

Jeff Gordon
Gordon used to be the king of short track racing in NASCAR several years ago, now he's no more than just a good fantasy play at tracks like Bristol. The five-time BMS winner hasn't rolled into victory lane at the half-mile oval since 2002, but he's managed to post strong fantasy racing numbers there since then. In last summer's Irwin Tools Night Race, Gordon came about as close to winning at Bristol as he has in a long time. The Hendrick Motorsports star raced up front all night and finished an impressive third. It was his second third-place finish in the last three Bristol races.

Brian Vickers
The part-time hired gun in the No. 55 Toyota will launch his assault on the high banks of BMS this Sunday. Vickers made his Michael Waltrip Racing debut in this event one year ago and surprised those in attendance by leading 125 laps and finishing fifth in the Food City 500. That performance was one of four Top 10s for the veteran driver on the series' short tracks in 2012. Vickers will return to the scene of the crime and try to win the Bristol race that he narrowly missed winning last season. At the very least you can practically ink his name in the Top-10 finishing order this Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Newman
In the last race at Bristol Motor Speedway we saw the veteran driver Newman crash and DNF in the Irwin Tools Night Race. That letdown snapped a four-race Top-15 streak at the Tennessee short track. The No. 39 team enters this event looking to shake some recent bad luck and get back to finishing high in the order, so Newman has to be smiling heading back to Bristol. Rocket Man sports six Top 10s in his last nine trips to the Tennessee short track, so his good performance here is no fluke. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran should have no problem getting his mo-jo back this weekend in the Food City 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt has proven to be a solid fantasy racing play thus far this season, and there's good reason to believe that the No. 88 team should be a dependable play in the Food City 500. Earnhardt has managed a 46 percent Top 10 rate at BMS over his career and that's a respectable level when compared to the rest of the drivers in the series. Seven of his last eight trips to Tennessee mountain country have netted Top-15 finishes. While the NASCAR icon is still struggling to find victory lane, it has not prevented him from turning in solid, workmanlike performances most weekends. We don't expect that will change in Sunday's 500-lap brawl at Bristol.

Jamie McMurray
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver may finally be emerging from his very long slump. After finishes of 22nd- and 13th-place the last two weeks at Phoenix and Las Vegas, the optimism in the No. 1 team is high coming to BMS. McMurray owns very good Bristol career stats in his racing resume. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has eight Top-10 finishes at the world famous short track, and four of those have come in his last six visits to East Tennessee. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited BMS, McMurray peddled his way to a solid 17th-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. We expect even more from the EGR driver this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose
Another driver to consider this weekend if you're looking for deep league help is Ambrose. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has had good Bristol stats in his brief Sprint Cup Series career. Ambrose owns two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in eight career trips to the World's Fastest Half-Mile. He has no DNF's and only one finish outside the Top 30 during this span, so consistency has been the key. Ambrose's last race at Bristol Motor Speedway yielded a stellar fifth-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. We expect the No. 9 Ford team to be dialed-in for this installment of Bristol short track action.

Paul Menard
The driver of the RCR No. 27 Chevrolet has been steadily reversing his career averages at the half-mile Bristol bowl. Menard started his Sprint Cup career 0-for-8 in Top-10 finishes at BMS. Since then he's raced to one Top 5 and three Top 10s in the last four races at the historic short track. Pardon a 30th-place anomaly in the fall of 2011 and that's a pretty spotless record. Menard will line up and try to keep this streak going in Sunday's Food City 500. In this event one year ago he wheeled his team's Chevrolet to a steady 10th-place finish.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Tony Stewart
The No. 14 team is off to a turbulent start this season with only one Top-10 finish and a lowly 17th-place ranking in the driver standings coming to Bristol. Stewart's Bristol stats aren't very good with only a 29 percent Top 10 rate at the small oval. Despite being a one-time winner (2001) at the Tennessee short track, it's his recent body of work that deserves the most scrutiny. Smoke's last eight trips to BMS have yielded only one Top-10 finish. The last time we saw him in action at the concrete mixing bowl, he was tangled in a crash with Matt Kenseth and ended up throwing his helmet on pit road at the No. 17 Ford. Could we be in for a sequel this weekend?

Bobby Labonte
Despite his vast experience and 40 career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, we have advise against deploying the JTG Daugherty Racing vet this weekend. Labonte just never has gotten the best of this oval, quite the contrary. BMS has been rough on the Texas native more times than we can remember. With only 10 Top 10s over those 40 career starts compared to seven DNF's the totals are less than inspiring. Labonte has struggled to a career average finish of 20.6 at this facility and we're convinced that there are other places he'd rather be this weekend. Three of his last five trips to Thunder Valley have produced finishes outside the Top 25.

Danica Patrick
After the glory of the Daytona 500 has worn off, the weight of reality has set in for Patrick. For two straight weeks the No. 10 Chevrolet has been so ill-handling that she can barely drive it. Finishes of 39th and 33rd at Phoenix and Las Vegas have taken their toll on the Stewart Haas Racing fem. The hope for a fresh start this weekend at Bristol may be more than ambitious. She will be making just her second career Sprint Cup start at the tricky short track. In last season's Irwin Tools Night Race, Patrick had a Top 20 run going when a run-in with Regan Smith left her with a crumpled Chevrolet and a bad trackside temper. Odds are we could see a repeat performance this Sunday.

Aric Almirola
The performance level of the No. 43 Ford team is pretty high right now, so calling a Bristol bust is a bit of a risk. However, there is enough evidence that Almirola struggles at the Tennessee short track to suggest the downgrade. In seven career starts at BMS he's posted only one Top-10 finish, and that came all the way back in the 2008 season. Almirola has struggled to three finishes outside the Top 35 in his last four trips to the half-mile concrete oval, and that includes a pair of DNF's. The numbers suggest we keep the Richard Petty Motorsports driver on the bench this weekend and redeploy him elsewhere.
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