Food City 500 Preview: World's Fastest Half Mile

Food City 500 Preview: World's Fastest Half Mile

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

After a good weekend of racing in Texas, we head back East this week and return to the roots of NASCAR, and 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 40 of the world's best and most competitive drivers 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 worst part of the battle in this 500-lap event. You don't want to deal with the handicap of starting beyond mid-pack and having to navigate the field as the leader is bearing down on your rear bumper. Since this will be our first time racing at the Tennessee short track since last summer there are some unknowns entering the weekend but it's probably safe to say we'll see some contact and hot tempers at the completion of 500 laps at Bristol Motor
After a good weekend of racing in Texas, we head back East this week and return to the roots of NASCAR, and 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 40 of the world's best and most competitive drivers 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 worst part of the battle in this 500-lap event. You don't want to deal with the handicap of starting beyond mid-pack and having to navigate the field as the leader is bearing down on your rear bumper. Since this will be our first time racing at the Tennessee short track since last summer there are some unknowns entering the weekend but it's probably safe to say we'll see some contact and hot tempers at the completion of 500 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Since this is the second of the season's short track races, we'll have to put a lot of stock into the historical data as well as the current hot streaks to get a feel for this weekend's top drivers. The recent Martinsville race was a 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 13 years or 26 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.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Erik Jones9.58083260 913116.3
Kyle Busch14.66648592,1168,119100.7
Kevin Harvick14.77826596479,05496.4
Chase Elliott11.022171161,57996.4
Kyle Larson18.03752373622,71295.7
Jimmie Johnson14.07406538868,97293.0
Denny Hamlin15.46765106077,48891.4
Kurt Busch16.28764455728,38191.1
Joey Logano16.65682885224,91787.5
Brad Keselowski17.95662624994,58086.4
Ryan Newman15.4823184678,66685.8
Kasey Kahne17.68015075127,00585.5
Martin Truex Jr.20.37683842306,58484.3
Jamie McMurray17.68222641717,24380.8
Clint Bowyer15.36122651375,98480.0
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 10.835910102,33279.4
Ryan Blaney22.22363701,41778.0
Paul Menard17.8524771044,20271.8
Daniel Suarez16.55715032971.1
Trevor Bayne16.02352301,20670.2

Chevrolet and Toyota have dominated the last two seasons at this half-mile oval with two victories for each manufacturer. When the series last visited Bristol at the end of last summer it was Joe Gibbs Racing star Kyle Busch outsmarting the field and holding off Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones to take his sixth-career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway for Toyota. He's now the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with those six wins. With Busch seemingly on the rise, we could be setup for more Toyota dominance this weekend. However, there are several strong suitors from the Ford side of the ledger. Clint Bowyer's name immediately comes to mind after his short track victory at Martinsville Speedway just a few weeks ago. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has struggled in recent Bristol starts, and he's never won at this historic short track. Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and the Penske Racing trio will also carry a lot of weight for Ford this weekend. So there are several drivers who could get that brand back to victory lane for the first time at Bristol since 2015. The Chevrolet drivers that will draw a lot of scrutiny this weekend will be Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. The Larson phenom struggled at Martinsville, so we'll have to see if he can rebound at this tough short track in Bristol. As for Elliott, he's still searching for career victory number one. Considering how strong he's been on short tracks during his career and how strong he's been at Bristol, the odds are decent that the No. 24 Chevrolet could be up front this Sunday afternoon and vying for the win. We'll layout the streaking drivers and the short track experts and give you the drivers to dominate your fantasy league at the Bristol mixing bowl.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch -
Coming to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, Busch is looking to continue the momentum he built with last week's Texas win. He's the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with six total victories. The last of those six wins came in last Summer's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race. That is only bolstered by the fact that Busch cracks the Top 5 at BMS at a strong 36-percent rate and he's tallied over to 2,100 laps led at Bristol for his career. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's recent runner-up finish at Martinsville is a good indicator of the potential this weekend. With the retirements of many Monster Energy Cup Series stars over the last couple seasons, Busch has become the driver to beat each time we visit Bristol.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway and he owns over 850 laps led at the World's Fastest Half-Mile. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran last won at the half-mile oval in the summer of 2016, so his success has been recent. He boasts 12 Top-5 finishes in 34-career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a strong 35-percent Top-5 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. 4 Ford team. Harvick's strong start to this season means he has a very good chance of collecting a third Bristol win this Sunday. He should be poised to be a big performer in the Food City 500.

Clint Bowyer -
With a driver rating of 80.0 at Bristol Motor Speedway, it would be easy to overlook Bowyer and the No. 14 Ford team this weekend. However, don't make that mistake. He was a top performer at this oval before his career got off track. Bowyer somehow slugged his way to a second-place finish in this event one year ago in his Stewart Haas Racing debut at the track. The veteran driver has tallied 11 Top-10 finishes in 24-career starts despite all his ups-and-downs. Even in the leanest of his recent seasons of racing, Bowyer has maintained a high level at Bristol. Now that he's reenergized and racing well at Stewart Haas Racing, he should swing for the fences in this Bristol outing. His recent win at the short track of Martinsville Speedway is a good precursor entering this event. Don't be surprised if Bowyer is racing for the win in Sunday's Food City 500.

Erik Jones -
The inclusion of Jones in the contenders list this week may be a bit surprising to some, but there's ample evidence to include him among the elite for this race. His big Top-5 finish at Texas last week is just the latest example of his advancement as a driver in NASCAR's top division. More specifically, his impressive outings at Bristol Motor Speedway is the other factor to consider. Jones made his first two-career starts at the track last season and grabbed 17th- and second-place finishes. The latter was an impressive pole win, a shocking 260 laps led and runner-up finish in last Summer's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race. He looked like the driver to beat for much of that race and the notes from that performance will be very helpful to the No. 20 team this week. Jones is a driver not to underestimate for this 500-lap battle.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is a two-time winner at the Bristol oval, but hasn't tasted victory here since 2012. The Penske Racing star served notice a few weeks ago that he's on the short track comeback trail with his Top-10 finish at Martinsville Speedway. He's had some tough luck at Bristol Motor Speedway over the last couple seasons, but let that deter other fantasy racing players from deployment this week. Keselowski has led nearly 500-career laps at the half-mile Tennessee track, so we're used to seeing him race up front here in the recent past. Keselowski has had strong race cars to this point in the season, so that makes him a weekly solid play no matter where NASCAR is racing.

Chase Elliott -
The impressive young driver will make just his fifth-career Monster Energy Series Cup start at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. But don't let that discourage you from deploying him in your fantasy lineups. Elliott has been strong and steady in all his Bristol starts, which includes two Top 10s and three Top 15s. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet finished fourth in his Bristol debut two years ago, and more recently he put on a strong performance in this event one year ago collecting a seventh-place finish. He cracked the Top 10 in his last short track outing at Martinsville a few weeks ago, so the potential here is obvious. Chevrolet teams have been at a speed disadvantage on the larger ovals this young season, but the short tracks are an equalizer in that regard. Elliott will show his potential in this 500-lap race.

Joey Logano -
The talented Penske Racing driver has become something of a Bristol specialist in recent seasons. Logano makes a very timely visit to a short track where he's been steadily improving to dominate the last few seasons. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has led over 500 laps since 2012 at the oval, and collected two wins, including 2015's Irwin Tools Night Race. Taking into account his recent success, we have to place him firmly in the solid plays list this week. He claimed a fifth-place finish in this event one year ago at BMS. Logano's sixth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago is a pretty good indicator of his potential this Sunday afternoon.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Short tracks really never have been Truex's cup of tea. However, he's shown tremendous improvement on them in recent seasons. Bristol Motor Speedway is no exception. He led 116 laps and finished eighth in this event one year ago for one of his best-career performances at the historic short track. While his career body of work is still poor, the trend line here is much, much better. Another example is his improvement at the Martinsville short track. Truex won the pole position there and finished fourth just a couple weeks ago. That performance is still fresh in our memory. Let other fantasy racing players shy away from Truex this week, as it will be the ones savvy enough to look at recent results and deploy him, and reap the rewards.

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

Denny Hamlin -
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is a one-time Bristol winner (2012) and he has three-career poles and 12 Top-10 finishes at the Tennessee short track. That works out to a steady 50-percent Top-10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway for Hamlin. While he's tended to be a better night race performer here than the day Spring race, he's still had his share of Bristol success in the early-season installment. Hamlin rides a three-race Bristol Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and that's a very good omen. The last time we saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action on a short track, he led 111 laps at Martinsville a few weeks ago, but come up on the short end of a fender-to-fender exchange with Kevin Harvick saddling him with a poor finish. He'll make up for that disappointment this weekend.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been pretty good to start the season, but the No. 42 team did show there is a chink in the armor with their outing at the Martinsville short track recently. That gives us pause before ranking them too high for the Food City 500. Larson should fare better at BMS as opposed to Martinsville. He has four-career Top-10 finishes here in eight tries. We expect the CGR team to give him another strong car this weekend, and it will be up to Larson to keep it up front and not fall back into traffic. From a fantasy racing perspective this driver and team present some risks this week, but are offset by their homerun potential. Larson led 272-combined laps in his two Bristol starts last season. He should still do well, but he won't be the driver to beat in this 500-lap contest.

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a wealth of experience racing on the Bristol short track. Busch has a series-leading 34-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. His five-career victories and 17 Top-10 finishes show years of excellence competing on this half-mile oval. While the last of those wins came way back in 2006, he's still maintained steady numbers at BMS. Two of Busch's last four trips to the Tennessee short track have yielded Top-5 finishes. The last was his fifth-place finish in last August's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race. The No. 41 Ford team have started this season well, and Busch nabbed an 11th-place finish at the Martinsville short track recently. That's an oval that's he's struggled with for much of his NASCAR career. Busch should be poised for a great performance this weekend.

Aric Almirola -
The No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team has gotten a real boost from new driver, Almirola. With two Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in the first seven events, the veteran driver comes to Bristol a surprising 12th in the driver standings. A good example of this upswing was Almirola's recent 14th-place finish at the short track in Martinsville, Virginia. Bristol Motor Speedway hasn't held a lot of success for the driver of the No. 10 Ford. In 17-career starts he's only earned two Top-10 finishes and a 24.6 average finish. That should put Almirola well off most people's fantasy racing radar this week. However, don't be fooled by the historical stats. This driver and team are in a position to crack the Top 15 in the Food City 500 and possibly challenge the Top 10.

Ryan Newman -
The veteran RCR driver has been strong and steady at Bristol Motor Speedway for years. In 32-career starts Newman has collected 17 Top-10 finishes and many more Top 15s. It's helped lead to his 53-percent career Top-10 rate at the World's Fastest Half-Mile and his very respectable 16.0 average finish. Newman used his No. 31 Chevrolet to nab 14th- and sixth-place finishes in his two Bristol starts last season. This week, he should wind up somewhere between that number. While he's started 2018 a bit slow, Newman's 11th-place finish at Phoenix a few weeks back is a good indicator of his potential at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran is simply too good to ignore on the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway. Stenhouse will be making his 11th-career start there this Sunday afternoon, and in his 10 prior starts he's really stacked up some good finishes. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has five Top-10 and nine Top-20 finishes. That works out to a very impressive 10.8 average finish, and is among the leaders in the series for average finish at Bristol. In this event one year ago, Stenhouse peddled his Ford Fusion to a respectable ninth-place finish. We should be in for more of the same this weekend in this installment of the Food City 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's two-career victories and 18 Top-10 finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway are hard to discount, but that's exactly what we're recommending this weekend. The No. 48 team looked very uncharacteristic at Texas last week, an oval Johnson's dominated for years, in finishing 35th after a mid-race crash. The start of the season has been a complete struggle for this driver and team, with only one Top 10 in the first seven events. Johnson has not been his usual self, and we don't expect to see the usual Bristol excellence for the No. 48 team this weekend. Continue to keep the seven-time champion benched for now.

Daniel Suarez -
With his 29th-place finish at Texas last week, Suarez is mired in the first serious slump of his brief Cup Series career. With only one Top-10 finish through the first seven events of 2018, the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster limps into Bristol this week a lowly 26th in the overall driver standings. It may be difficult for the No. 19 team to find the reset button for their season at the Tennessee short track. Suarez scuffled to 18th- and 15th-place finishes at BMS last season, and that was when he was racing well. This driver and team are simply not performing up to their potential right now, and the luck has not been on their side either. It's best to keep Suarez on the bench this week, and wait until he turns his season around before deployment.

Ryan Blaney -
We'd love to consider Blaney in the sleepers list this week, but we'd prefer to err to the side of caution. While the No. 12 Ford team is off to a torrid start to the season, this track has presented challenges to Blaney over his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career. In five-career starts he only has one Top-10 finish and two finishes outside the Top 30. Blaney has torn up the intermediate and larger ovals this season, and that's probably where he needs to be deployed to maximize his starts in weekly lineup leagues. There's the outside chance he could prove us wrong at Bristol, but there are easily safer fantasy racing plays to deploy this week. Hold onto Blaney this week and use him on a larger oval, later in the schedule.

Kasey Kahne -
While Kahne has extensive experience and good finishing stats over the years at Bristol Motor Speedway, he's a clear case of a driver to avoid this week. Despite his one-career win and 10 Top-10 finishes, we believe Kahne and his new race team will have their struggles in the Food City 500. The veteran driver has not cracked the Top 20 at Bristol since 2016, and he's not cracked the Top 10 there since 2014. In fact, three of his last seven Bristol starts have been finishes outside the Top 20. Considering that those numbers came while Kahne was racing in the much better equipped No. 5 Hendrick Chevy, you can understand our hesitation this weekend. He comes to Bristol with no Top-10 finishes in the first seven races, and ranked a lowly 27th in the driver standings in his new No. 95 Chevrolet team.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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