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 competitive 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 natural result.  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

After a good weekend of competitive 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 natural result.  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 true short track races, we'll have to put a lot of emphasis on 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 14 years or 28 races at Bristol Motor Speedway.  This will be a dependable set of data to judge the best of the short track drivers in the series. 

Driver

  Avg 

Finish

Quality

 Passes

#Fastest

   Laps

Laps

 Led

Laps in

Top 15

Driver

Rating

Erik Jones  12.5    193    112 260 1,595 102.4
Kyle Busch  14.3    766    9642,233 8,819 101.3
Kyle Larson   15    472    370 579 3,712 100.7
Kevin Harvick  14.2    876    762 655 9,734  96.9
Jimmie Johnson  13.4    885    691 886 9,879  93.7
Chase Elliott  12.7    280    119 128 2,082  92.2
Kurt Busch  15.8    935    483 596 8,961  91.1
Denny Hamlin  15.3    789    523 611 8,152  90.9
Joey Logano  15.6    683    311618 5,870  89.3
Brad Keselowski  18.1    644    293566 5,263  86.0
Ryan Newman  15.1    890    191 68 9,135  85.0
Ryan Blaney  21.9    300     90 221 2,024  84.7
Martin Truex Jr.  21.1          805    397 230 6,820  81.9
Clint Bowyer  14.6    728    307 257 6,854  81.7
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  11.3    430    162   0 2,790  81.0
Daniel Suarez  15.5    144     34   5  842  74.2
Paul Menard  18.4    593     80 104 4,712  71.1
Austin Dillon  17.2    302     24   0 2,061  69.6
Aric Almirola  23.9    362     9123,046  65.7
Alex Bowman  21.5    129     380  748  64.6

Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota drivers have each won at the half-mile oval in the past two seasons.  Toyota leads the way with two Kyle Busch victories.  Jimmie Johnson has the lone Chevy victory in this event two seasons ago, and Ford was last in victory lane at Bristol when Kurt Busch won last August's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  When the series last visited Bristol at the end of last summer it was the older Busch brother outsmarting the field and holding off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to take his sixth-career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway for Ford.  He's now second in wins among active drivers at Bristol Motor Speedway with those six victories.  With Busch moving into a Chevrolet this season, we'll see if he can carry that success forward to Chip Ganassi Racing.  

However, there are several strong suitors from the Toyota side of the ledger.  The younger Busch brother's name immediately comes to mind with his seven-career Bristol victories, which is tops among all active drivers.  The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has been strong in recent outings at the track with two victories in his last three starts, including this event one year ago.  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and the Penske Racing trio will also carry a lot of weight for manufacturer Ford this weekend.  So there are several drivers from that brand that could follow up on Busch's win here last summer.  The Chevrolet drivers that will draw a lot of scrutiny this weekend will be Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott.  Larson 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 his first-career Bristol win.  Considering he led 112 laps and finished third here last August, he has to be a favorite from the bowtie brand.  Johnson is fresh off a strong Texas performance, and the No. 48 team will hope to carry that momentum into Thunder Valley this weekend.  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 - Coming to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, Busch is looking to continue the momentum he's built to start the season.  He's the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with seven total victories.  The last of those seven wins came in last Spring's Food City 500.  That is only bolstered by the fact that Busch cracks the Top 5 at BMS at a strong 37-percent rate and he's tallied over to 2,200 laps led at Bristol for his career.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star's recent third-place finish at Martinsville is a good indicator of the potential this weekend.  Busch has shown over the last two seasons that he's currently the driver to beat each time we visit the Bristol short track.

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 big victory at Martinsville Speedway.  He's had some tough luck at Bristol Motor Speedway over the last couple seasons, but don't let that deter fantasy racing deployment this week.  Keselowski has led over 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 threat to win no matter where NASCAR is racing.   

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 46-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 five-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, including the victory at Texas last Sunday.  The last time we saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action on a short track, he finished fifth at Martinsville a couple weeks ago, and he also cracked the Top 5 on the smaller Phoenix oval in race number four of the season.  Hamlin is on fire right now, and we wouldn't rule out the possibility of a second-career win at the World's Fastest Half Mile.

Kurt Busch  - The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has a wealth of experience racing on the Bristol short track.  Busch has a series-leading 36-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway.  His six-career victories and 18 Top-10 finishes show years of excellence competing on this half-mile oval.   He was our last Bristol winner, taking the checkers first in last August's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  Two of Busch's last three trips to the Tennessee short track have yielded Top-5 finishes.  The No. 1 Chevrolet team have started this season well, and Busch has nabbed five Top-10 finishes through the first seven events.  This bull ring is a track for veteran driver, and Busch is chief among them in terms of experience.  Busch should be poised for a great performance this weekend.

Solid Plays – Those who are an almost lock for a Top 10, and an outside shot at the win

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 36-career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a strong 33-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 rides a seven-race Bristol Top-10 streak into this weekend's action.  He should be poised to be a big performer in the Food City 500.

Chase Elliott - The impressive young driver will make just his seventh-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 nearly all his Bristol starts, which includes two Top 5's and three Top 10's.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet led 112 laps and finished third in his most recent Bristol outing last summer.  That effort was his career-best performance at the famous short track.  He registered a brilliant runner-up finish in his last short track outing at Martinsville a couple 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 have been an equalizer in that regard.  Elliott will show his potential in this 500-lap race.

Kyle Larson - The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been inconsistent to start the season, but the No. 42 team has shown some good speed at times through the first seven races of the season.  That gives us good reason to expect more for the Food City 500.  Larson should fare better at BMS as opposed to Martinsville.  It's clear that he absolutely loves this Bristol oval.  Larson has been dialed-in like a laser beam in his last four outings at the Tennessee short track.  That string includes two pole positions, nearly 500 laps led, two runner-up finishes and a string of four-straight Top-10 finishes.  The side-by-side short track action driven by the progressive banking at BMS has been a strength of this driver and team.  It's fair game to expect much more of Larson this Sunday afternoon.    

Jimmie Johnson  - Johnson's two-career victories and 20 Top-10 finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway are hard to discount, and so we won't this weekend.  The No. 48 team looked very good at Texas last week, an oval Johnson has dominated for years, in winning the pole and finishing fifth.  The start of the season has been an inconsistent mish-mash for Johnson, but we believe he's turning a corner right now with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.  To further bolster his status this weekend, Johnson has been strong the last couple seasons at Bristol Motor Speedway, despite an abundance of struggles on other tracks.  In addition to a win in this event in 2017, the Hendrick Motorsports star has four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts at BMS.  The only finish outside the Top 10 was a respectable 11th-place finish in the summer of 2017.

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

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 600 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 squarely atop the sleepers list this week.  He claimed a ninth-place finish in this event one year ago at BMS, and he returned last summer to claim a strong fourth-place finish in the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  Logano's recent struggles at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago give us a bit of pause, and the primary reason for sleeper status this week.

Clint Bowyer - With a driver rating of 81.7 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's been a consistent performer for years at the Bristol bull ring.  Bowyer slugged his way to an eighth-place finish in this event one year ago in his Stewart Haas Racing Ford.  The veteran driver has tallied 13 Top-10 finishes in 26-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 seventh-place at the short track of Martinsville Speedway is a good indicator entering this event.  Don't be surprised if Bowyer is racing among the leaders in Sunday's Food City 500.

Erik Jones - The inclusion of Jones in the sleepers list this week is a direct result of his performance this past week at Texas.  His 30 laps led and Top-5 finish at Texas ended a four-race Top-10 drought for the No. 20 Toyota team.  More specifically, his impressive outings at Bristol Motor Speedway is the other factor to consider.  In just four-career starts at the Tennessee short track Jones has nabbed one pole position, led 260 laps and claimed a pair of Top-5 finishes.  The last outing for this driver and team yielded one of those Top 5's in last August's night race.  It's pretty clear that Jones likes racing on this half-mile oval, and it shows in the results.    

Aric Almirola  - The No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team has gotten off to a great start this season.  With six Top-10 finishes in the first seven events, the veteran driver comes to Bristol a surprising fifth in the driver standings.  A good example of this upswing was Almirola's recent ninth-place finish at the short track in Martinsville, Virginia.  That is a short track where he's struggled for many years.  Bristol Motor Speedway hasn't held a lot of success for the driver of the No. 10 Ford.  In 19-career starts he's only earned three Top-10 finishes and a 23.9 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.  One of those Top 10's came in this event one year ago when he finished a brilliant sixth in last season's Food City 500.

Ryan Newman -  This past week's 11th-place finish at Texas was a hopeful sign in what has been an inconsistent start to this season.  The veteran Roush Fenway Racing driver has been strong and steady at Bristol Motor Speedway for years.  In 34-career starts Newman has collected 18 Top-10 finishes and many more Top 15's.  It's helped lead to his 53-percent career Top-10 rate at the World's Fastest Half-Mile and his very respectable 15.7 average finish.  Newman has finishes of 14th-, sixth-, 10th- and 12th-place in his last four Bristol outings.  This week, he should wind up somewhere around that span of numbers.  While he's started 2019 a bit slow, Newman's 12th-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 13th-career start there this Sunday afternoon, and in his 12 prior starts he's really stacked up some good finishes.  The driver of the No. 17 Ford has six Top-10 and 10 Top-20 finishes.  That works out to a very impressive 11.3 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 to an impressive fourth-place finish.  While that might be too lofty a goal this weekend, we should be in for more impressive racing for Stenhouse in this installment of the Food City 500.

Slow Down – Drivers to Avoid This Week

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.  Still, Bristol Motor Speedway has been more of a place of challenges than rewards for the Joe Gibbs Racing star.  Truex has just three Top-10 finishes in 26-career starts at the World's Fastest Half Mile.  Only one of those Top 10's has come since the 2012 season.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota is currently riding a three-race Bristol Top-10 drought into this weekend's action, and two of finishes (both last season) were crashes and DNF's.  Considering how this driver and team are racing right now, there's not much chance of a reversal of recent Bristol norms. 

Michael McDowell - While his experience and skill on intermediate ovals and superspeedways have good utility in weekly format fantasy racing games and daily fantasy, we have to shy away from McDowell on the short tracks.  This season has been a train wreck for the No. 34 team on the ovals of Phoenix and Martinsville.  McDowell claimed 36th- and 31st-place finishes in those outings.  Bristol has not been a particularly successful oval either over this veteran driver's nine-season career.  McDowell's 17 starts have netted no Top-10 finishes, no Top-15 finishes and only three Top-20 finishes for an average of 31.7.  His pair of Bristol outings last year were shortened by crashes and DNF's.  It's best to shelve the Front Row Motorsports veteran this weekend. 

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 has been pretty good the last month, this track has presented challenges to Blaney over his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career. In seven-career starts he only has two Top-10 finishes and three finishes outside the Top 30.  Blaney has been better on 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.      

Daniel Hemric - The start to the rookie season hasn't gotten off very well for the driver of the No. 8 RCR Chevrolet.  Seven races into the season, Hemric has just two Top-20 finishes and three finishes outside the Top 30.  His 33rd-place finish this past week at Texas after a strong qualifying run is a good example of the struggles.  Tough short tracks don't promise much hope for a rebound.  Hemric was 18th at Phoenix earlier this season and a much tougher 27th at Martinsville two weeks ago.  The learning curve for this rookie has been pretty astronomical to this point.  Hemric's good Bristol stats in the Xfinity Series aside, we believe this young driver and team will still be learning on the job this weekend in the Food City 500.

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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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