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 couple weeks of racing on intermediate ovals, we head back 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.  Since qualifying and practice are not currently being performed, teams will have to rely on the luck of the draw for the starting grid, and on quick adjustments to the handling of their cars.  Teams will unload/inspect/race for the foreseeable future, so hitting the setup as close as possible and making good adjustments will be key factors to success.  Due to those elements and the fact that 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 first 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

After a couple weeks of racing on intermediate ovals, we head back 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.  Since qualifying and practice are not currently being performed, teams will have to rely on the luck of the draw for the starting grid, and on quick adjustments to the handling of their cars.  Teams will unload/inspect/race for the foreseeable future, so hitting the setup as close as possible and making good adjustments will be key factors to success.  Due to those elements and the fact that 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 first 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.  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 15 years or 30 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. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch13.48331,0362,3349,509101.8
Matt Kenseth13.98526641,54710,015100.6
Chase Elliott11.53831631992,98595.9
Kevin Harvick15.09018696839,99095.2
Erik Jones16.02531542932,11194.1
Jimmie Johnson13.596869688610,35892.4
Denny Hamlin14.49305646979,07491.7
Kurt Busch15.11,0525046059,89891.5
Joey Logano15.07563957646,50490.6
Ryan Blaney18.64071453793,02390.5
Brad Keselowski17.37713686976,23388.2
Ryan Newman14.81,0171946810,01985.2
Martin Truex Jr.20.68724792827,53283.3
Clint Bowyer14.18503612817,75583.1
Daniel Suarez13.02804551,64679.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 14.447317003,07176.7
Austin Dillon18.33562902,44268.1
Alex Bowman20.91954201,10465.8
William Byron19.5935060564.8
Matt DiBenedetto17.9135439396663.7

Toyota has enjoyed a good streak of dominance at the Thunder Valley oval.  Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have captured four of the last five Bristol wins.  Kurt Busch has the lone Ford victory in during the summer of 2018, and Chevrolet drivers have been shut out of victory lane at Bristol Motor Speedway since Jimmie Johnson's win here in early 2017.  Toyota driver will have a lot of pressure on them to keep this streak going as we return to the World's Fastest Half-Mile this weekend.

When the series last visited Bristol at the end of last summer it was Denny Hamlin outsmarting the field and overtaking a very fast Matt DiBenedetto in the closing laps to capture his second-career victory at BMS.  That victory in the No. 11 Camry gave Toyota their fourth win in the last five Bristol races, which is an impressive streak to be sure.  Kyle Busch had won last spring's Food City 500, which was his eye-popping eighth-career Bristol win.  So this dynamic duo for JGR will be expected to be top contenders again this weekend.  However, before we cede the trophy to the Toyota camp, there are several strong suitors from the Ford and Chevrolet side of the ledger.  Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott led a lot of laps and were very impressive in that last Bristol race.  If we go back to the spring installment, we see that Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano were both very strong in that edition of the Food City 500.  Toyotas will be the teams to beat this weekend, but it appears that challengers for victory lane could come from every angle.  That's what makes these Bristol short track races so exciting.  Matt DiBenedetto's 93 laps led, and near-brush with victory lane last August is a prime example of the underdog having a puncher's chance in this 500-lap melee. 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 – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with eight total victories.  The last of those eight wins came in last Spring's Food City 500, and that makes Busch the winner of three of the last five Bristol races.  Those wins have bolstered his Top-5 rate to an amazing 41-percent at this oval and he's tallied over 2,300 laps led at Bristol for his career.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has shown some inconsistency on the recent intermediate ovals, but now we're visiting a short track.  Busch has shown over the last three seasons that he's currently the driver to beat each time we visit Bristol Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin – The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is a two-time Bristol winner, and he won NASCAR's last stop and Thunder Valley with his big victory in last August's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  Hamlin has four-career poles and 14 Top-10 finishes at the Tennessee short track.  That works out to a steady 50-percent Top-10 rate at Bristol Motor Speedway. While he's tended to be a better night race performer here than the day race performer, he's still had his share of Bristol success in the early-season installment.  Hamlin led 7 laps and nabbed an impressive fifth-place finish in last season's Food City 500.  He always seems to race among the leaders and contend for the win each time we visit the Tennessee 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 this past week at Charlotte that he's going to have good speed and contend for wins this season.  Keselowski has led close to 700-career laps at the half-mile Tennessee track, so we're used to seeing him race up front here in the recent past.  The last two starts alone have netted the driver of the No. 2 Ford Mustang 131 total laps in the lead.  Keselowski's last start at Bristol Motor Speedway saw him lead 91 laps and finish a brilliant third-place in last August's Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  He's a very dangerous driver on this historic small oval.      

Chase Elliott – The Chevrolet driver with the best shot of taking the bowtie brand back to victory lane at Bristol is Elliott and his No. 9 team.  The young driver has been strong and steady in nearly all his Bristol starts, which includes three Top 5's and four Top 10's in eight-career starts.  Elliott won the pole for this race one year ago, and he led a combined 71 laps in his two Bristol starts last season.  Our last visit to Bristol Motor Speedway saw him lead 33 laps and pilot the No. 9 Chevy Camaro to a strong fifth-place finish in the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race.  Elliott is a surging driver with a fast car right now, and the time could be right for him to break into victory lane for the first time ever at BMS. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Kurt Busch – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has a wealth of experience racing on the Bristol short track.  Busch has a series-leading 38-career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway.  His six-career victories and 20 Top-10 finishes show years of excellence competing on this half-mile oval.  Busch has won as recently as 2018 at this famous short track, so his excellence continues to be recent and not stale.  Busch's twin starts at Bristol last season netted strong runner-up and ninth-place finishes for this race team.  The No. 1 Chevrolet team have resumed the season well after the Coronavirus break, and Busch has nabbed Top-10 finishes at both Darlington and Charlotte.  This bull ring is a track for veteran drivers, and Busch is chief among them in terms of experience.  He should be poised for a great performance this weekend.

Matt Kenseth – The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been inconsistent in his resumption of full-time Cup Series racing.  Darlington and Charlotte proved to be a mixed bag for Kenseth, but it was encouraging to see that he had good speed in the No. 42 Chevrolet.  Prior to his retirement, Kenseth was one of our top drivers in the series at Bristol Motor Speedway.  He had four-career wins, 15 Top 5's and 22 Top 10's over an 18-season career.  Kenseth's last two starts at the Bristol mixing bowl yielded a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2017.  It's been a long layoff for the veteran driver, but you know what they say about ducks and water.  We don't expect Kenseth to be a top contender, but he should make returning to Bristol look pretty easy this Sunday afternoon. 

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson's two-career victories and 21 Top-10 finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway are hard to discount, and so we won't this weekend.  The No. 48 team looked very fast in both Darlington and Charlotte races, so speed is not a concern.  The resumption of the season has been an inconsistent mish-mash for Johnson so far, but we believe he's about to turn a corner with new crew chief, Cliff Daniels.  To further bolster his status this weekend, Johnson has been strong the last few seasons at Bristol Motor Speedway.  In addition to a win in this event in 2017, the Hendrick Motorsports star has five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at BMS.  That's a strong 71-percent rate over the recent sample size.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is a two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway and he owns over 900 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 somewhat recent.  He boasts 12 Top-5 finishes in 38-career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a strong 32-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 has seven Top 10's in his last nine Bristol starts.  He should be poised to be a big performer in the Food City 500.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Bristol & solid upside

Joey Logano – The talented Penske Racing driver has been an up-and-down Bristol performer in recent seasons, thus we have slotted him in the sleepers list this week for that reason.  Logano is a two-time Bristol winner (2014-15) and he finished third-place in this event one year ago.  Those are some of the highlights.  Three of his last five Bristol starts have netted Top-10 finishes (60-percent) and that's a bit above his career average of 46-percent.  We're used to seeing Logano in the contenders or even the solid plays list most weeks, but this is clearly not one of those weeks.  However, he still brings some modest fantasy racing value to the table.  That 15.0-career average finish shows that he doesn't DNF at this track and generally finishes races on the lead lap. 

Clint Bowyer If you're in the market for a rebound candidate this week, there are few better than Bowyer.  He's had a rough resumption of NASCAR action with a couple tough weeks at Darlington and Charlotte.  The return to short track racing should appeal to the driver of the No. 14 Ford Mustang.  Bowyer owns 15-career Top 10's in 28 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway.  That works out to a good 54-percent rate.  In recent times he's amassed and carries a four-race Bristol Top-10 streak into Sunday's action.  The veteran driver has led 144 laps during that streak, so it's evidence he's racing among the leaders at BMS.  With a pair of seventh-place finishes in his two 2019 starts at the World's Fastest Half Mile, Bowyer and his crew chief have some good notes to apply to this weekend.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney is in the midst of turning his NASCAR resume around at this particular track.  The young Penske Racing driver had a tough start at this facility through his first three seasons of racing at the Cup level.  Blaney's last three Bristol starts are a completely different story.  With seventh-, fourth- and 10th-place finishes in tow, he rides a three-race Bristol Top-10 streak into Sunday's Food City 500.  Those efforts have bolstered his career Top-10 rate at BMS to a more respectable 44-percent.  With the No. 12 Ford team coming off a good performance in the Charlotte doubleheader, Blaney should be focused for more success at a short track that he's slowly mastering.        

Matt DiBenedetto – The last time the NASCAR Cup Series visited Bristol Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto darn near stole the win and in the process almost upstaged many higher-profile drivers.  The Wood Brothers Racing driver took the lead in the final stage and stayed at the point for 93 circuits of the half-mile oval.  The hard-charging Denny Hamlin was all that prevented DiBenedetto from winning that race. He would catch the young driver just 12 laps short of full distance and make the race-winning pass.  It was a crushing blow for DiBenedetto, but still evidence of his short track talent in the brilliant runner-up finish.  He finished a steady 12th-place in the earlier Bristol event last season, so the near-brush with victory was no fluke.  There is a lot of fantasy racing upside that comes with the selection of the No. 21 Ford team this weekend.

Ryan Newman – Rocket Man has shown some flashes in his resumption of racing since the Daytona injury forced him out of action.  Newman's 14th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 last weekend is evidence of that fact.  In 36-career starts Newman has collected 19 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 15.4 average finish.  Newman has finishes of 14th-, sixth-, 10th-, 12th-, ninth- and 11th-place in his last six Bristol outings.  This week, he should wind up somewhere around that span of numbers.  Newman hasn't had a DNF at Bristol since 2012, and he's almost always racing on the lead lap when the checkered flag waves. 

Tyler Reddick – The start to the rookie season was interrupted by Coronavirus, but Reddick has forged through that 2-month stoppage and is on fire as we visit Bristol Motor Speedway.  No other rookie has been as impressive as Reddick since NASCAR resumed racing.  This will be his first-career Cup Series start at the Tennessee short track, but that's of little concern.  Reddick went to the tough, small oval of Phoenix just before the break and slugged it out on that short track to a Top-15 finish in his debut there.  The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet had a great Xfinity Series history racing at Bristol.  Reddick's last two starts at the track netted a victory and runner-up finish in 2019.  This driver presents a lot of upside in tiered, DFS or salary cap fantasy leagues this week.

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 28-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 five-race Bristol Top-10 drought into this weekend's action.  With Truex likely looking at only a Top-20 finish this Sunday at BMS, that's not worthy of a fantasy racing start in most all league formats.  It's best to keep him benched for this one, and redeploy him at Atlanta.    

Aric Almirola – The No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team has gotten off to a decent start since the resumption of racing.  Almirola has generally been in and around the Top 10-15 in both Darlington and Charlotte doubleheaders.  This week's race will present some major challenges for the veteran driver.  Bristol Motor Speedway hasn't held a lot of success for the driver of the No. 10 Ford.  In 21-career starts he's only earned three Top-10 finishes and a 24.8 average finish.  That should put Almirola well off most people's fantasy racing radar this week.  With finishes of 37th- and 29th-place at the half-mile track in 2019, it's clearly a puzzle that Almirola hasn't figured out to this point in his NASCAR career.

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.  Bristol has not been a particularly successful oval over this veteran driver's 10-season career.  McDowell's 19 starts have netted no Top-10 finishes, no Top-15 finishes and only three Top-20 finishes for an average of 31.8.  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, and keep him stashed for the upcoming Atlanta and Talladega events.   

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has had a tough resumption to racing since the Coronavirus break.  Stenhouse's Darlington and Charlotte races have been tough to watch.  There's little hope of a rebound this weekend for the No. 47 Chevrolet team.  What's peculiar about this is that Stenhouse used to be a good fantasy play at Bristol.  From 2014 to 2018 he claimed six Top-10 finishes at the historic short track in a nine-race span.  He was fantasy gold here in deeper tiers and salary structures.  His last three starts at Bristol have netted 24th- and a pair of 33rd-place finishes.  Stenhouse has been nowhere near the lead lap in any of those starts.  The current momentum is poor and the trend line at this track is unsettling.  It's best to stay clear of Stenhouse 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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