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Jeff Byrd 500 Preview: Bull Ring Rumble

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We take a trip to the "World's Fastest Half Mile" at Bristol Motor Speedway for this weekend's Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City. 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. Since the track was resurfaced a few seasons ago, we've seen less contact and more side-by-side racing at Bristol. Still, you can't take the "short" out of the short track, so you still see quite a bit of contact and short tempers as a result. 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 30th and beyond and having to navigate the field as the leader is bearing down on the rear of the field. We've seen half the 43-car field go one lap down in the first 100 laps since the repaving of Bristol Motor Speedway and that should surely be the case again this weekend.

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. Recent statistics at Bristol Motor Speedway will be an invaluable tool in setting this driver lineup. The loop stats in the table below span the last six years or 12 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.

Kyle Busch9.32444811,2183,945106.0
Greg Biffle10.32742452984,57499.5
Jeff Gordon11.42671891104,89998.7
Matt Kenseth12.32972537064,84897.7
Kurt Busch14.62602263504,21995.9
Tony Stewart15.42302777713,47693.8
Denny Hamlin14.61872622822,94791.8
Kevin Harvick14.21921851613,54489.8
Carl Edwards11.71782352823,87889.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.8.8243122363,60688.7
Ryan Newman17.2250127273,90687.9
Jeff Burton15.82852192673,65987.5
Mark Martin18.41201602432,49087.4
Jimmie Johnson18.11952694693,88187.4
Marcos Ambrose16.51186301,25186.9
David Reutimann19.015558261,66686.0
Kasey Kahne18.21811953052,96585.5
Clint Bowyer16.6178131822,72182.3
Juan Pablo Montoya18.816567292,27780.2
Brad Keselowski16.08252641779.5

No single manufacturer or race team completely rules Bristol Motor Speedway. However, we've seen Toyota emerge in the last couple years as the most dominant force at the half-mile oval. The closest thing we have to a monopoly at BMS would have to be Joe Gibbs Racing, specifically the No. 18 team. Kyle Busch swept both Bristol races in 2009 for this Toyota stable, and he took one of the two events in 2010. This makes three wins in the last four starts at BMS for the JGR star. The younger Busch will likely get a strong challenge from his older brother Kurt in this event. Entering this weekend's race the driver of the No. 22 Dodge boasts five career wins at the Tennessee bull ring. The elder Busch has started the new season well and should be a force to contend with in the Jeff Byrd 500. The driver that will face the most scrutiny on Sunday will likely be Jimmie Johnson. He won this event one year ago for his first career Bristol win, but Johnson comes to BMS this weekend still looking for his first win of the 2011 season. Carl Edwards is a two-time Bristol winner, with both of those victories coming in the summer night race. The Roush Fenway Racing star is coming into this event with a hunger to win, now that he's notched his first victory of the season at Las Vegas and that makes three of the last five Sprint Cup events dating back to the end of last season. 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 three of the last four Bristol races, the Joe Gibbs Racing star enters this week's event as the odds-on favorite. Busch won both events at BMS in 2009, and won the last Sprint Cup Series event here in the summer of 2010. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota sports the most dominant loops stats of any driver in the field at this half-mile oval. With well over 1,200 laps led for his career at the Tennessee bull ring, how can Busch not have his best race of the season on Sunday afternoon?

Kurt Busch -
Busch enters this race at the co-championship standings leader. Since he's started the season on a hot streak he can now concentrate on winning his first race of the season and adding to his points lead. Busch is tied with Jeff Gordon for active wins at BMS with five total. He used to dominate this track back when he was racing for owner Jack Roush. Busch led 278 laps in this event one year ago before settling for third-place in last year's Food City 500. We expect the Penske Racing star to make his presence felt once again this weekend.

Carl Edwards -
With Edwards' big win at Las Vegas two weeks ago, the Roush Fenway Racing star has now won three of the last five Sprint Cup Series events dating back to the end of last season. The No. 99 Ford team is definitely on fire entering this race. Edwards has his own little impressive resume at the Tennessee short track. He's a two-time winner at BMS and has only finished outside the Top 15 twice in the last five years of racing at Bristol. Edwards should continue his hot streak in the Jeff Byrd 500.

Denny Hamlin -
Speaking of drivers that are good at short tracks, we can't exclude Hamlin from that list. The 2011 season has gotten off to a fairly good start for the No. 11 team, but Hamlin has yet to really challenge for a victory in the first three races. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has never won a Cup event at Bristol, but his short track stats show he's a good challenger for the win at this oval. With 21 career Top-10 finishes in 31 Sprint Cup Series short track starts; you can see the reason for our optimism in Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has been one of the more successful drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in recent years at this half-mile mixing bowl. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has never won at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it's a regular occurrence to see him racing with the leaders at this oval. Biffle carries a three-race Top 10 streak at BMS into this weekend's Jeff Byrd 500. His 63 percent Top 10 rate at Bristol is almost tops in the series. Only Kyle Busch cracks the Top 10 with more frequency than Biffle at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ryan Newman -
In the last race at Bristol Motor Speedway we saw the veteran driver Newman turn in a good qualifying performance of sixth starting place and shepherd it home to an equally as good sixth-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. The No. 39 team enters this event on a roll, and Newman has to be smiling heading to Bristol. Rocket Man sports five Top 10's in his last seven trips to the Tennessee short track, so good performance here is no fluke. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran should have no difficulty keeping his streak going.

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. Three of Gordon's last eight visits to Bristol have netted Top-10 finishes. He's sports a strong 56 percent Top 10 rate for his career at the famous short track. A rejuvenated Gordon will attack this oval in Sunday's 500-lap event.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth's impressive loop stats at Bristol Motor Speedway have netted him some impressive numbers over the years at the half-mile oval. The veteran driver is a two-time winner at Bristol and he sports 14 career Top 10's at the famous short track. Kenseth qualified seventh and finished fifth in this event one year ago, and that gave the driver of the No. 17 Ford five Top 10's in his last six trips to upper East Tennessee. Considering his consistency at BMS, there are worse fantasy racing plays you could employ this weekend.

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

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 Jeff Byrd 500. Earnhardt has managed a 55% Top 10 rate at BMS over his career and he has a pair of Top 10's in his last three trips to Bristol, Tennessee. While the NASCAR icon has been under fire since moving to the Hendrick Motorsports, he's managed a degree of consistency at this facility.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's loop stats here aren't very impressive, but his finish stats at the small oval are outstanding. Somehow, the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet has a nose for the front in the closing laps at Bristol Motor Speedway. Bowyer managed a great fourth-place finish in his last appearance at the bull ring. With five Top 10's in 10 career starts at the facility entering this weekend's race, we have very high confidence in Bowyer. Short tracks have been by far his best ovals on the circuit, so roll Bowyer in your lineups with confidence this Sunday afternoon.

Tony Stewart -
The No. 14 team is off to a great start this season, despite the fact that Stewart has yet to roll into victory lane. He flirted with the win two weeks ago at Las Vegas, and will look for redemption at Bristol. Stewart is a one-time winner at the half-mile oval, but his consistency at BMS isn't the greatest. This is the primary reason why we've placed him in the sleepers list this week. Considering how well Stewart is racing right now and his over 1,300 career laps led at this oval, we believe he could be a huge sleeper for this race.

David Reutimann -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran doesn't sport the career numbers to get excited about at Bristol. However, his short track resume is pretty well established. For our purposes it's what Reutimann did in his last Bristol Motor Speedway outing that grabs our attention. Last summer he piloted the No. 00 Toyota to 25 laps led and brilliant runner-up finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Considering that Reutimann has four Top 20's compared to one DNF in six starts at the half-mile oval, he makes a safe fantasy racing play with a lot of upside.

Kasey Kahne -
Entering this week's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the No. 4 Red Bull Racing team is riding some momentum after 6th- and 14th-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. The new Red Bull Racing driver is getting comfortable with his new team, and ready to display his talent at his best tracks. Since the Tennessee bull ring was repaved a few years ago, Kahne has found the venue to his liking. He has four Top 10's in those eight races since the resurfacing. We expect the No. 4 team to unload a fast race car this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose -
Another driver to consider this weekend if you're looking for deep league help is Ambrose. The No. 9 team posted a pair of Top 5's in the last four Bristol races with former driver Kasey Kahne. Ambrose and the Richard Petty Racing team should have the setup for this Sunday's race pretty well dialed in considering the Aussie's experience at this short track. Ambrose has a pair of Top 10's in his four career starts at BMS. His last race at Bristol yielded a respectable Top-20 finish.

Martin Truex Jr. -
One of the pleasant surprises of the early season so far has been Truex and his No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team. They are beginning to make up for the subpar 2010 debut season that they had. Truex is coming off an awesome sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, and he's finished in the Top 20 of each race thus far. The race at Bristol presents Truex with another opportunity to shine. He racked up 12th- and 17th-place finishes at the small oval last season and should improve on those performances in Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano -
This is more of a fantasy racing "down grade" than a flop. After finishing last season as one of the hottest drivers in the series, Logano has opened 2011 stone cold. The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy has yet to crack the Top 20 in his first three starts, and much of the reason for that has been poor luck. Logano comes to the Tennessee short track and hopes to change his luck. However, the half-mile oval hasn't been kind to him in his brief career. Logano has no Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 29.2 in four starts at BMS.

David Ragan -
After a good finish at Daytona, Ragan has stumbled a bit out of the gates this season. The young Roush Fenway Racing driver is hoping to improve his 24th-place spot in the driver standings entering this weekend, but Bristol is probably not the best place to stage a rally if you're the No. 6 Ford team. Ragan enters the Jeff Byrd 500 with eight career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, and only one Top 10 finish in that span. Last season may have been his worst at BMS with 29th- and 32nd-place finishes at the historic bull ring.

Kevin Harvick -
Seeing Harvick in the flops list this week is sure to grab some attention. The Richard Childress Racing star hasn't started the season in the best shape. Harvick sits 20th overall after three races, and he looked surprisingly mediocre in finishing 17th at Las Vegas two weekends ago. The one-time Bristol winner has had some rough patches at the half-mile oval in the last couple seasons. Harvick has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last four trips to Bristol Motor Speedway. Last season yielded only a pair of uninspiring Top 15's at BMS. The No. 29 team is an underperform candidate for this Sunday's 500-lap race.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger is off to a good start this season, so it's really difficult to put him in the flops list this week. However, any momentum gained by the good finishes at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas will likely be lost given the off-week we just endured. Allmendinger has been less than inspiring in his seven career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has just two Top 20's and five finishes outside the Top 30 in those efforts. That's simply too risky to put fantasy racing hopes on this weekend.