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Food City 500 Preview: Mountains, Moonshine and Mayhem

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.

This week we return to the east coast, and to the birthplace of NASCAR, the foothills of Appalachia. 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 haywire. 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. We've seen half the 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. 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 seven years or 14 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 Busch9.13345501,3754,869107.0
Jeff Gordon11.03702893165,773100.2
Matt Kenseth11.33842998165,71499.5
Greg Biffle11.63242612985,01696.9
Kurt Busch14.23732523505,04995.9
Jimmie Johnson16.02674147094,87593.1
Carl Edwards10.82642773004,87492.8
Kevin Harvick14.12502321984,09490.2
Ryan Newman16.0326143574,85989.8
Tony Stewart16.62552807713,82689.5
Brad Keselowski12.81166511591788.5
Denny Hamlin15.52322692823,33387.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.4282135364,00687.1
Marcos Ambrose15.21837001,80386.3
Kasey Kahne17.02582313053,55186.2
Mark Martin19.71851912433,00886.0
Jeff Burton16.13182262673,79484.7
Martin Truex Jr.20.7329130682,70478.0
Juan Pablo Montoya19.318974292,41877.9
Clint Bowyer18.9196141822,74277.7

No single manufacturer or race team completely rules Bristol Motor Speedway. In fact, we've seen three different manufacturer's in victory lane in the last four BMS races. However, we've seen Toyota nose into the lead with recent dominance of just one driver at this small oval. The closest thing we have to a monopoly at BMS would have to be Joe Gibbs Racing, specifically the No. 18 Toyota team. Kyle Busch swept both Bristol races in 2009 for this Toyota stable, and he took one each in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. This makes four wins in the last six starts at Bristol Motor Speedway for the JGR star. Busch will likely get a strong challenge from the drivers of the Roush Fenway Racing stable. Before the Busch Bristol streak emerged, Roush drivers took victories in four of the seven prior races (2005-08). Those wins were split between Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Either of this duo could jump into contention in Sunday's Food City 500. The other driver that will draw a lot of scrutiny on Sunday will likely be Jimmie Johnson. He won this event two years ago for his first career Bristol win, and he led a significant chunk of last year's Bristol spring event before finishing third. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has always been a better performer in the spring event at this bullring. Our most recent Bristol winner is none other than Penske Racing prodigy Brad Keselowski. He used sound pit strategy to lead the last 80 laps of last August's Irwin Tools Night Race and snooker a victory out from under a dominant Jeff Gordon. Either of these two could bring that same excellence back to BMS 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
As winner of four of the last six 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 he split the four 2010 and 2011 events even. He won this race one year ago by leading 153 laps and out-dueling Jimmie Johnson. 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. With close to 1,400 laps led for his career at the Tennessee bull ring, how can Busch not have his best performance of the season on Sunday afternoon at Bristol?

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's lack of victories are a bit deceiving at this small oval. The loop stats tell what we believe is the untold story of the Hendrick Motorsports star's success at the Tennessee short track. Johnson has spent the last three seasons building much of that Bristol resume. He won this event in 2010 and collected a pair of Top-5 finishes in both Bristol races last season. Of Johnson's 737 career laps led at the high banks of BMS, about 95 percent of those have come in his last six starts at the facility. 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 little impressive resume at the Tennessee short track. In addition to his two wins, he has one pole and three Top 10's in his last four trips to upper East Tennessee. That includes Edwards' pole win, 18 laps led and brilliant runner-up finish in this race one year ago. The Roush Fenway Racing star needs a win to really get his 2012 season off and rolling, and it could easily happen on Sunday at BMS.

Denny Hamlin
Speaking of drivers that are good at short tracks, we can't exclude Hamlin from that list. The 2012 season has gotten off to a fantastic start for the No. 11 Toyota team. 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 six victories and 25 career Top-10 finishes in 37 Sprint Cup Series short track starts; you can see the reason for our optimism in Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway. When we couple his bullring ability with his recent performance surge, it could all add up to Hamlin's first career win at the Tennessee short track.

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

Greg Biffle
With three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, we're beginning to wonder if Biffle wants to change his car number from 16 to 3. All kidding aside, 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 Motor Speedway, 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 five trips to the Tennessee bullring, including an eighth-place finish in this event one year ago. His 61 percent Top 10 rate at Bristol is nearly tops in the series.

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 22 career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a respectable 55 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 second in the overall driver standings, so Harvick is clearly on a roll coming to upper East Tennessee this Sunday.

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 led a whopping 206 laps and finished third. Repeating that performance might be a bit of a stretch, but his 40 percent Top 5 rate at this famous short track should instill a lot of confidence in a fantasy racing start.

Matt Kenseth
The Roush Fenway 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 16 career Top 10's at the famous short track. Kenseth qualified 11th and finished fourth in this event one year ago. That helped to extend his Top 10 streak at Bristol Motor Speedway to five straight. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited here last August, the driver of the No. 17 Ford led 110 circuits and finished sixth in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Kenseth has been an incredibly consistent performer at this famous bullring.

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

Tony Stewart
The No. 14 team is off to a great start this season, and he just rolled into victory lane for the first time this past weekend at Las Vegas. Stewart's Bristol stats aren't the greatest, with only a 31 percent Top 10 rate at the small oval. However, the upside has to be new crew chief Steve Addington. He led Kurt Busch to a lot of success at this half-mile track in recent seasons, and we believe he'll have the same revitalizing impact on Smoke this weekend. Stewart has one career Bristol win, so when he does get good cars at BMS he knows what to do with them.

Ryan Newman
In the last race at Bristol Motor Speedway we saw the veteran driver Newman turn in a great qualifying performance by grabbing the pole position and shepherd it home to an equally as good eighth-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. The No. 39 team enters this event looking to build momentum off their good Vegas run, and Newman has to be smiling heading to Bristol. Rocket Man sports six 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.

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 50 percent Top 10 rate at BMS over his career and he has a pair of Top 10's in his last five trips to Bristol, Tennessee. 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 Food City 500.

Jamie McMurray
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star finally came to life last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. McMurray snapped a 14-race Top 10 drought with his Top-10 finish in the Kobalt Tools 400. It may be time to jump on this fantasy racing bandwagon before the secret gets out. McMurray owns very good Bristol career stats in his racing resume. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has seven Top-10 finishes at the world famous short track, and three of those have come in his last four visits to East Tennessee. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited BMS, McMurray wheeled his way to a stellar fifth-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Brad Keselowski
Last August's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol was one of three victories on the 2011 season for Keselowski. He stole the show from older and more experienced short track racer Jeff Gordon, so we have to really respect that win. The Penske Racing youngster was generally a Top 20 finisher at BMS prior to that victory, so his short track racing skills are well established. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge was a Top 5 finishes at the one-mile oval in Phoenix a couple weeks ago, so we expect Keselowski to be razor sharp for this 500-mile event in the high-banked mixing bowl.

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 three Top-10 finishes in six 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 key. Ambrose's last race at Bristol yielded a respectable 10th-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. We expect the No. 9 Ford team to be dialed-in this Sunday afternoon.

Aric Almirola
The new driver of the No. 43 Ford is off to a decent start to the 2012 season, but he's still searching for that first Top 10 after three races. Almirola might find it in Sunday's Food City 500. Of all the tracks on the circuit, it's probably the one Almirola has the most experience on. He has five career starts at BMS, with one Top-10 finish to his credit. Considering that Almirola recently navigated the one-mile oval in Phoenix to a respectable Top-15 finish, it could be the short tracks that he'll have the most immediate success on this season. Almirola makes a good Bristol fantasy racing play in deeper leagues and weekly lineup leagues.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Brian Vickers
The good news is that the former Red Bull Racing driver will be making his 2012 Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend. The bad news is that it comes at Bristol Motor Speedway. Vickers has a pot-hole filled track record at the half-mile oval. BMS is one of the few tracks on the circuit where the veteran driver has failed to crack the Top 10. Vickers will pilot the No. 55 Toyota of Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend, but we feel he's a driver to pass on in the Food City 500. His 24.6 average finish position at the World's Fastest Half Mile is enough reason to leave Vickers on the bench this week.

Dave Blaney
We've been pretty high on the Tommy Baldwin Racing driver this season. Blaney had a fast car at Daytona and he posted a Top-25 finish at Phoenix. But we have to reign in our expectations for this small team driver in the high-banked mixing bowl this week. Blaney has a long, painful history at Bristol Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 36 Chevrolet has 21 career starts at BMS with no Top-10 finishes to his credit. Compared to seven DNF's in those starts. This may be one of the up-side moments for Blaney at Bristol, but the statistics and history stand steeply stacked against him.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger is having some growing pains breaking in his new Penske Racing team. It seems that he and crew chief Todd Gordon are going to take some time to develop chemistry at the No. 22 Dodge team. Couple these observations with the historical data of Allmendinger at Bristol, and you'll soon see why we're pessimistic of his chances this weekend. He has no Top-10 finishes in nine career starts at BMS, and that averages out to a lowly 28.1 average finish at the facility. Allmendinger's last five trips to the Tennessee short track have resulted in just two Top-20 finishes.

Juan Pablo Montoya
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had some good runs at Bristol in his brief Sprint Cup Series career, but he's had far more rough days at the high-banked oval. Montoya has earned two Top 10's in 10 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. Generally, he finishes on the lead lap and with all the fenders on the car, and that's the positive. The negative is he seldom, if ever, races with the leaders and leads any laps. That fact is not likely to change in this installment of the Food City 500. We expect he'll finish somewhere close to his 19.3 average finish at this bullring. That mark falls well short of expectations for this No. 42 Chevrolet team.