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Food City 500 Preview: Short Track, Short Tempers in Bristol

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.

With the West Coast swing complete, we head east this week and return to the roots of NASCAR, 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 bullring will not only test drivers' skill but their patience as well. Short tempers and trading paint 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 wrong. 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. The corners of the speedway's turns were put through a grinding process a couple seasons ago. The result led to more racing in the lower groove and less side-by-side racing lap after lap. With the tweaks and advancements to the new generation stock car this season, 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 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 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 nine years or 18 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 Busch9.94565851,4316,008101.8
Matt Kenseth12.35634701,120 7,226101.8
Jeff Gordon12.95234093837,413101.2
Brad Keselowski14.42601514092,30294.9
Greg Biffle11.94833183806,39394.8
Kurt Busch15.64803384055,65792.0
Jimmie Johnson16.34114697616,24791.4
Denny Hamlin16.13733824924,68990.3
Kevin Harvick15.14062852055,52389.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.7485207835,65689.3
Kasey Kahne15.94433994564,78587.9
Carl Edwards14.93243404645,59087.7
Ryan Newman16.7446149575,90386.6
Tony Stewart17.93013037724,29884.4
Martin Truex Jr.19.35472111144,51883.1
Jeff Burton17.23982502674,57583.0
Clint Bowyer16.13662301324,25183.0
Marcos Ambrose15.92468712,44579.9
Joey Logano19.92981241442,32477.4
Jamie McMurray19.0431179133,86375.8

No single manufacturer or race team completely dominates Bristol Motor Speedway. In fact, we've seen three different manufacturers in victory lane in the last four BMS races. However, we've seen Toyota nose into the lead with recent dominance of two victories in the last three. When the series last visited Bristol in August of last year it was Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth outsmarting the field and holding off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne to take his first victory at the half-mile oval since 2006. This makes four wins in the last seven events at Bristol Motor Speedway for the JGR camp. Kyle Busch claimed two of the other Gibb's victories in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and Denny Hamlin claimed his first career win at BMS in 2012. The other camp to give Toyota the most challenge at Bristol Motor Speedway is Penske Racing's Fords. Brad Keselowski won back-to-back races at the high banks between the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012. Considering that these four drivers alone have a combined for eight victories at this track in the last 10 events, they'll be the center of our attention this weekend. The other driver that will draw a lot of scrutiny on Sunday will likely be Dale Earnhardt Jr. He hasn't won at the Bristol oval since 2004, but he enters the weekend as one of the hottest drivers in the series right now. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has three Top-2 finishes to start the season and he sits atop the championship standings coming into the Food City 500. Another driver who could reestablish himself at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend is Carl Edwards. He is a two-time Bristol winner with his last victory at the Tennessee short track coming in 2008. With Edwards climbing back towards the top of the series in 2014, it would not be surprising at all to see the No. 99 Ford at the lead of the pack at BMS this Sunday. 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

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski has been one of the prime contenders at the Bristol oval in recent seasons. The Penske Racing star has two victories since 2011 at the Tennessee short track, and he's led more than 400 career laps at the half-mile oval. The driver of the No. 2 Ford led 62 laps in this event one year ago before finishing third in the Food City 500. He rides a big wave of momentum into this first short track race of the season coming off his big Las Vegas victory. Keselowski has had strong race cars to this point in the season, so this visit to Bristol Motor Speedway is very well timed. Short tracks are among his best ovals in the series.

Kyle Busch -
The five-time Bristol winner enters this weekend as one of the top contenders. Busch won both events at BMS in 2009, and he split the four 2010 and 2011 events even. With more than 1,400 career laps led at this short track, Busch is the man to beat. 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. No driver in NASCAR's top division has more fastest laps or laps led at Bristol than the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Busch had a strong Toyota and led many laps at Las Vegas last weekend, so the time could be right to see him roll into victory lane for the first time this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has proven to be a rejuvenated driver thus far this season, and there's good reason to believe that the No. 88 team should be a very strong fantasy play in the Food City 500. Earnhardt has managed a 50 percent Top-10 rate at BMS over his career and that's an impressive level when compared to the rest of the drivers in the series. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet claimed a pair of Top 10s last season at the Tennessee short track. With Earnhardt's Daytona win and pair of runner-up finishes to start the season, he's coming into the Bristol spring race with more momentum than ever in his career. If there's a long dry spell in jeopardy of falling this weekend, it's Earnhardt's nine-year winless streak at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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 Stewart Haas Racing veteran boasts 12 Top-10 finishes in 26 career starts at this facility, and that figures out to a respectable 46 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. 4 Chevrolet team. He enters this weekend coming off the disappointing mechanical failure at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but he clearly had a very fast car in last Sunday's Kobalt 400. Harvick should be poised to rebound big in the Food City 500.

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

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has been a strong performer at the World's Fastest Half Mile the last couple seasons. Kahne has one victory, two Top 5s and three Top 10s in those four races. His nine career Top-10 finishes have moved his Top-10 rate up to a respectable 45-percent at Bristol Motor Speedway. This increase in performance has coincided with Kahne's move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. Ever since stepping behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet, Kahne has been a totally different driver at the Tennessee short track. We should see those skills on display in Sunday's 500-lap event.

Brian Vickers -
The veteran driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing has carved out a reputation of short track specialist in his last couple seasons of racing. No driver has a lower average finish over the last two seasons at Bristol than Vickers with an amazing 5.2 average. He's racked up three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in those four events. Vickers has led 126 laps over those last four races at BMS and that places him among the top of the Sprint Cup Series. He may not challenge for the win, but he has the reputation and skill pencil him into the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs 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 three-time winner at Bristol and he sports 18 career Top 10s at the famous short track. Kenseth led 149 laps and went to victory lane in the series' last visit to Bristol Motor Speedway. He now has Top-10 finishes in seven of his last nine races at this half-mile oval, which only bolsters his career 64-percent Top-10 rate at the track. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota is looking to revive the dominance of last season, and this weekend's Food City 500 could be that spark.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's one career victory at this short track shouldn't be discounted. The loop stats tell what we believe is the untold story of the Hendrick Motorsports star's success at the Tennessee bullring. Johnson has spent the last five seasons building much of that Bristol resume. He won this event in 2010 and collected Top-10 finishes in seven of the last 10 BMS events. Johnson's 789 career laps led at the high banks of Bristol have come mostly in his last 10 starts at the track. Whatever prevented the six-time champion from succeeding at Bristol earlier in his career is clearly no longer a factor.

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

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 racing 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 finishing stats there since then. In last summer's Irwin Tools Night Race, Gordon came from 32nd-starting spot on the grid to finish a strong seventh. That was his 23rd career Top-10 finish at the Tennessee short track. Gordon boasts a strong 55 percent Top-10 rate at this oval over his long, 21-season career.

Joey Logano -
The surging Penske Racing driver has earned the fourth-most points in this young season so he rides into Bristol weekend fourth overall in the championship standings. Logano makes a very timely visit to a short track where he's been steadily improving over the last couple seasons. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has only two career Top 10s in 10 starts at BMS, but they've come in the last two seasons. In the summer of 2012, Logano led 139 laps and finished eighth in the Irwin Tools Night Race. In last summer's Irwin Tools Night Race he finished career-best fifth at the Bristol short track. Logano could have something special in store for this Food City 500.

Carl Edwards -
With a driver rating of 87.7 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Edwards is among the top performers at this Tennessee short track. The veteran driver has been one of the more successful drivers in the Sprint Cup Series over his career at this half-mile oval. Edwards is a two-time winner at Bristol's half-mile oval, but his luck of late at this short track has been shaky. We have good reason to believe that will turn around Sunday afternoon. Edwards has been the victim of some bad luck here recently. The driver of the No. 99 Ford led 119 laps in last summer's Irwin Tools Night Race only to DNF with an engine failure. Edwards has been solid the last two weeks, so he should be a Top-10 contender for this installment of short track action at Bristol.

Paul Menard -
The driver of the RCR No. 27 Chevrolet has been steadily reversing his career averages at the half-mile Bristol bowl. Menard started his Sprint Cup career 0-for-7 in Top-10 finishes at BMS. Since then he's raced to one Top 5 and five Top 10s in the last six races at the historic short track. That includes a career-best 64 laps led and an impressive sixth-place finish in last summer's Irwin Tools Night Race. With Menard coming off a brilliant third-place finish at Las Vegas last weekend, the RCR veteran is coming to Bristol Motor Speedway with a lot of momentum for this Sunday's Food City 500.

Ryan Newman -
In this race one year ago, Newman came from 31st-starting spot to finish seventh in last season's Food City 500. The veteran driver is off to a great start with his new Richard Childress Racing team, so he should be looking forward to this 500-lap battle in the Tennessee foot hills. Rocket Man sports four Top 10s in his last seven trips to the half-mile oval, and that closely parallels his 54-percent Top-10 rate here. The RCR veteran should have no problem keeping his current hot streak going at one of his best short tracks.

Jamie McMurray -
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is off to a strong start this season. After finishes of 14th-, 10th- and 15th-place to start the new season, the optimism in the No. 1 team is high coming to BMS. McMurray owns very good Bristol career stats in his racing resume. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has nine Top-10 finishes at the world famous short track, and three of those have come in his last five visits to East Tennessee. In this event one year ago, McMurray peddled his way to a solid 10th-place finish in the Food City 500. We expect even more from the CGR driver this weekend.

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 two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in 10 career trips to the World's Fastest Half-Mile. He has no DNF's and only tow finishes outside the Top 30 during this span, so consistency has been the key to his success. Ambrose's last race at Bristol Motor Speedway yielded a strong eighth-place finish in the Irwin Tools Night Race. We expect the No. 9 Ford team to be dialed-in for this 500-lap Bristol battle royale.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart -
The No. 14 team is off to a turbulent start this season with no Top-10 finishes and a lowly 27th-place ranking in the driver standings coming to Bristol. Stewart's Bristol stats aren't very good with only a 28 percent Top-10 rate at the small oval. Despite being a one-time winner (2001) at the Tennessee short track, it's his recent body of work that deserves the most scrutiny. Smoke's last nine trips to BMS have yielded only one Top-10 finish. The leg injury that Stewart is overcoming is clearly affecting his performance. Given the venue and his state of performance, we can't recommend Stewart this Sunday afternoon at BMS.

Kurt Busch -
Despite being one of the top Bristol performers, the state of affairs in the new Stewart Haas Racing No. 41 team are not good coming into Food City 500 weekend. Busch has been downright terrible in the first three races of the season. He has finishes of 21st-, 39th- and 26th- at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas and he comes to BMS 28th in the overall driver standings. It could take Busch some time to form chemistry with his new crew chief and race team. Bristol Motor Speedway hasn't exactly been his best oval the last couple seasons either. With only two Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to the World's Fastest Half Mile, pessimism abounds for the No. 41 team this week.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Another driver starting slow to the 2014 season is Truex and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. After an engine failure at Daytona, the veteran driver has posted 22nd- and 14th-place finishes each of the last two weeks. While not overly poor, less than what this driver and team demand of themselves. Truex has only two Top 10s in 16 career starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. His crash and DNF at this oval last summer may be a sign of things to come. Truex's career average finish of 19.3 at the Tennessee short track may be his ceiling for this weekend's Food City 500.

Denny Hamlin -
Normally we would rank Hamlin much higher than this in a Bristol article, but the last two weeks have been somewhat troubling for the No. 11 Toyota team. After a strong Speedweeks at Daytona, Hamlin has struggled through finishes of 19th- and 12th-place at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Outside of the Joe Gibbs Racing star's victory at Bristol in 2012, things have been tough otherwise at this venue. His two finishes here last season were outside the Top 20 despite winning one pole and leading 140 laps. Sometimes a fast car just doesn't add up to a good finish. That's what Hamlin has experienced at Bristol the last few seasons.