BRISTOL, Tenn.– “In my Tennessee mountain home, life’s as peaceful as a baby’s sigh. In my Tennessee mountain home, the sound of roaring thunder sings in fields nearby.”
This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to my part of the country – Bristol, Tennessee – to run the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The 500-lap race on the .533 mile (.858 km) concrete short track will be the eighth race of the 2016 season.
I have no problem saying that Bristol is my single favorite track on the entire schedule. What’s not to love about it? It’s got the bumping and banging that we all love about short track racing and it’s got actual racing. It’s also my home track being just a 90-minute drive from where I live in Knoxville.
Inevitably, there will be someone out there moaning about how it’s not like it used to be. Those people are right. Bristol is not like it used to be. It’s better! I will argue the point until the day I die that Bristol today is far superior to the Bristol of yesteryear, but that’s an argument for another day.
There are two ways to approach Bristol; the classic against the wall on the straights and dive to the bottom in the turns and the current ride against the wall all the way around. The latter became more prevalent back in August of 2012 and is now the main way to get around the concrete short track.
Passing becomes a challenge at Bristol as it is at most short tracks. In the past when the only way around Bristol was the bottom, you had to forcibly move a guy out of the way or wait for him to make a mistake. Now, you either move the guy in front out of the way and into the wall or you dive bomb under the car in front. This carries a lot of risks because you have to slow down the car a lot more so as to not slam the wall and it allows the car behind to get by you very easily. If you can keep the car you passed behind through the whole process, then you can move on and focus on the next car.
We’ve seen on many occasions over the years at Thunder Valley that tempers do flare. Controlling the beast inside is key to doing well at Bristol.
Now let’s get to the drivers to watch this weekend.
We start off with the odds-on favorite to win this weekend at 6/1 (Vegas Insider), one Kyle Thomas Busch.
In 21 career starts at Bristol, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has amassed five wins, eight top fives (38.10 percent) and 13 top-10’s (61.91 percent) for an average finish of 12th.
He’s also riding a hot streak of two straight wins at Martinsville and Texas coupled with two straight weekend sweeps.
Now here’s where the numbers aren’t in his favor.
Since the introduction of the Gen-6 car, he’s finished second, 11th, 29th, 36th and eighth for a 17.2 average finish. That’s 43.3 percent worse than his career average.
He’s also not won at Bristol in Cup since 2011.
He does, however, tend to be up front near the lead at Bristol. In his last five starts, he’s led 56, zero, 73, eight and 192 laps.
So while I expect him to be in victory lane at Bristol in the XFINITY Series, Sunday will be more of a toss-up. Given the run he’s on as of late, I would be wrong to discount him on Sunday.
The next driver on my list at 7/1 is Joseph Thomas Logano.
In 14 career starts at Bristol, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has amassed two wins, three top fives (21.43 percent) and four top-10’s (28.57 percent) for an 18.6 finishing average. While that doesn’t sound all that great, all those top fives and three of those top-10s have come during his time with Penske. In his time with Penske, he’s finished 17th, fifth, 20th, first, 40th and first for an average finish of 14th. That’s 24.73 percent better than his career average.
Interestingly, none of them have come in the spring race at Bristol.
He’s no stranger to being in the lead at Thunder Valley with a career total of 408 laps led. The only other track where he’s led more is Martinsville. The last time we visited Bristol, he led 176 laps on his way to scoring the victory.
I expect to see Logano fighting for the win on Sunday.
The next driver to watch at 7/1 is Kevin Michael Harvick.
In 30 career starts at Bristol, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet has amassed one win, 10 top fives (33.3 percent) and 13 top-10s (43.3 percent) for a 14.6 career finishing average.
His stats are even less impressive when you use the sample size of the last six races. In the last six, he’s finished 14th, 38th, 39th, 11th, 38th and second for a 23.7 finishing average. That’s 62.33 percent worse than his career average.
Why I bring him up is because even with the poor finishes, he still has a strong car that’s up front. In the last six races at Bristol, he’s led zero, seven, 28, 75, 184 and zero laps. That’s an average of 49 laps led per race. He was in control of this race a year ago before being caught up in a late-race wreck with David Ragan (who was subbing for Busch at the time).
I expect Harvick to be a contender on Sunday.
Next at 8/1 is Bradley Aaron Keselowski.
In 12 career starts at Thunder Valley, the driver of the No. 2 Penske Ford has amassed two wins, four top fives (33.3 percent) and five top-10s (41.67 percent) for a 14.3 career average.
For Keselowski, Bristol has been either hit or miss. That’s clear in his last six starts with finishes of third, 30th, 14th, second, 35th and sixth for a finishing average of 15th. That’s 4.90 percent worse than his career average.
Unlike the others on this list, Keselowski is the one driver I’m iffy on. Granted, his record is comparable to Harvick’s. But Harvick has been bringing strong cars to Thunder Valley the last two years while Keselowski has been bringing cars that are just good at best.
While I expect to see Keselowski get a top-10 finish, I don’t see him winning on Sunday.
The final driver at 10/1 is Matthew Roy Kenseth.
In 32 career starts at Thunder Valley, the driver of the No. 20 JGR Toyota has amassed four wins, 13 top fives (40.63 percent) and 20 top-10’s (62.5 percent) for a 12.8 finishing average.
In his last six starts at Bristol, he’s finished 35th, first, 13th, third, first and 42nd for a 15.8 finishing average. That’s 23.44 percent worse than his career average.
In his last six starts, he’s led 85, 149, 165, 62, 47 and zero laps for a combined total of 508 laps. That’s 35.53 percent of the nearly one-thousand 500 laps (1430) that he’s led overall at Bristol.
It’s also worth noting that this season has been anything but kind to Kenseth after eight races with only one top-10 finish.
If there’s one track that’s been kind to him over his career, it’s Bristol. After the monsoon of last April, Kenseth had enough fuel to end a 53-race winless drought and scored the victory.
I expect Kenseth to get it together sooner rather than later and there’s a good chance that he does it this Sunday at Thunder Valley.
You can catch the Food City 500 this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX and on the radio via the Performance Racing Network and Sirius XM (subscription required for the latter). Since this is my home track, I’ll be on location starting today bringing you all the happenings from the media center and press box at Thunder Valley.