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Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Bristol
by Jay Pennell
It's Bristol, baby!
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the hills of East Tennessee for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s modern day Colosseum has been home to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history, and always produces great racing.
Once known for its rough-and-tumble ways, Bristol now has multiple grooves that allows for two, and at times, three-wide racing. The action is non-stop, fast-paced and full of action.
When it comes to Bristol, one name has stood out above the rest in recent years: Kyle Busch.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a total of five Sprint Cup Series victories at the World's Fastest Half Mile, including four out of the last six events. When taking the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events into consideration, Busch has simply owned the place. All told, Busch has five Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide Series wins (including the last three consecutively), and three straight Camping World Truck Series wins.
So, after a frustrating 23rd-place finish in front of his hometown crowd last week in Las Vegas, Busch is eager to get back to one of his best tracks on the schedule.
“It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there,” Busch said of Bristol. “You really have to be on your game because you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake — like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there in 2009 when a car with a flat tire came down the track and essentially ended our day — that’s it.”
After a lackluster start to the season — with only one top 5 in three starts — Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team should be at the top of their game this weekend. This bunch struggled during last year’s night race in August, relying too heavily on the Nationwide setup and fighting the changes throughout the Sprint Cup race. With that lesson learned and a proven history of success, Busch is this week's fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski
Yet Kyle is not the only Busch to have success on the half-mile concrete oval. Older brother Kurt Busch also has five Sprint Cup Series wins at Bristol, the last of which came in 2006.
While the Busch brothers are tied with Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson for third on the all-time Bristol wins list, younger brother Kyle is the only one of that group to have a victory on the new configuration.
As for older brother Kurt, this weekend is a monumental moment in his career. Returning to one of his most successful tracks, Busch is doing so with a humbled attitude and quite the hole to climb from. After the first three races with team owner James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the ’04 series champion has a best finish of 15th (Phoenix International Raceway) and sits 30th in the standings. Since joining Phoenix Racing, Busch has said he believes this team can compete for wins — especially at a track like Bristol.
However, the season has not gotten off to the kind of start this group was looking for and Busch heads to Bristol with his eye on climbing back into contending for wins. That has the older Busch brother as my driver to watch this weekend. With this marking the 10th anniversary of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, perhaps there is no better time to get back to his winning ways.
The former champion has the ability to give Finch his second career Cup win, but he’s also just as likely to bring home yet another wrecked race car.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This week’s darkhorse pick goes to Martin Truex Jr. out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable.
The driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota is in a “put up or shut up” season, with contract negotiations on the books for later in the year. To say the New Jersey native has underperformed over the past few seasons is a bit of an understatement. Many expected big things from the two-time Nationwide Series champion, but with only one Sprint Cup Series victory in 228 starts, time is running out.
Yet, Truex entered the season optimistic about the newly remodeled and upgraded MWR. The addition of teammates Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and competition director Scott Miller has Truex pleased with fast race cars and the opportunity to run up front.
And run up front is exactly what Truex did in this race last season. Leading a total of 63 laps, it looked as if the No. 56 was set for a solid day until the handling went away and Truex faded late in the race. Learning from their mistakes, the team showed up prepared to finish the job in August, scoring a second-place finish behind race winner Brad Keselowski.
With Truex looking to quell the contract talk and get back to Victory Lane, Bristol might just be the place to make a statement. If he and crew chief Chad Johnston can avoid trouble and keep up with the changing racetrack throughout, I expect a solid day out of him.
Three Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray
Best of luck to all the fantasy NASCAR participants out there, and most importantly, don't forget to set your lineups!
Average Bristol Finish, Last Six Races (Wins)
1. Kyle Busch — 4.5 (4)
2. Ryan Newman — 8.8 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (1)
4. Kurt Busch — 9.0 (0)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.0 (0)
6. Matt Kenseth — 11.3 (0)
7. Jeff Gordon — 11.5 (0)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.7 (0)
9. Brad Keselowski — 12.8 (1)*
10. Jamie McMurray — 14.2 (0)
* Four starts