It’s a racing coliseum unlike any other. Bristol Motor Speedway, during a time where seating capacity is shrinking still boasts 153,000 seats within its compact, half-mile oval aptly nicknamed “Thunder Valley” for its history of quick-trigger accidents and close contact. A lap here takes less than 15 seconds, the fastest in NASCAR; a driver can go from victory to DNF in less than an instant. Spins are near impossible to avoid even with a series of controversial renovations in recent years, ones that created a racetrack with multiple grooves and capable of side-by-side action. It used to be there was a caution at Bristol about every time the cars came up to speed; now, there’s a possibility of green-flag pit stops in between the crazy coming out.
Kyle Busch enters the weekend looking for three straight wins on the Sprint Cup circuit; Bristol is a track where he’s done well. But the points leader may fall victim to an upset as for the second time in three weeks the sport’s middle and lower-tier drivers have a chance to steal a victory on an oval that levels the playing field – along with the spot in NASCAR’s Chase that goes with it.
2016 Food City 500
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyota
So far this season it’s been a pendulum swing up front between Chevrolet chassis developed by Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick) and the Toyota chassis created by Joe Gibbs Racing. Johnson, Harvick and Busch have clearly been ahead of the pack but lately it’s Busch and some sidekicks with Toyota leading laps. Martin Truex Jr. was actually in position to win Texas last weekend until a poor pit strategy call late in the race left him a sitting duck on old tires. That led Busch to eke out in front, earning the victory but if you add in Truex and JGR’s Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards those four Toyotas led 319 of 334 laps. Add in a dominant win by Busch at Martinsville the week before and it’s clear the seesaw has jumped in favor of the Camrys.
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer, in a one-year stopgap between now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing and his future employment at Stewart-Haas Racing says he’s still “focused on the now” running the No. 15 Chevrolet for small-time HScott Motorsports. Replacing Tony Stewart, he says is meaningless for 2016; leaving this team with both knowledge and confidence they can run against the big boys is his top priority.
But you wonder how much longer Bowyer can run in the back without snapping. If he won Sunday’s race at Bristol he still wouldn’t earn a Chase spot as he sits a lowly 32nd in the standings. Not only does Bowyer not have a top-10 finish he hasn’t even come close in speed; an 18th at Fontana is his season best.
You know it’s a slow news week when Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting nervous over a celebrity makes national headlines. Earnhardt has a little anxiety over getting paired up with Peyton Manning again; the recently retired Super Bowl champ will be visiting with Earnhardt and part of driver introduction ceremonies Sunday. “I’m sure I’ll get nervous and get stage fright,” he told ESPN. “That’s normally what I do around celebrities.”
Brian Vickers, without a NASCAR ride this week as Ty Dillon takes over the No. 14 car normally driven by an injured Tony Stewart, continues to look toward the Indianapolis 500. Vickers is a finalist for a ride owned by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports although sponsorship needs to materialize soon for him to jump into open-wheel’s biggest race. Vickers has never run in INDYCAR but that hasn’t stopped drivers from strong rookie runs at Indy before (just ask Kurt Busch).
For those who feel like they’re in the “getting old” category one of the sport’s most dominant drivers at Bristol when I was growing up in the 1990s is now serving as its grand marshal. Rusty Wallace, whose Hall of Fame resume was built in part on nine career Bristol victories, will fill the role Sunday; he currently serves as a radio and television analyst within the sport.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish by Kyle Busch this season, which leads all drivers.
Points behind 30th place Tony Stewart currently sits. Stewart, out since January with a fractured vertebra, must win a race and get inside the top 30 in points to be eligible for the Chase by September (ala Kyle Busch in 2015).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Matt Kenseth is badly due for a run of good luck. Bristol, a track where success can be based on Lady Luck, offers a badly needed opportunity for 2016 redemption. Kenseth, the defending champion of this race had led in eight straight Bristol events until his engine blew in August of last year. He’s won twice overall in the last five events held at this track and qualified no worse than 16th there during his time with Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s important as starting up front is crucial at Bristol more than most places; you want to stay out of trouble and traffic early on.
It used to be that Bristol would be a place you’d avoid using Jimmie Johnson. Not anymore. Despite just one career victory there the No. 48 Chevrolet and crew chief Chad Knaus have found the right setup to run consistently at this small facility; he’s second, fourth, and second in his last three starts. Eke out some extra points on a week some of the more “casual” fantasy racers will sit Johnson out of habit.
It’s been a difficult start for Richard Petty Motorsports this season as they adjust to rookie driver Brian Scott. Teammate Aric Almirola has been serviceable but has yet to score a top-10 finish or even lead a lap so far in 2016. Bristol, though offers an opportunity to sneak him on your roster; he was 13th and 17th last season, owns a third-place finish from 2014 and shouldn’t be handicapped by equipment so much on a short track.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Yes, that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. One of the most oft-criticized Cup Series drivers is having a surprisingly strong season at Roush Fenway Racing and now heads toward his best track on the circuit. In six career starts, he’s never run worse than 21st and has a career-best runner-up effort at Thunder Valley in his back pocket (2014). RFR knows this weekend is their chance to pull an upset and I expect Stenhouse to be in the mix come crunch time. Teammate Trevor Bayne isn’t a bad reach pick either (he was 15th in the August night race).
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is currently a 5-1 favorite to win his third NASCAR Cup race in a row. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano follow closely behind at 6-1; Logano, in particular has won two of the past four Bristol events and remains a trendy pick despite going winless so far in 2016.
What I Think
Kenseth is due for a dose of good luck after getting about ten too many lumps of coal from Santa than he deserved this offseason. (Continuing to serve it through April is pretty cruel). I expect the 44-year-old veteran to get himself back on track, dominate the event and clinch a spot in the Chase with a victory.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)