Kyle Busch enters the NASCAR Cup Series 2020 Food City 500 (renamed the Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 for this year) as the defending race winner. He's the reigning Cup Series champion and has four top-five finishes this season (only Kevin Harvick has more). He's already won twice in the sport's Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
But a closer look reveals all is not well with one of NASCAR's best-known superstars. Bristol presents a chance to reset a trying season at one of his best tracks.
Since the sport's return from COVID-19 quarantine, Busch's big moment has doubled as one of his career's biggest mistakes. In the closing laps of the May 20 Darlington Cup race, he swerved up the frontstretch thinking he was clear. Instead, Busch tapped the back of Chase Elliott's No. 9 Chevrolet in their battle for second place. Elliott spun out, hitting the inside wall hard while handing the race to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.
A post-race confrontation with Elliott's crew chief (and former Busch head wrench) Alan Gustafson ensued. Busch, admitting his mistake, understands it could come back to bite him if both drivers compete for the championship this fall.
"They're upset, they're mad," Busch said at the time. "I'm not just going to fix it and we'll have ice cream tomorrow. Obviously, they're going to have to dwell on it and there are repercussions of it I'm sure I'm going to have later down the road."
That runner-up finish was followed by a fourth in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. But Busch failed to lead a lap in that race; in fact, he hasn't led in Cup since the season-opening Daytona 500. Busch has no stage wins and sits a disappointing 12th in points despite those four top-five finishes.
In the Truck Series, Harvick put up $50,000 for COVID-19 relief (an amount matched by Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis) for anyone who could beat Busch. Elliott did Tuesday, bowing to the empty stands in a subtle jab at his rival. It was the first loss for Busch in that series in two years.
Then, there was Thursday night's mishap, a four-wide battle gone bad for Busch that cut his tire after contact with Aric Almirola. Spiraling out of contention, he came home 29th before throwing shade on Twitter.
"When surrounded by squirrels," Busch said, "You're bound to get hit by a nut."
Will he bounce back emotionally and get back in the game for Bristol? It's a track that requires total focus; a one-second bobble is all you need to cause trouble. Busch should know; August 2018 contact with now-teammate Martin Truex Jr. wrecked the No. 78 and cost him a potential win.
The good news is short tracks are a great equalizer on the NASCAR circuit. Tracks that rely on handling and driver talent will help Toyota teams who, Hamlin aside, have struggled to find front-running speed. JGR won five of the six short track races last year split among Hamlin, Busch and Truex Jr.
One could easily see Busch bouncing back into Victory Lane and quieting the critics. But a volatile Busch also gives us a wide variety of outcomes. Five straight Championship 4 appearances have forever raised expectations for this future Hall of Famer.
Can he get back to meeting them?
Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chase Elliott
Elliott finally cashed in after two straight near misses on the Cup level. He followed up a thrilling Truck race win Tuesday night by leading the final 28 laps in Thursday's sprint race, cruising to victory without a late-race caution mishap at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 2.2-second win was a huge boost of confidence for Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports. HMS has been arguably the fastest team all season, leading a NASCAR-high 692 laps, but Thursday was just their second win in eight races.
Who's at the Back: Matt Kenseth
The 48-year-old NASCAR veteran surprised some with a top-10 finish at Darlington two weeks ago. It was his first race since November 2018, driving for a new team in Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42 that had no practice or qualifying to even meet Kyle Larson's replacement.
Former NASCAR Cup Series driver David Ragan will come out of semi-retirement next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.Ragan, who left his full-time Cup ride at the end of 2019, will drive the team's No. 17 Ford with sponsorship from Select Blinds.
Pocono Raceway will remain on the NASCAR schedule at the end of June.The 2.5-mile, triangular-shaped oval will run its 2020 Cup Series races without fans. Pocono was already scheduled to host the sport's first doubleheader, holding a 300- and then a 350-mile race during the weekend of June 27-28.
Midweek NASCAR Cup Series TV ratings have struggled a bit.Thursday night's Charlotte race scored just a 0.91 rating and 1.5 million viewers. While rain-delayed, it's a 25 percent decline from Darlington Raceway's 1.2 the week before and well below the sport's average. NASCAR's return from COVID-19 at Darlington, by comparison, earned a 3.7 Nielsen rating on May 17.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight top-10 finishes by point leader Kevin Harvick to start the 2020 season. He was 10th at Charlotte.
Harvick’s average finish this season. That's nearly half the total of the second-best driver, Denny Hamlin's 10.1.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch may be the man to beat in the end at Bristol. But teammate Denny Hamlin should give him a run for his money down the stretch. Hamlin has two career wins here, including the August night race last year where he led 79 laps and stamped out a Cinderella bid by Matt DiBenedetto with a late surge.
Ryan Blaney should have won at this track already, leading 379 laps in the last four races at Bristol. Indeed, he was taken out in the spring 2018 race here in a crash not of his making while leading the race. But since then, Blaney's got three straight top-10 finishes and starts Sunday's event from the outside of the second row.
Clint Bowyer has failed to cash in with a fast car these past two weeks. But Bristol is typically a place he rights the ship. Bowyer has four straight top-10 finishes at Thunder Valley, leading 144 laps and in contention to win late in August 2018 before a poor restart.
Ryan Newman is trying to collect all the points he can after missing three straight races earlier in the season after his Daytona 500 wreck. Bristol should help him do that, so let him help your fantasy roster. He's got six straight top-15 finishes here and was ninth and 11th in the two races held last year.
Everyone's going to pile into the boat of Matt DiBenedetto. Last year's second-place finisher in the August night race is the underdog most want to root for.
So be different. That's how you win in fantasy. How about Matt Kenseth? He'll be cheap after three straight wrecks but the Bristol track record is outstanding: four wins and 15 top-five finishes, including the last two races he ran here in 2017. The No. 42 Chevrolet was also top 10 at Bristol last year.
And Ty Dillon, who won a stage here in 2019, has a chance to earn you place differential points. He starts 29th and is a good bet to improve after finishes of 15th and 20th last season and a career average finish of 22.9.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch does lead the way with 4/1 odds at Bristol according to vegasinsider.com. Joey Logano is next up with 13/2 while Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick are tied at 8/1.
Want a big-time longshot? Ty Dillon is sitting at 250/1.
What I Think
Kyle Busch is due to catch a break. Watch him strap in and win Bristol Sunday to right the ship.
— 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.