Food City 500 Preview

I am so ready for some Bristol action and I don't care that the racing has changed over the past decade there. It's just different from all other tracks, and I like that.

It's Thunder Valley. It's the Eastern Tennesse mountains and it's a short track with cars all jumbled together in each other's way. There's tempers, altercations, and fights, both on and off the track. Sunday's Food City 500 should have a little bit of everything and this track also expands the field of drivers that have a legitimate shot to win, which I also like.

The track itself isn't all about the driver like the other short track at Martinsville, but the .533-mile concrete oval with variable banking of 24-to-30 degrees certainly gives more drivers a chance to excel than any 1.5-mile oval. Although, that Texas mess last week had quite a few new names popping up near the front through attrition as wrecks took out some elite drivers.

Kyle Busch would hang on to win at Texas for his first win of the season and it was about time. Here's what we've got from him in his last five starts: one win, three runner-ups, and one third-place. I still think Kevin Harvick will continue to be the man to beat on the 1.5s, but Bristol is Kyle Busch country which is why he's the 7/2 favorite this week.

Need some evidence of why Busch is the favorite? How about because he's Bristol's active leader with six wins and 2,115 laps led. He won there the last time the series visited in the fall, and maybe most important is that Busch is a streaky racer and his wins come in bunches. He's also got nine Bristol wins in the Xfinity Series and six more in the Truck Series. The Las Vegan has the track figured out better than anyone, and that's under both layouts; the old layout with a single groove on the bottom and the current one with two equal grooves high and low.

“I certainly look forward to Bristol and I definitely have over the years, whether it was the old surface or when they repaved it," Busch said. "It’s been kind of frustrating a little bit for me on the Cup side since the (track surface) grind, but I think we are starting to get the hang of it now. We’ve had fast racecars there for a stretch, but different things have happened that have kept us from being able to finish those races off. And then we finally got back on track last August. I definitely look forward to this weekend. We’re hoping things will fall in place this weekend with our Skittles Camry and we get to victory lane there again. That’s always the goal each weekend."

That's funny. He said they're "starting to get the hang of it now" regarding the current layout. The dude has 21 Bristol wins between all three series.

Harvick has two career Bristol wins, one on each of the layouts, but lately, he's been having his best run on the track with a 4.2 average finish over his past five starts, which includes his fall 2016 win. He leads all active drivers with 12 top-five finishes during his 34 career starts. He's also got five Xfinity Series wins, but his most famous Xfinity moment came at Bristol in 2002 when Greg Biffle wrecked him and Harvick then jumped on the roof of Biffle's car and came flying down WWE style and starting wringing Biffle's neck. It's the type of heated off track post-race action that Bristol was famous for. We need more of that in today's climate of empty seats at every stop. Real emotion. Anger. Let us see some rivalries building. It seems like these drivers in this new era play patty-cake with each other. Harvick also has a 2011 Truck Series win.

It's quite possible we'll see a Busch-Harvick 1-2 quinella for the fourth time this season, but there are a few drivers that should be given serious consideration beginning with Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones, who was leading late last week at Texas. He won the Bristol spring Xfinity race the past two seasons and then last fall in his second career Cup start he took No. 77 to a runner-up finish. He started from the pole and led a race-high 260 laps. The No. 20 he driver this season is better than the No.77. He really knows this track well. The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota also won twice with Matt Kenseth driving.

Kurt Busch is a five-time winner, but the last win came in 2006 under the old layout. He finished fifth last fall and was third in the spring of 2016. His car should be almost as good as Stewart Haas Racing teammate Harvick and there are worse things to blow $5 on than a wager on him at 30-to-1 odds or higher.

Martin Truex Jr. is listed at 6/1 odds, but his Bristol resume is extremely weak with only two top-fives in 24 career starts.

“Even though I have had my share of misfortunes at Bristol, I continue to feel confident about racing there and know that we have a shot of something good to happen on Sunday,” said Truex.

To be fair to Truex, he's always got a fast car and after starting third is this race last season he led 116 laps which is the most he's ever led at Bristol. He was 21st in the fall, one lap down, keeping with his 20th-place average finish.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doesn't get much mention outside of plate races, but his team has things figured out at Bristol where he has a 10.8 average finish which is best among active drivers with more than three starts. He's been runner-up twice. He's listed at 60/1 odds at the Westgate SuperBook, but shop around and get a better number if wanting to have a couple bucks on a live long shot.

Jimmie Johnson won this race last season. It was only the second Bristol win of his career spanning 32 starts. This is a place he could steal a win despite a car not as good as the new breed of elites in the series. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott has an 11th-place average with a best of fourth-place his rookie season. I'm just really skeptical of the Camaro. Every time there's been a body or rule change with NASCAR or Chevrolet of any kind, HMS has always been ahead of the curve. Not this time.

Denny Hamlin was 10th at Bristol last spring and third in the fall. His only win there came in 2012, but he's had a third-place finish in each of the past three seasons. He's anxious to get back on the track after wrecking last week at Texas.

“Our team was definitely capable of winning the race at Texas, and I blame myself for putting us in a position we shouldn’t have been in," Hamlin said. "It’s obviously an unfortunate situation, but we’re more motivated than ever to perform well at Bristol, and I have no doubt we can pull it off.”

Yes! That's the type of talk I love hearing from drivers that I'm about to bet on. I also like that Hamlin is teammates with Kyle Busch so his crew gets some stellar shared set-up info. Include Jones in that mix as well.

Kyle Larson in his Chip Ganassi Camaro also had two top-10s at Bristol last season, including leading a race-high 202 laps in the spring. Those 202 laps led all come right out of the gate when he started from the pole. It looked like he was going to run away and lead every lap. In the fall he led three times for 70 laps. The first thing unattractive about him here, though, is his short odds at 7-to-1. The second thing is that the drivers Camaro and while he's been better than the Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress cars, he hasn't been as strong as last season in year over year comparisons. I might have taken a shot at 15-to-1, but certainly not 7-to-1. However, he may be a quality fantasy option and match-up play.

Martinsville winner Clint Bowyer, from SHR with Harvick and Kurt Busch, has seven top-fives at Bristol, including runner-up last spring.

“At Bristol, you have to have the total package, a lot like I did in Martinsville,” Bowyer said. “I asked (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) if there was any way we could bring the Martinsville car to Bristol. He said no because I tore it up too much and they had to cut the body off of it. But, I’m not worried. We’ll have another hot rod at Bristol.”

Both Martinsville and Bristol are half-mile short tracks, but that's where the comparison ends. They're about as different as Dover and Daytona. Martinsville is flat, Bristol has the high banks. But this type of bumper-to-bumper racing suits his style. If liking his chances, shop around and get the best price on him because his odds are likely to vary by a wide margin.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
2) #20 Erik Jones (15/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (30/1)