Food City 500 Preview

Sunday's Food City 500 on the high-banked, half-mile concrete layout at Bristol Motor Speedway could produce record speeds because of the new rules package with the higher spoiler, an engine with 750 horsepower, and no aero-ducts. It should also produce some road rage with almost every driver lined up bumper-to-bumper and side-by-side for 500 laps.   
Bristol's bullring is already the fastest half-mile track in the world, but the speeds are still slow enough that drivers have no problem bumping a slower driver out of the way with little fear of injuring the driver as would be the case on the larger tracks. This is where the fun starts for a lot of us. I love rivalries. I love drivers announcing payback is coming. I even like brawls. It adds new storylines for the ensuing week. Bristol is the perfect place to provide some of that.
“Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the best racetracks on the circuit," points-leader Kyle Busch said. "All the fans love it because of the excitement, the run-ins and the close-quarter action with all the cars being packed on top of one another at a half-mile racetrack with us 40 lunatics running around in a tight circle. With the fans, the atmosphere there always makes for a good time.”
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has posted Busch as the 5/2 betting favorite (Bet $100 to win $250) on the basis of him winning two of the last three Bristol races and his seven wins are most among active drivers. He's also got nine Xfinity Series wins there along with five Truck Series wins. 
Busch proved to have a great car with this package winning at Phoenix last month after leading a race-high 177 laps. He was third at Martinsville with it as well. He's got the history and he's obviously got the package. But if we back out his seven Cup wins at Bristol, he's only got three other top-fives in 20 starts. He's had some volatile moments leading to poor finishes at the track. Here are his last 10 starts beginning with last fall: 20th, 1st, 1st, 35th, 39th, 38th, 8th, 36th, 29th, and 11th.  He's been in accidents in four of his last eight starts. 
Denny Hamlin didn't win a race last season, the first time in his career going winless in a Cup season. But after last week's impressive win at Texas, he's now got two wins in the seven races this season. He's second in points and has a 5.3 average finish between his seven starts. He won at Bristol in 2012 and is 14-to-1 to win Sunday. 
“Bristol is always a fan favorite, and it would be such an awesome place to return to Victory Lane," Hamlin said. "We’re proud of our performance at Texas, but now our team is back to work with all our focus on the challenge at Bristol.”
The thing that makes Hamlin such a great candidate to win this week, besides having no pressure to win, is what he did at Phoenix and Martinsville this season using the package with 750 horsepower. He's one of three drivers to have finished in the top-five of both races.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have four of the seven wins this season and Bristol is a place where they can add to the total, but it's not just Busch and Hamlin as a top candidate. Erik Jones has his usual weekly odds of 25/1 dropped down to 14/1 because he's proven to be very good at Bristol. He's a two-time winner there in the Xfinity Series and as a rookie in the Cup Series in 2017 he started from the pole, led 260 laps and finished second. Last fall he finished fifth. For whatever it's worth, Matt Kenseth drove the No. 20 to two Cup wins at Bristol while with JGR.
As for the JGR No. 19 driven by Martin Truex Jr., this is his third worst statistical track (21st-place average) behind Talladega and Daytona. In 26 starts he's only got two top-fives and none of them came in his glory years driving the No. 78. He was 30th in both Bristol races last season. He's 14-to-1 to win this week and the good news if betting him to win is that this package led him to a second-place finish at Phoenix last month. 
Kevin Harvick sits third in points and is considered the star performer of Stewart-Haas Racing, but the driver sitting fifth in points, his teammate Aric Almirola, has actually looked a bit better with the package being used this week. I came to that conclusion when I saw Harvick struggle (9th) at Phoenix last month, a place he owns with nine wins. Harvick didn't even lead a lap. At the same time, Almirola finished fourth and led 26 laps. 
“Never in my career have I been able to go to the racetrack every weekend with the opportunity to win," Almirola said. "We have done that at every race so far this season. With the combination of all of the smart people at Ford Performance, Roush Yates and Stewart-Haas, we’re unstoppable. You see what the Penske team has been able to accomplish with Ford cars so far this season. It’s a matter of time before SHR catches up and we are running at the front every weekend.” 
SHR is going to win soon and I believe Almirola presents the most value among their drivers this week. Harvick is 12/1 to win his third Bristol Cup race. Clint Bowyer was runner-up last week at Texas and is 14/1 this week. Almirola is 20/1, and Daniel Suarez, who finished third at Texas, is 60/1 to win Sunday. In this race last season, Almirola's first at Bristol with SHR, he finished sixth.
Kyle Larson has had an incredible last two years of races at Bristol, leading laps in his last four starts. In the spring of 2017, he led 202 laps and last spring he led 200 laps. He was runner-up in both races last season. Perhaps the track owes him something soon? 
"I don’t feel like I’m owed anything anywhere but that’s the one track where I feel like time after time I’m close to winning a race there every time I go," Larson said. "I just don’t get it done. Not that it owes me anything. I just need to do a better job at the end of the races.”
I thought I might be able to get some decent odds on Larson because his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Camaro doesn't seem as polished as new teammate Kurt Busch's No. 1, but the SuperBook lists him as the second choice to win at 7/1 odds. He struggled at Martinsville two weeks ago with this package but finished sixth at Phoenix last month with it. One last note, Larson won the fall Xfinity Series race at Bristol last season. Yes, he had a great 2018 at Bristol. 
By the way, the elder Busch brother won the fall race at Bristol last season driving the SHR No. 41 Ford giving him six career wins there and first since they changed it to progressive banking with multi-grooves. Busch is 14/1 to win this week.      
Another driver I was hoping find some large odds on was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but the SuperBook was all over him as well offering just 25/1. Come on, 50/1? But I suppose the book knows that Stenhouse is the active leader at Bristol with an 11.3 average finish, and he's done that while the Roush Fenway Racing program wasn't exactly in its heyday. 
“Bristol is one of my favorite tracks," Stenhouse said. "It’s such a fun track. We’ve been so close at Bristol and just keep coming up short one position. The race will be exciting. I think you might see record speeds at Bristol with the new package. We have made a few mistakes the past couple of weeks so we are looking to rebound and keep climbing back up through the ranks.”
Stenhouse was fourth in this race last season and he was runner-up in 2014 and 2016. His best run with this package this season was 13th at Phoenix.
The driver I'm going to key on prior to practices is Ryan Blaney (12/1) who drives one of those fast Penske Mustang's. His teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined for three wins and Blaney's best performances this season, where he was good enough to win, was using this package with 750 horsepower and no aero-ducts. He was third at Phoenix leading 94 laps and fourth at Martinsville, one of three drivers with top-fives at both tracks using this package.

In his first season with Penske last year he got to the front quickly at Bristol leading 100 laps in the spring before being caught up in an accident and then leading 121 laps in the fall before finishing seventh. He also won an Xfinity Series race at Bristol in 2014 and a Truck Series race in 2015.  
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #12 Ryan Blaney (12/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (14/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (5/2)
4) #10 Aric Almirola (20/1)
5) #20 Erik Jones (14/1)