Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Food City 500 at Bristol Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

It’s Bristol baby!

After the first off weekend of the season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets back to business in a big way as they head back to a short track with this weekend’s stop at Bristol Motor Speedway for the running of the Food City 500.

Bristol always brings out the excitement from fans and competitors alike as packing 40 cars into the half-mile high banked bullring can only be explained by the phrase “flying fighter jets in a gymnasium”, which is more accurate than it would seem. Drivers race two and sometimes three wide throughout the event and when trouble happens, it’s usually more than one car that is involved. By the end of the race, even the race winner will look like they have been in a demolition derby. It’s no wonder that Bristol is a fan favorite.

Though the outside groove has been the preferred lane over the last few seasons, Bristol polished the lower groove and applied a VHT-like substance to that section of the track prior to last summer’s night race, which gave drivers another option of where to run. Pictures have surfaced on social media showing the VHT on the lower groove once again for this weekend’s race, so that will be something else to watch out for as Sunday’s race plays out.

“We applied the treatment to the lower groove in the four turns and coming out of the straightaways,” Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at Bristol said. “The substance really just helps rubber stick to the track. And then we brought in a tire machine that we used to drag the track for a while to get rubber down and give drivers some grip so they can get down there and hang with that upper groove.”

“We were very pleased with the results last August and we are looking forward to preparing the track in the same fashion this April,” Caldwell added. “We received a lot of positive feedback from drivers and others in the industry, as well as our fans. We’re looking forward to more thrilling side-by-side racing at the upcoming Food City 500.”

By the Numbers

Opened: 1960

Track Size: 0.533 mile concrete oval (Turns banked 34 to 30 degrees; Straights banked 4 to 9 degrees)

Race Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 125 laps; Final stage: 250 laps

Pit Road Speed: 30 mph

Pace Car Speed: 35 mph

April 2016 Race Winner: Carl Edwards – No. 19 Toyota – Started first, 276 laps led

August 2016 Race Winner: Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Chevrolet – Started 24th, 128 laps led

Track Qualifying Record: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (14.602 seconds, 131.407 mph – 8/19/2016)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Bristol:

  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 100.9
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 100.5
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 95.7
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 94.9
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 93.1
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 91.6
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 91.5
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 90.2
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 87.4
  • Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 87.4

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s a lot shorter than the rest of them, it’s extremely high-banked, it’s concrete, and there’s 160,000 people staring at you. That makes Bristol different than any other race track. Who in their right mind couldn’t be a fan of Bristol? If you don’t like Bristol Motor Speedway, you’re not capable of being a race fan. You’re just not,” said Clint Bowyer.

“You would have to really sell hard for me not to believe that short-track racing is our best product. It just is, and the reason I say that is because it’s so much fun, so demanding inside the car. The workload is through the roof for the driver and the excitement is there for the fans.”

Last Year’s Results

While the rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were struggling throughout the day at Bristol, the newest member of the JGR stable, Carl Edwards, had a nearly flawless day at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” en route to a win in last year’s Food City 500.

Edwards started on pole and showed that he would be a force to be reckoned with early and often, leading 276 laps on the day and holding off the field on a late restart for his first win of the season and his third career win at Bristol.

“There were so many different things happening out there. Different guys were fast at different times. I have to work on my drag racing stuff, Kurt (Busch) has those restarts figured out. He was tough. Just awesome. This is a real testament to my team. The guys have been working really hard. We’ve got Comcast Business folks here and they helped put this whole thing together with ARRIS and Toyota, TRD, Stanley – all the folks that made this 19 team happen. Just great and so awesome. Thanks to Sprint and Cessna and all the folks that make this happen. Now we’re in the Chase and we can go have some fun. Just so cool, awesome to be here,” said Edwards.

Following Edwards to the finish was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who started the race in the pits with an electrical issue and fell multiple laps down, only to rebound back to a second consecutive runner-up finish.

Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano rounded out the remainder of the top-10. Kurt Busch, Elliott, DiBenedetto, and Bayne all scored their best finishes of the season and in the case of Elliott and DiBenedetto, it was their best career finish.

“I’m sorry I’m so speechless – just I’m so thankful to everybody on this team, everybody at BK Racing, Cosmo Motors in Hickory, North Carolina – they’re local to me, he’s my best friend, sell some awesome cars, please check them out – everyone at BK Racing, Dustless Blasting. These guys, man – that’s unbelievable for a team like to us to be growing this much and for us to get a sixth-place run – I’m sorry I’m so emotional, it’s just this is like a win for us. I am so excited. I see my family back here – my wife, Taylor, my brother is in town from the military and I’m so glad he got to experience this. This is just – this is incredible. I’m so blessed to be here,” said DiBenedetto.

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Still looking for his first career Cup Series win, Bristol could finally bring a trip to victory lane for the sophomore driver at Hendrick Motorsports. In his two starts at the track last season, Elliott brought home finishes of fourth and 15th, while leading a total of 14 laps, giving him an average finish of 9.5.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – There’s something about Bristol that fits into Stenhouse’s wheelhouse. On the concrete high banks, Stenhouse and Roush-Fenway bring their A-game as Stenhouse has scored three top-five finishes and four top-10 finishes in eight starts, including a runner-up finish the last time the series was at Bristol last August.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – After breaking though for his first top-five of the season two weeks ago at Texas, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team now have their sights set on victory lane. Earnhardt is a former winner at Bristol (August 2004), with eight top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 790 laps led, and an average finish of 12.5 in 33 starts. Though he missed the race last August while recovering from his concussion, Earnhardt did finish second in this race one year ago.
  • Kevin Harvick – Winner of the race last August, Harvick will be looking to make it two in a row at the Last Great Colosseum, as well as scoring his first win of the season. In 32 starts, Harvick has two wins (2005, 2016), 11 top-five finishes, 15 top-10 finishes, one pole, 862 laps led, and an average finish of 13.9.
  • Jimmie Johnson – With top-10 finishes in four of the last five races at Bristol, Johnson will be looking to up the ante for his second Bristol win and second win in as many races in 2017 after conquering Texas two weeks ago. His lone Bristol win came back in 2010, with an additional 10 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, two poles, 833 laps led, and an average finish of 14.2 in 30 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, April 21

  • MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (4:45 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, April 22

  • MENCS Practice (8:30 am to 9:25 am – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (11:00 am to 11:55 am – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, April 23

  • MENCS Food City 500 at Bristol (2:00 pm – 500 laps, 266.5 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.