Column: Previewing NASCAR’s Return To Thunder Valley…The Bristol Motor Speedway

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – How do you add to the competitive high drama of four NASCAR Cup series races in the last 12 days? Do it again – at three of the most historical venues on the circuit beginning this weekend with the iconic Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

The Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on Bristol’s high-banked half-mile starts another busy stretch of NASCAR racing that will include NASCAR Cup Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 7 and a Wednesday night stop at the always-exciting Martinsville Speedway short track on June 10 – three premier series races in a little more than a week.

When it comes to Bristol Motor Speedway – it’s been a Busch Brothers Bonanza. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is the two-time defending winner of the Bristol spring race. His eight total wins at the track are most among all active drivers. His older brother Kurt has six wins. And the two have hoisted four of the last five trophies – a four-race Busch family winning streak finally snapped by Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin last August. In all, the Busch brothers have combined to win nine spring races.

And the motivation for these brothers to hoist that first trophy of the 2020 season is as intense as ever.

The two are currently ranked 10th (Kurt) and 12th (Kyle) in the championship. Kurt, who drives the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has three top-five and five top-10 finishes and led 54 laps through the opening eight races. His last win at Bristol was August, 2018. His last victory in the series was July, 2019 at Kentucky Speedway.

Kyle Busch, who is coming off a championship season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has four top-five finishes but has led only 14 laps. His best showing on the season is runner-up – twice (California and Darlington). His 14 laps out front is the fewest number of laps led through the season’s first eight races since his 2005 rookie year (10 laps through eight races). Even in 2015 when he missed the first 11 races due to injury – he led 283 laps in his first eight races back.

Bristol could very well be the place Busch gets that first trophy of the year and ups his championship defense efforts. Counting all three NASCAR national series – Busch has 20 Bristol wins (seven NASCAR Xfinity Series and five NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series victories as well). As with all the drivers – and despite his success – Busch expects Sunday’s race to be challenging with the series decision not to hold practice or qualifying so to keep the races to a more safe one-day show.

“I’m not sure it gives me any sort of advantage there, necessarily,” Busch said of his past success. “Obviously, with the success we’ve had there over the years, I feel really good about going there. But we make a lot of adjustments typically when we get there.

“We go through practice, we are really fine-tuning a lot of different things and being nitpicky about a bunch of it to make sure we get it to where we want it for the race.”

And, he added, “You definitely have to understand some of those adjustments during practice is a big deal and we won’t have that, so we just have to get after it right at the start of the race. I know our guys are up to the task and hope we can have a good Skittles Camry and have it with enough adjustability in it so we can make the right changes and have a shot at the win there.”

Another certainly up for that challenge is Kevin Harvick, who won at Darlington on May 17, the first race back since a two-month long break for the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. The 2014 series champion continues to lead the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings – by 14-points over Joey Logano and is the only driver to earn top-10 finishes in every race this season. His 391 laps led is also a high mark.

The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has a pair of wins at Bristol, most recently the 2016 Fall race.

Harvick’s hot start to the season is certainly challenged of late by 24-year-old fan favorite Chase Elliott, who earned his first win of 2020 in Thursday night’s rain-delayed event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was runner-up at the track’s 600-miler on Sunday and the two showings have moved him to third place in the series driver standings (41 points behind Harvick) – the same ranking he was before the pandemic break.

Elliott has four top-10 finishes in eight Bristol starts. He was 11th in the No 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in this race last year. His best ever Bristol showing is third in Fall, 2018.

The last driver to celebrate in Bristol’s famous Victory Lane was Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who won last August taking the lead from underdog Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps remaining. Hamlin already has two victories in the No. 11 JGR Toyota in 2020 – including his third Daytona 500 win to open the season.

DiBenedetto, who took over driving duties in the famed No 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford this season, certainly earned a sentimental victory with his showing on the Bristol high banks last summer. His 93 laps out front during the race is the highest single race laps led total for the 28-year-old six-year NASCAR Cup Series driver. He was emotional when he climbed out of his car and was greeted by raucous cheers and a standing ovation for his work.

He returns to Bristol this weekend ranked 11th in the championship – only 24 points behind eighth place Hamlin and three points ahead of reigning series champion Kyle Busch. He’s earned a pair of top-10 finishes including a runner-up showing at Las Vegas in March.

“That was probably one of the biggest days for my entire career honestly, so that was a moment I’ll never forget, having all the support from the fans,” said DiBenedetto. “That was a crazy moment and I really didn’t even know how to feel because it was probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life, but also one of the most rewarding from the support we had from the fans and everybody. It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel, but ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

XFINITY SERIES READIES FOR BRISTOL

The NASCAR Xfinity Series season schedule may be a little unconventional as the sport responds safely to the world COVID-19 outbreak, but the racing on track remains as competitive and captivating as always.

This year’s championship battle has been especially tight among the sport’s brightest up-and-coming drivers with a steely veteran keeping them all honest.

Chase Briscoe – the only two-time winner of the year – collected his second victory at Darlington S.C. last week and now holds an eight-point edge over Austin Cindric atop the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver standings. The top six drivers are separated by only 33 points heading into Monday’s Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco (7 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Briscoe, 25, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who has four top-10 finishes in the opening six races, also boasts the top record in the 2019 Xfinity races at Bristol – finishing runner-up to eventual Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick in the Fall race and fourth in the spring race – just behind the current NASCAR Cup Series rookies Christopher Bell, Reddick and Cole Custer.

Fellow Ford driver Cindric started from pole position last August and finished fifth in the race. The 21-year-old has five top-10 finishes in six races this season and shown himself to be a factor weekly.

Both Briscoe and Cindric have had a lot of early season work to get past 19-year-old series rookie Harrison Burton in the standings who earned his first Xfinity Series trophy at Fontana, Calif. in March. He has top-10 finishes in all six races to date including runner-up showings at Daytona and Darlington to go with his win and trails Briscoe by 17 points. Bristol has been an important track in his young career. He made his first Xfinity Series start in this race last year, starting fifth and finishing 10th in his debut.

Of those top six drivers in the standings, only Justin Allgaier has ever won at Bristol before. In fact, the 34-year old driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet scored his first major NASCAR victory at the half-miler in 2010. The track has been a particularly strong suit on his resume with eight top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. The 11-time Xfinity Series race winner trails Briscoe by 33 points in the driver standings heading into this weekend.

“Bristol is a place that has always been special to me,” said Allgaier, who has earned five of his 11 career victories on tracks one-mile or shorter. “It’s where I got my first win and I’ve always felt comfortable on the track there from the day I turned my first laps. Last year, we nearly won twice there, but bad luck struck us both times. That’s definitely something you don’t forget and I know this Suave Men team is just as eager as I am to get back there and get another shot at ending the day in Victory Lane.”

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