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Busch favored to continue Bristol mastery at Food City 500

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 14, 2018 at 4:13 PM

BRISTOL—With his toughest competition going to the back of the field, Kyle Busch enters as the pre-race favorite for Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Race time has been moved up to 1 p.m. because of the threat of weather.

Busch leads all active drivers with six Monster Energy Cup Series wins at Bristol. He is the track's all-time leader with 20 wins, counting the Truck and Xfinity Series. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota swept all three national series races at Bristol last August and laid down a pole-winning lap of 128.822 mph.

In addition, he has five straight top-three finishes in the Cup Series, including a win last week at Texas.

His older brother, Kurt, appeared to have the car to match Busch. However, Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford got loose coming off turn two and slammed the inside retaining wall on the backstretch in the final practice. After wrecking, he will have to start Sunday’s race from the back of the field. Kurt Busch, a five-time Bristol winner, is looking for his first win on the .533-mile short track since the 2006 Food City 500.

PENSKE POWER

Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are both two-time Bristol winners and they qualified third and 10th, respectively, for Sunday's race. But the fastest car in Friday practice was Ryan Blaney's No. 12 Ford.

Blaney has a Bristol win in the Xfinity Series, but is looking for just his second career Cup Series win overall. Team owner Roger Penske has 12 wins at Bristol, the most Cup Series wins at any track. Seven of those came with NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, with two each for Keselowski and Logano, and one with Kurt Busch.

JONES AND HAMLIN

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin have reasons to be optimistic about their chances in the Food City 500. Jones, in the No. 20 Toyota, finished runner-up to Kyle Busch at last year's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race and he matched Blaney's practice speed.

Hamlin has one Bristol win, but has been in position to win a couple of other times. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota still holds the track qualifying record at 131.668 miles per hour and has three top-three finishes in his last five Bristol races.

THE CHAMPIONS

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson qualified 17th, but felt it was the strategy used in the second qualifying session which kept him from advancing to the final round. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is the defending race champion, and Johnson and the team have a history of coming up with big moments when they're counted out. However, Johnson will have to start at the back of the field after having two tires go flat after qualifying.

Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. has been fast the first seven races — producing a win at California — although the No. 78 Toyota hasn't looked as dominant as the last two seasons. He wasn’t among the leaders during Friday’s on-track action, 26th in qualifying.

DIRTY RACERS

The high banks of Bristol lead to drivers constantly being on the edge, which often suits the style of racers with dirt-track backgrounds. Kyle Larson has shown speed at Bristol since he first set foot at the place in the Xfinity Series, and his No. 42 was the fastest Chevrolet in qualifying. However, his results — no top-five finishes in eight starts — haven't matched the speed. Larson got loose and barely tapped the wall in Saturday’s practice session.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., another driver with a dirt background, has posted five top-10 finishes in 10 BMS races. They include a pair of runner-up finishes and a third-place finish in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Raicng Ford.

STEWART-HAAS TROUBLE

Stewart-Haas Racing had been the dominant organization coming into Bristol, but the team suffered damage to three of its four cars during practice. Kevin Harvick crashed his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in Friday's first practice, meaning both he and teammate Kurt Busch will start at the back of the field in backup cars. Clint Bowyer, who won the last Cup Series short-track race at Martinsville, suffered body damage on his No. 14 Ford after contact with Trevor Bayne late in Saturday’s practice.

THE WEATHER FACTOR

Sunday's forecast could mean a rain-shortened race, which could alter strategies and make it like a restrictor-plate where cars normally off the pace have a true chance at winning. A good darkhorse pick is 2013 Food City 500 winner Kasey Kahne. Driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing, Kahne has shown good speed so far. He ranked among the top 15 in both practice and qualifying.

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