BRISTOL — Kyle Busch assumes the role of favorite for today’s Food City 500, following his track-record setting qualifying run on Friday.
Busch, whose five Sprint Cup wins at the high-banked oval, tie him with brother Kurt and Jeff Gordon for the most among active drivers, easily has his best starting spot for a Bristol race. Prior to Friday, his best start was ninth at the 2008 August night race, and he parlayed that good starting spot into a second-place finish.
Busch has 13 Bristol wins overall, counting his win in the Nationwide Series Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 on Saturday. He gave the rest of the field more reason to worry with the fastest speed earlier in the day leading both Sprint Cup practices.
With his No. 18 Toyota showing great speed and Busch’s ability to win at Bristol in different types of cars, there’s reason to believe he could dominate today’s race, the first for NASCAR’s Gen-6 car on a short track.
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski also has to be a significant part of the conversation. He has two Bristol wins and his No. 2 Blue Deuce was the fastest of the Fords, seventh in qualifying.
In addition, he has quickly adapted to the new race car, starting the season with three straight top-five finishes to currently rank second in the point standings.
That leads to the points leader Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. It’s not a surprise the five-time Sprint Cup champion has adapted to the new car faster than anyone. Although his struggles at the high-banked track over the years are well documented, Johnson’s recent history stacks up favorably with most anyone’s. Johnson has seven top-10 finishes over the past eight Bristol races.
Denny Hamlin, winner of the IRWIN Tools Night Race and a teammate of Busch, will start third in his No. 11 Toyota. While Hamlin finally broke through with a Bristol win last August, his performance has blossomed in the spring. For three straight years from 2008-10, Hamlin had near-misses in his attempts to win the Food City 500.
There are plenty of others to consider including outside pole sitter Kasey Kahne, still looking for his first Bristol Cup win, and fourth-place qualifier Brian Vickers who can’t be considered a total surprise after leading 125 laps and finishing fifth a year ago. Vickers backed up that strong performance with a fourth-place run in August.
Matt Kenseth is a two-time Bristol winner and fresh off winning last week’s race at Las Vegas. He’s quickly adapted to his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, and was right with Busch and Hamlin at the top of the speed charts during Saturday practice.
Paul Menard, currently Richard Childress Racing’s highest-ranking driver in the points, is a darkhorse pick who could pay dividends. Menard, who qualified fifth on Friday, has three top-10 finishes in his last four Bristol starts.
There are always the former winners you can’t count out. Five-time Bristol winners Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, as well as 2005 Food City 500 champion Kevin Harvick were all fast in Saturday practice. Tony Stewart, the 2002 night race winner, had an eighth-place qualifying effort.
Joey Logano won the Food City 250 Nationwide Series race last August. Logano, the teammate of defending champion Keselowski, was strong the last time out at Bristol, leading 139 laps and finishing eighth at the IRWIN Tools Night Race.