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Gibbs, Penske teams remain Food City 500 favorites

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 6, 2019 at 5:08 PM

BRISTOL — It’s a familiar refrain at Bristol Motor Speedway and everywhere else the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races these days.

Pre-race favorites have to come from Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.

The two teams have won all seven races to date in the 2019 season. Kyle Busch, who is always the favorite at Bristol with seven Cup Series wins and a track-record 21 wins overall in NASCAR’s three national series, already has two wins this season.

Busch, the defending race champion, had a disappointing 17th-place qualifying effort, but that’s no problem for the Las Vegas native, whose No. 18 Toyota has come much farther back in the field before to win at Bristol.

His teammate, Denny Hamlin, is the series’ most recent winner at Texas. He also won the Daytona 500 to open the season and is a former Bristol winner. They are joined at JGR by 2017 NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones, both of whom have runner-up finishes at BMS.

No driver has more motivation than Jones, driving a No. 20 Toyota with a paint scheme specially designed by kids from Niswonger Children’s Hospital and television reality star Richard Rawlings. If Jones wins the race, a $1 million donation will go to Children’s Miracle Network.

On the other side is Team Penske with Brad Keselowski, already with two wins including the short-track race at Martinsville, in the No. 2 Ford. Like the Gibbs team, some of his toughest competition comes from within.

Defending series champion Joey Logano was the fastest in Saturday’s final practice in his No. 22 Ford. Also showing great speed is Ryan Blaney in the No. 12 Ford. Blaney looked to be the car to beat on Friday’s Bush’s Beans Pole Day, but he got too aggressive in the final qualifying session and ended up third.

The Penske drivers have enjoyed great success at BMS with Keselowski and Logano, both two-time winners, and Blaney, a former winner in the Xfinity Series.

WILL THE STREAK BE BROKEN?

Could this be the weekend that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson breaks a nearly two-year winless streak? Johnson has been stuck on 83 victories, tied with his boyhood hero Cale Yarborough for sixth on the NASCAR’s all-time win list for a while now.

His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been fast the first part of the weekend. Johnson qualified a solid 10th and was second in the final practice session.

Chase Elliott, driving the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, will start on the pole after setting a track record at 131.713 mph during Friday qualifying. He has plenty of experience at Bristol from his days in the K&N Series to the Cup level.

William Byron in the No. 24 Chevrolet could also be a contender. Working with Chad Knaus, the crew chief for all seven of Johnson’s championships, Byron qualified on the outside pole.

HARVICK, LARSON AND KURT

While the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords haven’t had the success of Team Penske with the new Mustangs, two-time Bristol winner Kevin Harvick has to be among the favorites. He was fourth in the final practice.

Kyle Larson has been runner-up in the last two Bristol races. The high banks and the fact that drivers veer to the top of the track on a slick race track suit his driving style, which was formed on the dirt tracks.

Kurt Busch is the most recent Bristol winner, then in the Stewart-Haas No. 41 Ford. Now in the No. 1 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet as a teammate to Larson, he had a disappointing qualifying effort, but should be fast in the race.

DARKHORSE PICKS

Austin Dillon in the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford have traditionally performed well on Bristol’s high banks. Stenhouse has a pair of runner-up finishes in past Food City 500s, while Dillon is a winner in the Xfinity Series at BMS. Matching his car number, Dillon was third in final practice.

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