There isn't much room when 43 cars compete on a half-mile track.
After an early season off-week, the Cup Series returns to action this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. The half-mile short track is famous for its high banks and physical action both on and off the track. One of the most popular tracks on the schedule, Bristol has been called everything from Thunder Valley to the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.
It takes a special breed of driver to compete at the bullring, and some drivers never figure the place out. Let’s get ready for Bristol by taking a look at 10 drivers with a legitimate shot at winning this Sunday’s Jeff Byrd 500 Presented by Food City.
Ambrose drives a banged up car after a wreck ended a top-10 run.
Marcos Ambrose is an emerging short track talent and is now driving the best equipment he has since joining the Sprint Cup. Last season alone, he finished fifth at Richmond and led 40 laps at Martinsville—his most at any oval in his career.
At Bristol, Ambrose has finished as high as third and has two top-10 finishes in four starts. He was running solidly in the top-10 at the track last March as well, until getting caught up in a wreck triggered by Mark Martin and Greg Biffle.
Joining Richard Petty Motorsports this offseason is what could put him over the hump. Ambrose is coming off a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas—his best career effort at a 1.5-mile oval. If he is going to run that well at a track type that has been traditionally his worst, an upset victory is a real possibility at a track like Bristol where he has run well in the past.
Bowyer is still looking for a win at Bristol.
His clutch fourth-place run at Bristol last August that helped him secure a spot in the Chase was just the latest in his run of success at the track.
Bowyer has finished in the top-15 in six of his last eight starts at the half-mile, finishing as high as third on two occasions. He showed just how good he could be during a four-race stretch from 2007 to 2008 when he compiled a 5.3 average finish.
Bowyer and Richard Childress Racing have yet to make a major impact in 2011, but a trip to a short track could change that. He has proven himself capable of finishing in the top-five, and a win is always a possibility for anyone that spends a lot of time running near the front.
Kenseth has been dominant in a pair of Bristol wins.
Kenseth is quiet by nature, so it is no surprise he is often a forgotten man when the series visits Bristol.
His 11.3 average finish during the past decade is fourth-best in the series, and the same can be said about his 97.7 driver rating. Kenseth has a pair of wins at the track during his career, and he has nine finishes of 11th or better in his last 13 Bristol starts.
Kenseth enters this weekend’s event riding a streak of three straight top-10s at the track. With the Ford teams running as well as they have in several years, Kenseth could be the next driver to snap a substantially long losing streak.
Junior makes it three-wide at Bristol.
For all his struggles since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Junior hasn’t been nearly as bad at short track as he has overall. In fact, he remains one of the more consistent options at Bristol.
Since the start of the 2002 season, Junior’s 8.3 average finish at the track is the best in the series. He doesn’t have a single finish outside the top-20 during the stretch, and he even has a win.
He enters this weekend’s race coming off back-to-back top-10s at Phoenix and Las Vegas, and with Junior running as well as he has in recent memory, he may finally be getting his confidence back. There may be an end in sight for his seemingly endless losing streak.
Changes to the track's layout have helped Newman.
He has never won at Bristol, but Newman has been one of the more consistent performers at the track, particularly since the facility added progressive banking.
He has 10 top-10 efforts in his last 15 starts at the track. Newman has finished as high as second during the stretch, finishing seventh or better in four of his last five starts. In those five races, he has an 8.2 average finish.
Newman rolls into Thunder Valley coming off back-to-back top-five runs, which is a rarity for him in recent years. With the No. 39 team firing on all cylinders, the top-10 runs that have become common for Newman could become a trip to Victory Lane this weekend.
Johnson will try to defend his 2010 win this Sunday.
After struggling at Bristol for most of his career, Johnson has more than figured out the bullring during the last two seasons. He still owns a somewhat mediocre 16.1 average finish at the track, but that mark couldn’t be more misleading.
He finished third and eighth at the track in 2009, and last March, he made his first career visit to Victory Lane at Thunder Valley. Johnson actually had a faster car in the August event last season and appeared capable of pulling off the sweep. However, a bump from Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart ended his night.
That being said, Johnson has clearly exorcised his Bristol demons. He has been relatively quiet by his standards thus far in 2011, and history tells us that a serious hot streak is on the horizon. It could start this Sunday at Bristol.
He has done everything but win at Bristol.
Biffle is quite possibly the best driver never to have won at Bristol. Over the past decade, his 10.8 average finish at the track is third-best in the series, while his 99.5 driver rating is second-best.
He has had plenty of strong runs, finishing 12th or better in 13 of his 16 Bristol starts. Biffle has finished as high as third and has finished inside the top-five on six occasions. In his last three starts, he has compiled a 5.3 average finish, delivering a pair of fourth-place efforts.
He certainly could use a breakthrough performance this Sunday, considering he enters the event 32nd in points. If he is going to get back in the thick of things, a top-10 isn’t going to cut it. Biffle needs a win, and he has shown in the past he can come very close to doing just that.
Stewart came within three laps of a Bristol win last year.
It hasn’t been Tony Stewart’s most consistent stretch at Bristol lately, but despite three finishes outside the top-15 in his last four starts at the track, it is a mistake to write of “Smoke” this weekend.
Not only is he a former winner at Bristol, he finished second at the track last March. In fact, he was leading with three laps to go before eventual winner Jimmie Johnson got by him. More importantly, Stewart’s 93.8 driver rating at the track is sixth-best in the series, which proves that bad luck and not bad cars have caused a lot of his recent issues.
Stewart enters Sunday’s race as co-points leader, and he has had a legitimate chance of winning all three races so far in 2011. If the No. 14 team can just figure out the proper late-race pit strategy, Stewart could be in Victory Lane as soon as this weekend.
Busch will try for win No. 6 at Bristol Sunday.
There was a time when Kurt winning at Bristol was nearly a sure thing. After all, he is a five-time winner at the track, and he reeled off three straight from 2003 to 2004.
Even though his last win in Thunder Valley came in 2006, Busch hasn’t exactly been slacking lately. He has finished in the top-15 in his last seven starts at Bristol, finishing in the top-10 in his last three outings. Last march, Busch led more than half the laps before a four-tire stop late in the race cost him track position and the win.
He enters this weekend’s race tied for the point lead, and he is the only driver in the series with top-10 finishes in the first three races of 2011. Busch has momentum on his side, and he should be motivated to make up for a win that got away one year ago.
Edwards has momentum on his side entering Sunday's race.
It seems like all he has done lately is win races, and history says Edwards could keep doing that this weekend at Bristol where he is already a two-time winner.
He has a 13.3 average finish at the track in his career, and that mark improves to 9.0 during the last 10 races. Edwards hasn’t finished worse than 16th during that stretch, picking up back-to-back wins in the track’s night race in 2007 and 2008.
Edwards has the past success at Bristol, and more importantly, he is one of the hottest drivers in the series. He has won three of the last five races dating back to last year, and he has had cars capable of winning all five races during the stretch. It would be a major surprise if he isn’t in the mix Sunday.
Busch has gotten used to winning races at Bristol.
With victories in three of the last four races at Bristol, it is tough not to consider Kyle Busch the favorite entering this weekend’s race. He has been nothing short of dominant at the bullring throughout his career.
In the last 10 races at the track, Busch has a series-leading 5.1 average finish. His nine top-10 finishes are also tops in the series. During the stretch, he has four wins and two second-place efforts. His 106.0 driver rating is the best among active drivers as well.
Last season, Busch accomplished another rare feat at the track. He won the Truck, Nationwide and Cup Series event in the same weekend. In other words, he just flat out owns this half-mile short track.