NASCAR: Young Guns Turning Heads, Running Up Front at Bristol

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NASCAR: Young Guns Turning Heads, Running Up Front at Bristol
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Bristol Motor Speedway is known as one of the toughest tracks in NASCAR. It goes by such names as “Thunder Alley” and “The World’s Fastest Half Mile.”

When a young driver can tame the bull ring that is Bristol, others take notice. In Sprint Cup practice and qualifying this weekend, a few young drivers have shown they have the potential to impress in Sunday’s race.

Regan Smith qualified third at Bristol, a career-best for qualifying. Smith wasn't just fast in qualifying. He posted the 13th best time in practice on Friday, and on Saturday kept up the pace with practice times in the top 20.

Smith is in his third season with Furniture Row Motorsports, and they are one of the most-improved teams in 2011. Smith scored a top 10 in the Daytona 500, but qualifying has been the team's greatest strength. After his third-place qualifying run at Bristol, Smith leads all Sprint Cup drivers with an average starting position of 6.25 in 2011.

Another driver who is looking good at Bristol is Paul Menard. Although he has struggled at Bristol in the past, there are indications that trend could change come Sunday.

Menard was fifth quickest in practice on Friday, and in qualifying posted the fourth best qualifying time to earn a spot on the second row. On Saturday he held steady with practice times around the top 15.

Menard has impressed after a move to Richard Childress Racing for the 2011 season. He led 11 laps in the Daytona 500, finishing ninth, and after three races Menard is sitting sixth in the standings.

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One young gun turns heads every time he circles the track even though he's not laying down especially fast lap times at Bristol.

That driver, of course, is Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.

Bayne calls Bristol one of his favorite tracks. While his track record at Bristol isn't special, Bayne has been steadily improving over the course of the weekend. If he manages to stay out of trouble in Sunday’s race, who knows what magic there could be for Bayne and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford?

Bristol presents a unique challenge to all drivers. The half-mile track is not kind on young drivers learning the ropes around the high-banked speedway. When a young driver comes to Bristol, he is lucky to be running at the end of the race.

To be on the lead lap is more than most can hope for, and leaving the track with an assortment of scrapes, wheel marks and deformed sheet metal after 500 laps of nonstop action is a foregone conclusion.

Racing at Bristol gives Smith, Menard and Bayne a chance to impress fans and fellow competitors alike with displays of toughness, tenacity, and the drive to compete under adverse conditions. Putting together a solid run would signify major progress in the development of these drivers.

But at Bristol for these three young guns, accomplishing that feat will prove easier said than done.

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