NASCAR heads to Thunder Valley after off weekend

After a much-needed weekend away from the race track, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is at “The Last Great Colosseum,” Bristol Motor Speedway, for the second short-track race of the 2017 season, the Food City 500, as the heart of the season begins.

WHAT: Food City 500. 500 laps, 266.5 miles, three stages (125, 125 and 250 laps, respectively)

WHEN: Sunday April 23, 2017 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX (radio on PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR radio)

WHERE: Bristol Motor Speedway (0.533 mile short-track bullring)

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski (6-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

A lot of factors are unknown for this Sunday, but one thing is for sure: Carl Edwards won’t repeat. He emerged victorious in this race one year ago, but he won’t this year. Unless he pulls a Houdini and mysteriously appears back in the MENCS. But don’t bet on that.


THE LINEUP

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Due to inclement weather, qualifying was rained out on Friday evening from the track, meaning the field will be set based on points standings. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will start in the top five positions, with Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top ten.

Some other notable starters include Jimmie Johnson in 11th, Denny Hamlin in 16th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 20th, Matt Kenseth in 22nd and Danica Patrick in 29th.


RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY

We made it seven races into the season without precipitation delaying or postponing the start of a race, but lucky number seven isn’t so lucky this weekend in Bristol, Tennessee.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The XFINITY race was delayed for around one hour due to Mother Nature interfering, and it looks as if it will wreak some havoc on the Food City 500 Sunday as well. From noon onward, there is an 80 percent (or more) chance of rain in the Bristol area.

The good news? The track is one of the smallest on the NASCAR circuit and only takes 30-45 minutes to dry. Plus, the track has lights if the race must be run during the evening. But for all intents and purposes, I think most are planning for a Monday morning/afternoon event.


THE VHT IS BACK

Whenever the race goes green, though, it appears as if the bottom groove will be the lane of choice, as it was for most of the race last season. That’ll be due to one thing: VHT.

Photo: Getty Images

The sticky substance is primarily used in NHRA drag racing for grip at the starting line, but BMS opted to bring the substance back after the success it showed last year to increase the quality of racing. The speedway did it in part to bring back the racing that made Bristol famous: the bump and run on the bottom. Earnhardt did it, Wallace did it, and maybe someone will in 2017.

The increased amount of rain on the track this weekend is slowly but surely rubbing some of the VHT off the bottom groove, though. Some drivers are worried and have lost trust in the bottom lane, but some grip will be there. If the bottom is open and lap times show on the stat sheet that it’s faster than the top lane that dominated Bristol for a few years, drivers will use it.


YOUNG GUNS TIRED OF WAITING

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Ryan Blaney dominated the race two weeks ago at Texas but faltered late due to a strategy miscue. Chase Elliott has been knocking on the door time after time, but he has yet to knock it down. Erik Jones has been one of the top three Toyota drivers thus far this season and won the XFINITY race at Bristol on Saturday for the second year in a row. And Daniel Suarez has been scoring top ten finishes in his first MENCS season. But these dudes are tired of waiting.

They want to win. They want to end up in victory lane. And if there’s a weekend to do it, it might be this one. At Bristol, much like Martinsville, track position is half the battle. That’s why we saw Landon Cassill run inside the top ten for over 50 laps and Matt DiBenedetto earn his best career finish last season for BK Racing as well. Couple Blaney, Elliott, Jones and Suarez with their great equipment (along with their hunger for victory lane), and you might have a winner.


WHERE’S JOE GIBBS RACING?

Bueller? Frye? Busch? Suarez? Hamlin? Kenseth? … Gibbs?

Seven races into the season, and zero Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have found victory lane. Heck, they’re not even close to finding it. Ky. Busch sits seventh in the points standings, the highest out of the four JGR drivers. But three top five finishes and ten top 10’s out of 28 opportunities (four drivers, seven races, you do the math) isn’t up to JGR’s standards.

In fact, all four drivers finished outside the top 14 at Texas. Hamlin said they were “a 20th-place car at best,” as the No. 11 finished 25th. Busch has five career wins at Bristol in his career, but none since 2011. If JGR could at least run well this weekend, that would be a good confidence boost.


WILL THE PARITY CONTINUE?

Seven races, six different winners, six different organizations. Will that parity continue Sunday?

I say yes. There have been too many big-name drivers who haven’t won yet. Harvick, Ky. Busch, Hamlin, Kenseth, Logano, etc. All of those drivers have wins at Bristol, and have been knocking on the door of the winner’s circle in 2017. I think one gets a win this weekend. Speaking of…


PREDICTION

It’s the best time of the week! I’m taking Kyle Busch and the No. 18 M&M’s Camry to win the Food City 500. I think Busch will be on a mission and is already in a relatively good starting spot. His average finish of 14.3 at Bristol is third-best among active drivers and his driver rating of 100.5 is second-best. As for a dark horse, look no further than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He has three top five finishes in eight career starts at BMS and is his best track statistically. The No. 17 team as a whole is coming on relatively strong in 2017, as Roush Fenway Racing is as well.

NOTE: Victory Lane this week was a doozy. Ryan Cole and Zach Barnes came on the program for a “NASCAR For Dummies” segment (part one of two), and it’s already gotten rave reviews.