“Thunder Valley” welcomes back NASCAR

Less than three days after taking the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a rain delayed event won by Chase Elliott, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for the first short-track race of the season.

The half-mile circuit near the border of Tennessee and Virginia has hosted 118 Cup Series races and 42 different drivers have visited the unusual elevated Victory Lane in the small infield.

Denny Hamlin will be looking to go back-to-back at Bristol after winning the fall race last year. If he wins on Sunday, it would be the 13th different driver to win consecutive races in Thunder Valley. It was most recently done by Kyle Busch (fall 2017 and spring 2018, he also swept the races in 2009) and has been done by two other active drivers (Kurt Busch – 2003 sweep and 2004 spring race; Brad Keselowski – fall 2011-spring 2012).

Hamlin is one of two drivers this season with multiple victories after winning the season opener at Daytona and the second Darlington race. Joey Logano is the other, winning at Las Vegas and Phoenix prior to the stoppage due to the pandemic.

Kevin Harvick is the lone driver this season to finish in the top 10 in each of the opening eight races, with five of those being top-five results.

Chase finally takes the checkered

After a pair of heart-breaking defeats while leading in the final laps of the races at Darlington-2 and Charlotte-1, there were four-leaf clovers in Chase Elliott’s path on Thursday night at Charlotte as he held on to capture his first win of the season in the 312-mile event.

Elliott passed fading Kevin Harvick for the lead on Lap 181 of 208 and cruised to a 2.208-second victory over fast-closing Denny Hamlin, who passed Ryan Blaney for the runner-up position on the final lap.

The win was a welcome relief for the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, who was wrecked by Kyle Busch while running second May 20 at Darlington and was KO’d by a late caution in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Sunday while leading with two laps left.

If you’re wondering if Elliott can win two in a row, he stands a shot at Bristol. He’s finished in the top five in two of the most recent three races there. And finished fourth in his series track debut at Bristol in 2016. He has also completed an impressive 99.3 percent of the laps in the races he’s entered on the tough short track.

Elliott has put together four top-five results in the opening eight races and five top 10s. He’s completed all but nine laps and currently sits in in third in the points standings, 41 points back of the leader Kevin Harvick.

Food City to honor supermarket heroes

The NASCAR Cup Series was originally scheduled to race at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 5, but the pause in racing pushed that event to this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Earlier this week, long-time Bristol Motor Speedway partner Food City announced a new event name to honor the individuals working in the grocery industry throughout the pandemic. The “Food City presents the SUPERMARKET HEROES 500” honors all of the workers from the cashiers, those in the stock room, workers in the fresh departments and the truck drivers who deliver goods.

“Like our counterparts throughout this great nation, our dedicated team of associates have gone above and beyond the call of duty to meet the needs of our customers and the communities we serve,” said Steven C. Smith, president and CEO of Food City. “From the extraordinary efforts of our front-line store associates to those working behind the scenes, this is truly a team effort. We’re proud to have this opportunity to honor supermarket heroes around the country for their hard work and dedication, as Food City proudly presents the SUPERMARKET HEROES 500.”

Food City has been the entitlement partner of the spring race at Bristol since 1992 and this Sunday’s race marks the 60th running of the race.

Busch brothers rule Bristol

Darrell Waltrip tops the all-time wins list at Bristol with 12. Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Cale Yarborough trail with nine wins apiece. But the last name that appears the most often on the Bristol Motor Speedway wins list is “Busch.”

Kyle Busch (eight wins) and his older brother Kurt (six wins) have combined for 14 wins at Bristol and there’s no reason to think that number couldn’t grow this Sunday in the Food City presents the SUPERMARKET HEROES 500.

Kyle’s mark leads active drivers in wins, while Kurt is second in that group. The next closest among drivers on Sunday’s entry list is Matt Kenseth’s four wins, while Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano have two apiece.

And the Busch brothers have combined to win four of the last five races at the half-mile track. Kyle is the most recent Busch to post a win, capturing the victory in the spring race a year ago. Kurt preceded him the fall before.

Overall in 38 starts, Kurt has the six wins, 12 top fives, 20 top 10s and has led 1,095 laps at Bristol. Kyle has the eight wins as part of 12 top fives, 17 top 10s and led 2,334 laps in 29 starts.

And the next best at Bristol

While the Busch brothers have ruled Bristol amongst the active drivers, Matt Kenseth isn’t too far behind with four wins in Thunder Valley.

The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet last won at Bristol in the spring of 2015 – and it was the only of his four wins that came in the spring race.

Almost as remarkable as his wins is that he’s completed nearly 95 percent of the laps in the 36 starts he has made at Bristol – crashing out in only four of those races. Impressive at the short track known for beating and banging.

Kenseth’s last races at Bristol came in 2017, when he finished fourth in both races. He’s led 1,583 laps and posted 15 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes.

Five other active drivers have two wins at the track – Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano. Hamlin is the most recent winner at Bristol, having won last fall.

Prior to Hamlin, the Busch brothers ran off four wins between them. Johnson won in the spring race in 2017, Logano won most recently in the fall of 2015, and Keselowski has the longest gap since his wins – which were back-to-back in the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012.

Wood he, could he?

The storied Wood Brothers Racing team has been stuck at 99 wins since Ryan Blaney piloted the No. 21 Ford to Victory Lane at Pocono in 2017.

But this weekend could be the race in which they get that hundredth win with Matt DiBenedetto, who will be making only his ninth start for the team. And if he does reach Victory Lane, he would be the 19th different driver to win for the Woods.

Last fall, then driving for Leavine Family Racing, DiBenedetto came oh-so-close to capturing his first career win at the Bristol short track. Late in the race, he lost a large lead he had on Denny Hamlin while trying to put Ryan Newman a lap down. After DiBenedetto led a race-high 93 laps, Hamlin caught him with a dozen laps to go and held on for the lead.

The emotional second-place result for DiBenedetto was a career-best finish – matched earlier this season at Las Vegas with his new team.

DiBenedetto also scored a top-10 finish at Bristol in 2016 while driving for BK Racing, placing sixth in the spring race.

And Wood Brothers Racing has a history of bringing a driver to his first career win at Bristol. In the spring race in 2001, Elliott Sadler won his first NASCAR Cup Series race. He started 38th, the deepest in the field that a race winner has started from at Bristol.

Team Penske putting the pedal to the metal

Just eight races into the season Team Penske is showing they are a force to be reckoned with. After an off-season crew chief shakeup that saw Paul Wolfe move from working with Brad Keselowski to Joey Logano, Todd Gordon go from Logano to Ryan Blaney, and Jeremy Bullins move from Blaney to Keselowski the Ford organization is showing its strength.

Logano is tied atop the wins list with Denny Hamlin with two – taking a pair of wins on the west coast swing at Las Vegas and Phoenix, while Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 last weekend. And Logano is also near the top of the points, sitting second, 14 points behind the leader Kevin Harvick.

Logano also has a sixth-place finish at the second Darlington race and Keselowski finished fifth at Auto Club and fourth at Darlington to put together three top fives thus far in 2020. Keselowski is fifth in the points

And while Blaney finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500 and third in the Coca-Cola 600. He also put together an 11th-place finish in Las Vegas and is holding on to a solid sixth place in the points standings.

In the second of the races on the Charlotte oval this week, Blaney recorded his second straight third-place finish, while Logano and Keselowski were sixth and seventh, respectively.

As Blaney looks to join his Team Penske colleagues in the winner’s circle, Bristol could be the place that gives him a shot. Blaney has been solid at Bristol as of late, with three straight top-10 finishes in the last three races, including a finish of fourth in the spring race a year ago. He also had an 11th-place and a 10th-place result in the spring of 2016 and fall of 2017.

Champs spring from Bristol

In the past 20 years, four drivers have won the spring Bristol race en route to the season-ending championship. No drivers have won the fall race as part of their title run in that time.

And all four of the drivers are still racing fulltime in 2020.

The most recent driver to accomplish the feat was Kyle Busch, who did it on his way to winning his second NASCAR Cup Series championship. And it’s been well documented that Kyle Busch has the most wins at Bristol among active drivers – five of his eight wins have come in the early-season event at the half-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won the spring race in 2012, then racing a Dodge for Team Penske, and Jimmie Johnson won the fifth of five consecutive championships after winning the spring race in 2010.

Kurt Busch also accomplished the feat, winning the 2004 spring Bristol race before hoisting the series title trophy in the fall.

Sunoco Rookie watch

Through eight races, Tyler Reddick has taken a solid lead in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. The young Richard Childress Racing driver has a pair of top 10s (seventh at Darlington-1 and eighth at Charlotte-1) and 185 points.

Next up on the list is John Hunter Nemechek, who climbed into second in the rookie standings after the second Charlotte race with a total of 141 points.  He was the highest-finishing rookie, placing 13th.

Cole Custer, who posted his first career top-10 finish in the Cup Series at Phoenix before the stoppage in racing action, finished 18th at Charlotte-2 and dropped a spot in the rookie standings. He’s in third, three points behind Nemechek.