With qualifying and practice in the books, the next time the Cup drivers take the track at Bristol will be for the start of Sunday's Food City 500. The weekend started with a bang with four drivers needing to go to backup cars after the first practice, including Kyle Busch and Danica Patrick. Denny Hamlin then ended Team Penske's qualifying dynasty by snagging the pole. However, Team Penske didn't exactly struggle in qualifying. Brad Keselowski did earn a spot on the front row for the third straight week, and his teammate Joey Logano is starting fourth.
At a track like Bristol, qualifying is definitely worth paying attention to. After all, drivers starting in the back of the pack can get lapped in a hurry at the half-mile oval. It is no coincidence that the last 18 winners at the track have started inside the top 20, while five straight winners have started eighth or better. Yes, it is still important to take practice speeds into account, but as we dive into the final rankings, you will notice that I placed a little more emphasis on qualifying this weekend than I have so far this season.
The top 3
1) Kyle Busch
His weekend didn't start well, as he trashed his primary car in the opening practice, but he bounced back with a seventh-place run in qualifying and a strong showing in Saturday's practices. In other words, the five-time Bristol winner appears to be back on track. Since joining the Cup Series in 2005, Busch leads all drivers in just about every important statistical measure at Bristol.
2) Matt Kenseth
The last time the Cup Series visited Bristol, Kenseth ended up celebrating in victory lane. After qualifying third and ranking near the top of the charts in practice, a fourth career win at the track could be on tap Sunday. He also ranks either first or second in average running position, driver rating, fastest laps run, green flag speed, laps in the top 15 and laps led at Bristol since 2005, so he is a safe bet to get the job done for fantasy owners in any format.
3) Brad Keselowski
His red-hot start to 2014 has continued at Bristol, and Keselowski will start on the front row for a third consecutive week. More importantly, Keselowski has finished third or better three times in his last five starts at the track, and during the stretch, he is the only driver to win multiple races. By the way, he also started in the top 10 in his two previous victories at Bristol.
12) Joey Logano
Everything seems to be pointing to a big day for Logano at Bristol this weekend. For one, he is off to a stellar start in 2014, and he will be starting fourth with a car that performed pretty well in race trim, as well. Meanwhile, he has finished in the top 10 in two of his last three starts at the track, including a career-best fifth-place run last summer. You have to love his upside.
15) Greg Biffle
Although he has never had a signature performance at Bristol, Biffle has always been solid at the track. He is up to his usual tricks this weekend, qualifying eighth Friday. Biffle's 11.9 average finish in the last 20 races at Bristol is actually the fourth best in the series, and he has finished 13th or better in seven of his last nine races at the track. He should be a safe bet for at least a top-15.
16) Marcos Ambrose
Outside of the road courses, Bristol may just be Ambrose's best track, and he isn't disappointing this weekend. He qualified inside the top five Friday, and he turned great times in practice Saturday. Meanwhile, he has a solid 15.9 average finish in 10 starts at the track, logging five top-10s and finishing outside the top 20 only twice.
26) David Gilliland
Gilliland was my sleeper coming into the weekend, and after qualifying 16th and practicing in the top 20, he is definitely in play in deeper leagues. He has eight straight finishes of 27th or better at Bristol, including three straight top-25s. A top-25 seems well within reach for Gilliland again this weekend.
Big names outside the top 10
20) Brian Vickers
I was big on Vickers heading into the weekend. After all, he has 5.3 average finish in his last four races at Bristol, and he is the only driver with three top-five finishes during the stretch. However, he qualified a dismal 38th, and while his practice times were better, he is starting so deep in the field that he is likely going to be forced to use a little pit strategy to have any chance of getting to the front. Despite his recent success at Bristol, owners may want to opt for a driver facing less of an uphill battle.
24) Tony Stewart
He is known for starting slow, but "Smoke" has been especially putrid to start 2014. He was totally uncompetitive at Las Vegas last weekend, and he is starting 37th Sunday at a track where he has been struggling anyway. Stewart has six straight finishes outside the top 10 at Bristol and has four finishes outside the top 25 during the stretch. He could be in for another rough outing Sunday.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
Don't miss these great reports....