Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski have all but guaranteed themselves a berth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt kicked off the season by winning the Daytona 500. Harvick picked up the victory at Phoenix, and Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, scored the win last weekend at Las Vegas.
Bristol, a 0.533-mile, high-banked oval, is the first short-track race of the season. Several drivers have had a great deal of success here in the past, particularly Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch, his elder brother, Kurt, and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers with five Sprint Cup wins at Bristol. Kyle Busch's most recent victory here came in March 2011. He finished second to Kasey Kahne at this track one year ago.
"I've just had a lot of success there, but I've also had some misfortune there," Busch said. "Ever since I got through my rookie year, I've just taken a liking to the place. Of course, I've been able to get some help from my brother [Kurt]. He's always been really, really good there. But when they changed the track starting at the end of 2007, I just really took to it right away. I really liked it, and I've been fast there, but also I've had great race cars from Joe Gibbs Racing."
Kyle Busch has won 15 NASCAR national touring series races at Bristol, which is more than any other driver in national series history here. He has the most Nationwide Series victories at this track with six, including a season-sweep last year. His four Camping World Truck Series wins at Bristol is tops as well.
Kenseth is a three-time winner at Bristol, including a victory in the most recent race here last August. In the 2013 spring event, He plowed into the back of Gordon after Gordon blew his right-front tire and hit the wall on lap 390. Both drivers were running in the top-two at the time. Kenseth led 85 laps prior to his incident.
"We crashed out late in this race last year, but before that happened, I thought that we had a really great race car all weekend," Kenseth said. "We had such a fast car last spring, as well as last August, and we were fortunate enough to hold on and win the second race."
JGR driver Denny Hamlin won the August 2012 race at Bristol. He led the most laps in last year's spring event with 117 before he dealt with an ill-handling car. Hamlin had a run-in with Joey Logano, his former teammate, in the late going, as he hit Logano from behind and spun him around.
The incident involving Hamlin and Logano led to a post-race altercation between the two and their crew members in the garage area before Hamlin and Logano traded jabs on Twitter.
Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending series champion, has only one win at Bristol, which came four years ago. Johnson is hoping to improve on his finishes here after placing 22nd in last year's spring race and then 36th in the night event in August.
"We had a rough race last time at Bristol and got caught up in a wreck," Johnson said. "Bristol is going to be interesting for sure. Everyone is still trying to dial in their cars with the new rule packages. It hasn't been easy this year. We've been working really hard on these cars."
Keselowski won back-to-back races at Bristol from August 2011 to March 2012. He finished third in last year's spring event. Keselowski has finished no worse than third this season. He is currently one point behind leader Earnhardt.
"The weekend at Las Vegas gives us momentum and freedom to race for wins moving forward," Keselowski said. "While I enjoy racing everywhere we go, Bristol is one of those places that standout for most drivers. I have to say that I like the idea of getting our Ford Fusion into Victory Lane this Sunday."
Earnhardt is having his best start to a season in his Cup career. He finished second at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Earnhardt held the lead at Las Vegas until the last lap when he ran out of fuel on the backstretch, allowing Keselowski to slip by him.
Qualifying at Bristol should be quite entertaining this time, with NASCAR's new knockout qualifying format. Earlier this week, NASCAR tweaked the format due to recent safety concerns and issues with teams cooling down their engines.
Teams will be allowed one cool-down unit, connected through either the left- side or right-side hood flap/cowl flap, to cool down the engine. NASCAR has also banned cool-down laps during qualifying.
"I'm glad [NASCAR] made that adjustment," said Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer. "I guess the goal is to create excitement and energy on that racetrack, and how you do that is have cars on there. That's what I didn't like about the cool-down deal. First of all, it was dangerous. There was no question. We're out there running 200 mph, and [drivers on cool-down laps] are running 40 mph. They're not even running. They couldn't get out of the way if they had to.
"Now that you can cool off, I can go out there and make several laps if I need to...I think it will just enhance that entertainment even more."
Though NASCAR has altered the format to make qualifying safer, drivers and teams are uncertain what to expect in qualifying on a short track.
"The new qualifying format is going to be insane," Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards said. "I would say, as a fan, definitely tune into that."
Forty-five teams are on the entry list for the Food City 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, March 16. Race: Food City 500. Site: Bristol Motor Speedway. Track: 0.533-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 500. Miles: 266.5 2013 Winner: Kasey Kahne. Television: FOX. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.