The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500. After an off weekend, cars hit the track on Friday at 11:30 a.m. for first practice, and then at 4:45 p.m. for Coors Light Pole Qualifying.
Here are nine drivers to look out for during the upcoming race weekend.
ELITE TIER: $10,000 and up
Kevin Harvick ($10,400)
Bristol: 32 Starts, 2 Wins, 11 Top 5s (34.4%), 15 Top 10s (46.9%)
Average finish at Bristol: 13.9
Kevin Harvick won the fall Bristol race in 2016, and finished seventh in the spring race. In his win, he started from the 24th position and moved up into the top five by the halfway point of the race. From then on it was smooth sailing. His average running position after lap 250 was an impressive third place.
Harvick has not had the start to 2017 that he was hoping for, but he went into the off weekend on a high note. His fourth-place finish at Texas was his best of the season. He has three top 10s in seven races so far this year, and three in his last three Bristol races.
Brad Keselowski ($10,300)
Bristol: 14 Starts, 2 Wins, 4 Top 5s (28.6%), 5 Top 10s (35.7%)
Average finish at Bristol: 15.9
Brad Keselowski is the first driver of 2017 to pick up multiple wins. His first came at Atlanta in week two, and his next at Martinsville three weeks ago. Keselowski has the momentum coming out of the break and is heading to a track where he has stepped into Victory Lane twice.
Keselowski’s first Bristol win came in 2011. He led 89 laps en route to the win from the eighth starting position. He won the very next race at the track the next season, after dominating much of the race. In the winning effort, he led 232 laps, after climbing from the fifth starting spot.
When Keselowski starts up front at short tracks, he finds a way to stay there. If he starts up front again this weekend, look for him to be a serious contender for the win.
Kyle Larson ($10,100)
Bristol: 6 Starts, 2 Top 10s (33.3%)
Average finish at Bristol: 21.5
The MENCS points leader has been the best in show through the early portion of the season. Larson has one win and four second-place finishes, including the last series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Larson’s Bristol appearances have been up-and-down since moving to the premier series. He started off on a high note in 2014, with 10th- and 12th-place finishes. He notched a BMS career high in 2015, with a seventh-place finish in the spring race. However, 2016 was a down year for the 24-year-old. He finished 35th in the spring race and 24th in the fall race. In both races, he was involved in accidents, hindering the final finishing position.
Larson is one of the hottest drivers going right now and has been a lock for a top-five finish in nearly every race so far. Expect him to keep thing rolling at Bristol.
ALL-STAR TIER: $8,000 – $9,900
Chase Elliott ($9,400)
Bristol: 2 Starts, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 15s
Average finish at Bristol: 9.5
Chase Elliott is second in series points, and has five top-10s in seven races. Elliott has a 23 point lead on third place Martin Truex Jr. Needless to say, if Kyle Larson weren’t here, Elliott would be building a wide margin on the points lead.
Elliott finished third at Martinsville, the only short track run to this point on the schedule. The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team is headed into Bristol with high hopes. As a rookie in 2016, Chase finished fourth in his first career Cup start at the track. In the fall race, he was involved in an 11 car wreck, but managed to escape with a 15th-place finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($8,600)
Bristol: 33 Starts, 1 Win, 8 Top 5s (24.2%), 16 Top 10s (48.5%)
Average finish at Bristol: 12.5
Dale Jr. finally had the monkey lifted off his back after sealing the deal on a top-five finish at Texas. Junior’s 2017 comeback season started off rocky, with back-to-back 30th- and 37th-place finishes. At Texas, Earnhardt was one of a handful of drivers to miss qualifying and had to drive his way to the front from the 37th starting spot.
Earnhardt has one win at Bristol in his career and is coming off a second-place finish in this race a season ago. That runner up spot was the second top 10 in two Bristol races for the veteran.
He has been high risk, moderate reward early on in the season. The modest price of $8,600 makes it a little easier to take a flyer on him this week. If Junior gets back to 2016 early season form, he could be an upset pick at Bristol.
Clint Bowyer ($8,400)
Bristol: 22 Starts, 6 Top 5s (27.3%), 10 Top 10s (45.5%)
Average finish at Bristol: 15.7
Another driver finding his groove early in the season is Clint Bowyer. He is averaging a 12.4 place finish through seven races. If we take out his 32nd-place finish at Daytona following a wreck, his average finishing position bumps up to 9.1. Bowyer has been the only consistent driver that Stewart-Haas racing has had so far in 2017.
Victory Lane has dodged Bowyer at Bristol through 22 starts, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. Before running for HScott Motorsports in 2016, Bowyer had only one finish outside the top 15 since 2011. From 2012-2015, Bowyer’s average finishing position at Bristol was 9.8. That’s nearly six spots better than his career average.
BARGAIN TIER: $4,500 – $7,900
Erik Jones ($7,800)
Bristol: First Career Cup Series Start at Bristol
Erik Jones is making his MENCS debut at Bristol on Sunday. Jones had great numbers at Bristol in the XFINITY Series, including a win in the spring race last season. He has top-15 finishes in five out of the seven races this season, including a 12th place at Martinsville.
Jones has outrun his value all season long, and the price still hasn’t reached over $8k. Jones deserves a look every week until that happens.
Kurt Busch ($7,700)
Bristol: 32 Starts, 5 Wins, 9 Top 5s (28.1%), 16 Top 10s (50%)
Average finish at Bristol: 14.8
Kurt Busch finished 10th at Texas, ending a four race streak where he didn’t finish above the 24th position. Since winning the Daytona 500 to start the season, Busch’s average finish has been a mediocre 24.6 over the following five races. That 10th place two weeks ago could be the bounce back that the former series champion needs to get his season on track.
Busch has five career wins in 32 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway. In this race last season, Busch led 41 laps in a third-place effort. In fact, Busch has led laps in five out of the last eight Bristol races. In the fall race, Busch was running in the top five when he was involved the 11 car wreck. He was not as fortunate as Elliott; he finished the day in 38th.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($7,100)
Bristol: 8 Starts, 3 Top 5s (37.5%), 4 Top 10s (50%)
Average finish at Bristol: 10.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ranks second among all active drivers in best average finish at Bristol (10.6). He finished second in this race last season, matching a career high from 2014. Stenhouse has only finished outside the top 20 once in eight starts at the track, which is an outstanding mark considering he has started outside the top 20 in all but one race.
It’s hard to say that Stenhouse’s success at Bristol is all luck when he has done it consistently over eight races. Although he is not as attractive a name as the top-tier drivers, he is borderline must-start this week. The incredible value salary for his resume here is unmatchable.