Kyle Larson is in the midst of the best season of his career. His Chip Ganassi Racing Chevys are stronger than they have ever been, and he is driving them better, melding his experience with natural ability to one victory and five second-place finishes in the season’s first seven races.
Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway represents a key test of Larson’s much-anticipated breakout season. Simply put, he has struggled at the half-mile concrete track. Among tracks at which he has raced at least five times, Larson’s average finish at Bristol (21.5) is his third worst, behind only Daytona (24.6) and Martinsville (21.7).
Young drivers often need several visits to Bristol to get accustomed to the high banks and short tempers of the track, and after they get acclimated, their results improve. But Larson, 24, seems to have gotten worse, not better, at Bristol.
The first three times he raced there, his average finish was 9.66, and he finished on the lead lap each time. The past three times he raced there, his average finish was 33.3, and he finished at best five laps off the pace.
Still, there is reason to believe Larson will be strong at Bristol – or at least stronger than he has been lately. The track’s high banking allows drivers to slide up near the wall, which mimics the style of racing from when Larson was a young driver in open-wheel series.
While his finishes at Daytona and Martinsville were so-so this year, he performed better at both of those tracks than he has in the past. And he has shown he can finish well at Bristol when he has a good car, which he all but certainly will this week.
What’s in a name: The spring race at Bristol has been called the Food City 500 for 25 years – the second longest entitlement deal, behind only the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Neither of the top two drivers in points, Larson and Chase Elliott, were born before the first Food City 500 in 1992. Nor was Ryan Blaney, who is sixth in points.
It’s Bristol, baby, happy voice edition: Among regular drivers with at least 10 starts at Bristol, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (average finish, 12.4, one victory), Kevin Harvick (13.9, two victories) and Jimmie Johnson (14.2, one victory) own the best average finishes. But Kyle Busch (14.3, five victories) is the most likely to dominate the race. He has led 1,960 laps at Bristol, more than any two of those three combined.
It’s Bristol, baby, sad voice edition: Among regular drivers with at least 10 starts, Michael McDowell (zero top-10s, average finish 32.2) and Landon Cassill (zero top-10s, average finish 30.2) are the most likely to finish poorly.
Keep an eye on: For Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bristol is statistically his best track. His average finish in six races there is 10.6 (his best), and he has three top-5 finishes (his best).
Three up, two down: After the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ first off weekend of the year, there are three surprising names in the playoff hunt and two out of it. Blaney, Erik Jones and Trevor Bayne all would make the playoffs if they started today. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth would not. Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are both too talented and drive for too high caliber of teams to stay out of the mix. Look for the two of them to make the playoffs and Bayne and Jones to fall out of contention.