Five drivers to watch at Bristol Motor Speedway

Here are five drivers to watch as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500.

The NASCAR Cup Series is headed to Bristol Motor Speedway for the second short track race of the season. The last time NASCAR visited a short track, Clint Bowyer snapped his 190-race winless streak at Martinsville Speedway.

At Texas Motor Speedway, three drivers who were expected to run well finished inside the top-15. Martin Truex Jr. looked like he was  going to challenge for a win until a blown tire on lap 80 took him out of contention. Aric Almirola was caught up in a lap 179 crash.

Will one of the Team Penske Fords find victory lane for the first time this season? Can Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson rebound after a disappointing finish at Texas? Will rookies Bubba Wallace and William Byron finish inside the top-10 for a second straight week? Will we see more cautions for accidents at Bristol than we saw at Martinsville?

Here are five drivers to keep any eye on this weekend to see how they perform at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin heads to Bristol Motor Speedway and hopes to find victory lane once again after a disappointing finish at Texas.

“Our team was definitely capable of winning the race at Texas.  I blame myself for putting us in a position we shouldn’t have been in,” Hamlin said in his pre-race advance. “It’s obviously an unfortunate situation. But we’re more motivated than ever to perform well at Bristol, and I have no doubt we can pull it off.”

Hamlin’s performed well at Bristol before, with three top-10 finishes in his last three races. He has the second best average finish among active drivers in his last three races. Hamlin will have a lot of ground to make up on Sunday as he will start back in the 25th position.

It should be noted that Hamlin’s teammate, Kyle Busch, has led 412 laps in the last three races at Bristol. That’s 140 laps more than the next closest driver. Coming off his first win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch will challenge Hamlin for the best Joe Gibbs Racing car at Bristol.

Jimmie Johnson during the first practice for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. (© John Harrelson / NKP)

Jimmie Johnson

The spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the three races where Jimmie Johnson visited victory lane last season. In fact, Johnson hasn’t won since June of last year at Dover.

A trip to Bristol, a track where he hasn’t finished worse than 11th in his last three races, might be what Johnson and his No. 48 team need to turn his season around.

“It’s the most physical track we run, and having to stay sharp for four hours with guys banging on your bumper for 500 laps, it’s just tough,” said Johnson on the Hendrick Motorsports website before the race.

Johnson sits 21st in the standings heading into Bristol, with just one top-10 in seven starts. A strong run at Bristol would provide Johnson and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports with a shot in the arm. Johnson will roll off from the 17th starting position.

Erik Jones had his career best finish, 2nd, at Bristol in August. (© John Harrelson / NKP)

Erik Jones

The last time Erik Jones raced at Bristol Motor Speedway he started on the pole, led 260 laps and finished second.

A year ago that was in the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. Now Jones is settling in nicely after seven races behind the wheel of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Jones sits 11th in points and has finished inside the top-10 four times this season.

A repeat performance from last fall at Bristol Motor Speedway by Erik Jones would be impressive from a driver showing no signs of a sophomore slump. Jones will have a top-15 starting spot on Sunday at Bristol and will start 13th.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. turns laps during the first practice at Bristol Motor Speedway.(© John Harrelson / NKP)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne

The Roush Fenway Racing duo of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne are headed to one of their best tracks on the NASCAR calendar. In the last three races at Bristol Motor Speedway, both have average finishes inside the top-10.

Stenhouse Jr. has finished second, ninth and 14th in his last three races at Bristol and historically, Bristol has been one of his best tracks.

“Bristol is one of my favorite tracks,” Stenhouse said in a team news release. “I can’t wait to get this weekend started especially with SunnyD on our No. 17 Ford. We’ve been so close at Bristol so hopefully we can get this fan favorite scheme into victory lane.”

Stenhouse Jr.’s teammate Bayne has finished 12th, 11th and seventh in his last three races at Bristol. Bayne is coming off of his best finish this season of 12th at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I’m proud of the effort that the team showed last weekend at Texas,” said Bayne in his pre-race team release. “We had to overcome a lot of adversity, but the car was fast, the team’s effort was strong and we were able to battle back to a solid finish. We’ll look to build off that momentum this week and our goal is to leave Bristol with another good run.”

Finishes inside the top-10 at Bristol Motor Speedway for both Roush Fenway Racing drivers would provide their best finishes of the 2018 season.

Stenhouse Jr. will have a great starting spot and will roll off fourth while Bayne will start towards the back in 33rd.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattlovisa.