At the conclusion of Sunday’s Food City Presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol (TV: FS1, Radio: PRN; 3:30pm EST), the NASCAR Cup Series will be at the one-quarter mark of the season, with nine races completed. The series has been on a torrid pace since its May 17 return at Darlington, to where will Sunday’s race will be the fifth Cup race in two weeks.
Defending Cup champion no. 18 Kyle Busch was on a torrid pace to start the 2019 season when he won the April 7 Bristol Cup that served as race no. 8 of the season. It was Busch’s third win of the season and came at a point where he led the points standings, unlike this season where Busch is winless and 12th in points after eight races this season.
Busch’s performance reflects how other teams have driven a wedge into the JGR/Team Penske domination seen after the first eight races in 2019 when the two teams had won all eight races between Busch and three other drivers (no. 2 Brad Keselowski, 2; no. 11 Denny Hamlin, 2; no. 22 Joey Logano, 1).
After eight races in the 2020 season, JGR and Penske have won five of the first eight races among three drivers (Keselowski, 1; Hamlin, 2; Logano, 2), while Busch has gone winless even as no. 9 Chase Elliott and no. 88 Alex Bowman have each won for Hendrick and points leader no. 4 Kevin Harvick has won for Stewart-Haas Racing.
For Busch, Bristol could not have come at a better time as he leads all active drivers with most wins (8) and laps led (2,334) at Bristol, as well has having won three of the last five Cup races at Bristol, including the last two Spring races.
Busch rolls off seventh for Sunday’s race, three spots ahead of teammate Denny Hamlin who won when the Cup Series last visited Bristol in August 2019. The win was Hamlin’s second at Bristol and one of six victories during a career-high year for him.
However, where Hamlin relished in the thrill of victory, one Matt DiBenedetto was plighted by the agony of defeat, having been passed by Hamlin with 12 laps to go, in what was nearly an underdog win for the no. 95 Leavine Family Racing team he then-raced for.
The agony of the loss was temporary. What lasted was how the race served to show DiBenedetto’s hard work in maintaining his place in the Cup garage and where last year was an example of his hard work, this year is an example of what that hard work has earned him. Now driving for the no. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford at the personal recommendation of predecessor Paul Menard, DiBenedetto sits 11th in points, 35 points ahead of 17th place no. 8 Tyler Reddick, in eight races.
This is the best start for a full-time Wood Brothers Racing driver since 2017 when then-driver Ryan Blaney sat 10th in points, 64 points ahead of 17th after eight races. Blaney later won and made the Playoffs in 2017, each for the first time in his Cup career, which points to good things for DiBenedetto if the parallels continue between him and Blaney.
DiBenedetto has a chance to do what Blaney did in 2017, which is win. Not only did he lead the most laps and finished second in last year’s Bristol night race, but he also finished 12th in last year’s Bristol spring race and finished sixth in the 2016 spring race when he drove the no. 83 BK Racing Toyota, which garnered attention.
DiBenedetto starts ninth on Sunday as a driver who has gone from underdog to a possible favorite in a short period of time, a trajectory mirrored by no. 38 John Hunter Nemechek in the rookie of the year (ROTY) battle.
Ahead of February’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas, Nemechek was quoted as saying, “It’s the big three and why not me?” and such a statement has now come true. Nemechek sits second in ROTY points, outperforming two of those big three: no. 41 Cole Custer and no. 95 Christopher Bell.
Nemechek has propelled to that position by being the highest-finishing rookie in two races and scoring a top 10 in The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington for what was only Front Row Motorsports’ fourth non-Talladega/Daytona top 10. Nemechek’s 21st points position puts him only 47 points behind 16th place no. 48 Jimmie Johnson, which is by far the best start to a season that any full-time FRM driver has ever had.
Nemechek starts 18th in what will be his first Cup Bristol race, as seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will start one of his last Bristol races in 24th, with hopes of turning his bad luck around.
When the series resumed at Darlington on May 17, Johnson sat fifth in points and was on his way to padding that points position before a crash on the final lap on stage 1 relegated him to a 38th place finish. A yo-yo in performance has resulted, with an eighth following the 38th and an 11th place finish following a 40th place disqualification from the Coca-Cola 600.
Johnson is back to square one: Focusing on making the Playoffs. However, his performance is a leaning post for him as he sits at the helm of his swansong season. After eight races last season, his average driver rating was an 81.3, in comparison to a 91.7 rating after eight races this season.
Even with the bad luck plaguing Johnson, all it takes is a win to turn things around, which would be much appreciated for the seven-time champion who is looking to end a 103-race winless streak, dating back to Dover in June 2017.
Leading the field to the green flag is Coca-Cola 600 winner Brad Keselowski with no. 10 Aric Almirola lining up in second. Most recent winner, no. 9 Chase Elliott, starts sixth while points leader Kevin Harvick starts eighth as he looks to pad his 14-point lead over no. 22 Joey Logano, who starts third.
Stages for Sunday’s race are 125/125/250. This means that stage 1 will end on lap 125 while stage 2 will end on lap 250 and the race will end on lap 500. Two competition cautions will also fall on lap 20 and lap 60 (TV: FS1, Radio: PRN; 3pm EST).
Top 20 in Cup points:
1. Kevin Harvick (331 points; 1 win, starts 8th)
2. Joey Logano (317 points -14; 2 wins, starts 3rd)
3. Chase Elliott (290 points, -41; 1 win, starts 6th)
4. Alex Bowman (288 points, -43; 1 win, starts 11th)
5. Brad Keselowski (265 points, -66; 1 win, starts 1st)
6. Ryan Blaney (264 points, -67, starts 4th)
7. Martin Truex Jr. (263 points, -68, starts 5th)
8. Denny Hamlin (244 points, -87; 2 wins, starts 10th)
9. Aric Almirola (225 points, +40 over 17th place Tyler Reddick; starts 2nd)
10. Kurt Busch (223 points, +38; starts 12th)
11. Matt DiBenedetto (220 points, +35; starts 9th)
12. Kyle Busch (217 points, +32; starts 7th)
13. Erik Jones (193 points, +8; starts 15th)
14. Clint Bowyer (192 points, +7; starts 23rd)
15. Austin Dillon (190 points, +5; starts 20th)
16. Jimmie Johnson (188 points, +3; starts 24th)
17. Tyler Reddick (185 points, -4 behind 16th place Jimmie Johnson; starts 21st)
18. William Byron (183 points, -5; starts 13th)
19. Chris Buescher (164 points, -24; starts 19th)
20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (152 points, -36; starts 16th)
Notables outside of the top 20: Ryan Newman (28th in points, -74 behind 16th place), Matt Kenseth (32nd in points, -127 behind 16th place).
Rookie of the Year battle:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (185 points)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-44)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-47)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-74)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-126)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-155)
No. 53 Garrett Smithley has dropped out of the Cup Rookie of the Year race and is now running for Xfinity Series points.