Weekend preview: Bristol Motor Speedway

It’s not hard to find something concrete to say about Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

For the past three seasons, NASCAR Cup Series drivers have spent the spring event at Bristol racing on Tennessee red clay — 2,300 truckloads worth.

This year, however, dirt won’t be covering the concrete surface for the first race at the 0.533-mile track. Under the circumstances, you might think Christopher Bell would be chagrined at the loss of an opportunity to defend last year’s win on the dirt surface.

Instead, Bell sounded almost euphoric about the prospect of two 2024 Bristol races on the high-banked concrete. In his last two Bristol Night Races, Bell ran fourth in 2022 and third in 2023 after winning the pole.

“I love racing at Bristol,” said Bell, who almost assuredly cemented his place in the 2024 Playoffs with his victory last Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. “It’s literally my favorite race on the schedule. I’m very thankful we get to go twice this year. It’s been a track we have excelled at the last couple of times we have been there — we’ve been close.

“Bristol is another important race for us; you don’t win the Championship there, but you can definitely lose it if you’re not good. Having a versatile car is the key to a good run at Bristol. We know the bottom will be good because they are spraying the resin (traction compound) down, and we know the top is going to come in at some point, so you have to have a car that can really run both places.”

And that’s from a driver who grew up racing on dirt and won three straight Chili Bowl Nationals during his NASCAR offseasons.

The last driver to win a spring Bristol race on concrete was Brad Keselowski in 2020, a feat he accomplished from the pole. Keselowski, however, hasn’t won a Cup race since April 25, 2021 at Talladega, his last year with Team Penske.

Now an owner/driver with RFK Racing, the 2012 series champion saw his drought reach 102 races with last week’s fourth-place run at Phoenix.

With eight victories, Kyle Busch is far and away the leading active winner at Bristol, but like Keselowski, Busch has switched teams — from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing — since his last victory at the short track in the spring of 2019.

Denny Hamlin, who won last year’s Bristol Night Race, is tied with Keselowski with three victories at the track, second-most among active drivers.

“As a purist, I love seeing this race back on the concrete,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, as the last guy that won there, it’s going to be good to go back there and kind of test what this car wants compared to what we had in the past.

“We’re going to have to tweak on it, but we feel like we’ve got a good base setup with what we had last year.”

Because of high speeds and extreme loads in the corners — Bristol is billed as the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” — Cup drivers won’t be using the new short-track package that debuted last Sunday at Phoenix.

–Rajah Caruth can continue historic run on Bristol’s high banks

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series returns to action after a week off, and Spire Motorsports driver Rajah Caruth has a chance at another career milestone in Saturday night’s Weather Guard Truck Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

With a victory from the pole in the March 1 Truck Series event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Caruth became the third Black driver to win a NASCAR national series race, joining NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott and Bubba Wallace.

Should Caruth win at Bristol on Saturday, he would be the eighth driver in the series to win his first and second races in consecutive starts, joining Rich Bickle (1997), Kurt Busch (2000), Ted Musgrave (2001), Todd Bodine (2004), Kasey Kahne (2004), Kyle Busch (2005) and Johnny Benson Jr. (2006).

An alumnus of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Caruth credits that initiative with his rise to national-level racing.

“It’s really the only reason I was able to go from sim racing to real-life,” Caruth said on Monday during a Zoom call with reporters. “Aside from that, I didn’t have any path to race in real life. …

“They not only gave me my shot in 2019, they also gave me the time to develop. … They allowed me to grow. I showed up every day, trying to get better, working on the cars, learning how to race. They’re the only reason I got to this point now.”

In trying to win a second straight race, Caruth faces a daunting challenge from Spire Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch, a five-time Truck Series winner at Bristol. The all-time series leader with 65 victories, Busch is making his third start of the season after winning at Atlanta and finishing 15th at Las Vegas.