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Cup drivers favored in Food City 300

Jeff Birchfield • Yesterday at 12:54 AM

BRISTOL — The “Big 3” in the NASCAR Xfinity Series are overshadowed by the entry of three Cup drivers in Friday’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, and defending Cup champion Joey Logano will have favorite roles for the Friday race scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start. Erik Jones, a Cup Series teammate of Busch, was the fastest in Thursday practice with a lap of 123.618 in his No. 81 Toyota.

Busch is the obvious pick with a record nine Xfinity Series wins at Bristol, a record 22 wins at the track overall and the all-time Xfinity Series record of 95 victories.

Nothing is guaranteed in the sport. Busch started on the pole for last year’s Food City 300 and led the first 69 laps before making contact with the wall. He finished 36th after a broken A-arm on his No. 18 Toyota.

Logano, a 30-time Xfinity Series winner, has two wins in the series at Bristol to go along with his two Bristol Cup Series wins. Logano put together the most dominant Xfinity Series performance ever at Bristol in the 2015 spring race, leading all 300 laps.

One Cup driver who won’t be part of the action is defending race champion Kyle Larson, due to a loss of sponsorship for Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity Series program. However, Jones showed he was a driver to be reckoned with as well with his fast lap nearly 3/10s of a second faster than that of Christopher Bell.

THE BIG 3

Cole Custer, Bell and Tyler Reddick have dominated among the series regulars with 13 wins in 21 races.

Bell, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has five wins, including the Alsco 300 at Bristol in April. He has either won or finished second in his last five starts and has seven top-three finishes in his last eight starts. He’s working with Busch’s old crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, and it’s been a powerhouse combination.

Custer also has five wins, his most recent at Kentucky, a month ago. He has six top-10 finishes in his last eight starts and crashed out of the other two races. Like Bell, he has been fast everywhere this season.

Reddick leads the points and led 61 laps during the Alsco 300 in the spring. He has three wins and comes into Bristol with five straight top-five finishes.

RECENT SURGES

Austin Cindric has the momentum of two straight victories, although they came on the road courses of Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, tracks nothing like Bristol’s high-banked short track. Chase Briscoe was the winner of the last short track race at Iowa, although at 7/8-mile and lower banking, it’s more like Richmond than Bristol.

OTHER CONTENDERS

Justin Allgaier, fourth in points, is a former Bristol winner, although the victory came in 2010 driving for Roger Penske. Now with JR Motorsports, Allgaier does have five straight top-10 finishes. His JR Motorsports teammates — Noah Gragson and Michael Annett — each had strong runs in the spring.

Justin Haley, the upset winner in the July Cup Series race at Daytona, has been solid in the Xfinity Series with 15 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. His best finish was a second in the Xfinity race at Daytona, and he finished seventh at Bristol in April.

The darkhorse could be Brandon Jones, a teammate of Bell’s at Joe Gibbs Racing. While it’s been a rough season for the Atlanta-area driver, he was in contention at Bristol. He led 19 laps and a 14th-place finish camouflages how he was the leader with 18 laps to go before Bell took over the top spot.

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