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Two of the 'Big 3' among favorites in NRA Night Race

Jeff Birchfield • Aug 18, 2018 at 12:30 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — With a combined 17 wins in the first 23 races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have been labeled the "Big 3."

Two of them will be favorites to win Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where all events are scheduled to begin an hour earlier than planned because of the weather forecast. The start time for the race is 6:30 p.m.

Busch, who leads all active drivers with seven Cup wins at the high-banked short track, is the obvious choice to reach victory lane.

The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota used the bump-and-run to pass Kyle Larson with six laps to go to win the Food City 500 in April for one of his six wins this season. Busch led Friday’s final practice with a lap of 126.729 mph and qualified third behind Larson and Chase Elliott.

Harvick has two Bristol Cup wins, including the 2016 August race. The series’ most recent winner, his No. 4 Ford dominated at Michigan for his series-best seventh victory of the season.

Truex, the defending series champion, scored his fourth win of the season a few weeks ago at Kentucky, but that’s a 1½- mile track where the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota team has excelled. Truex has yet to win at Bristol, producing only three top-10 finishes in 25 starts. He was second fastest in Friday’s final practice at 126.312 mph.

Outside the big three, Larson is the favorite, and not only because he’s starting from the pole and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series Food City 300. The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet has led 472 laps over the previous three Bristol races and appeared to be on his way to winning the Food City 500 in April until getting moved out of the way by Busch.

Elliott hasn’t won at Bristol, but the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has been consistently good on the high banks. After scoring his first win at Watkins Glen two weeks earlier, Elliott comes to another venue where aerodynamics isn't as much in play as the larger tracks.

Joey Logano leads the Team Penske contingent. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won back-to-back August races at BMS in 2014-15. He can go all out at Bristol after his win at Talladega earlier this season put him in position to make the 10-race playoff.

Denny Hamlin, the 2011 night race winner, has always been fast at Bristol. Among his three poles, he set the track record of 131.407 mph in 2015. But Busch’s teammate in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota has earned no top-five finishes over his past 10 races.

Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, has two Bristol wins, including the 2014 August night race. But his recent results at Bristol have a lot to be desired, with four straight finishes outside the top 20. Teammate Ryan Blaney could be even more of a threat. Blaney has just one top-10 finish in six Bristol starts but led 100 laps in April before getting caught up in a crash.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is suffering through the longest winless streak in his career, and Bristol has been where great drivers like Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip have broken through after long struggles. The Bristol Night Race is the only major prize in NASCAR still missing from the resume of Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team.

Kurt Busch is a five-time Bristol winner, second only to his younger brother among active drivers. But the older Busch’s last win at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" came in 2006. 

The long-shot pick is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has six top-10 finishes in 11 Bristol races. Stenhouse has a pair of runner-up finishes and was fourth in the Food City 500 in the spring.

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