After a weekend off, the NASCAR Sprint Cup series is back in action this weekend. And there is no better place to heat things back up after an off-weekend than the Last Colosseum, Bristol Motor Speedway.
This year's race marks the first time since 1991 that the spring event at Bristol has carried a moniker other than the Food City 500. The Jeff Byrd 500 is named for Bristol's beloved track president who died last October after a long illness. It was Byrd's leadership, along with Bruton Smith's version, that took the .533-mile concrete oval nestled on the Tennessee/Virginia line from being one of NASCAR's most popular tracks to being the hot ticket.
Spring events at Bristol are notorious for action and altercations, both on and off the race track., After more than a couple of incidents in the first three races this season, payback could be looming for some drivers.
One driver not looking for payback but rather a rebound is defending race winner Jimmie Johnson. This time last year, he sat atop the point standings. His first career triumph at Bristol gave him three wins in the first five races of the season. This year, he has a third-place finish at Phoenix sandwiched between an accident in the Daytona 500 and a very un-Jimmie Johnson-like 16th place at Las Vegas. While the season is barely getting started and they are still 12th in the point standings, a repeat performance or at least another top-five has to be the target for the 48 team this weekend.
As with Las Vegas, two of the drivers to watch in Bristol will be the Busch brothers. Kurt is a five-time winner at the track, including a stretch of three consecutive spring races that began with his first career Sprint Cup win in 2002. Kyle, meanwhile, won the 2007 and 2009 spring events and is a two-time defending champion of the August event. Last August, he became the first driver in the history of NASCAR's top three divisions to win all three national events at the same track in the same week.
With his victory two weeks ago in Sin City, Carl Edwards has won three of the last five Sprint Cup races dating back to last November. The two-time Bristol champion could be in prime position to win consecutive races for the fifth time in his career, though both of those victories came in the August night race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes into Bristol riding back-to-back top-10 finishes and in the top-10 in the points for the first time since last April. A former Bristol winner (August 2004), he has traditionally performed solidly at the track and could continue his recent hot streak.
If Jeff Burton is going to be a factor in this year's Chase for the Cup, he has to turn his miserable season around starting Sunday. He won the 2008 spring race, leading a 1-2-3 finish for Richard Childress Racing, and anything short of a repeat performance could doom his 2011 season after just four races.