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Bristol’s new surface meets Sprint Cups’s new car

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013

Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted a pair of races in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series since it opened in 1961.

That’s 104 races entering Sunday’s Food City 500.

Five of race victories stand out as particularly special moments for the respective winners.

The late Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch are the only drivers who earned their career-first Cup series victories at the .533-mile highly banked short track.

The size of the track, its banking and the length of its races – 500 laps – make its biannual events some of the most grueling on the 36-race series schedule.

Wins at the track are hard to come by. As indicated by history, first-time winners are few and far between, although four of the five drivers’ Bristol wins did come in the spring race.

The circumstances entering Sunday’s race – a recently altered track surface and a new Cup series car – seem to favor an unexpected outcome.

Could another first-time Cup winner come at Bristol? It’s certainly possible

There are several plausible candidates for the honor this week. Here’s a look at five:

Aric Almirola is in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports, and while he has not led a lap in the season’s first three races, he is 10th in the series standings with no finish worse than 16th.

In seven previous Cup starts at Bristol – the second-most starts he’s made at any track – Almirola has one top-10 finish, an eighth in 2008 when he was running a partial schedule for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Almirola will start 20th on Sunday.

“I feel like it would be crazy for us to think that as new as we are – and the reality is that we don't have the same amount of resources as some of the other teams – it would be crazy for us to think that we are a championship team at this moment,” Almirola said.

“But I do feel like we are on the cusp of being a consistent top10 team. I feel like we are a competitive race team and I feel like we can compete with these other teams.”

Before his suspension last season for failing a NASCAR drug test, A.J. Allmendinger appeared on the verge of earning his first Cup win any weekend. He is only running a partial schedule this season with Phoenix Racing this season, but the team has shown the ability for strong finishes.

Allmendinger’s 10-race record at Bristol isn’t impressive, but he did earn his two best finishes – a 17th and 12th – in his two most recent starts at the track.

“Bristol is a crazy track. Before the most recent resurfacing, you would have two-wide and three-wide racing there. Now that they’ve ground up some of the top groove it’s a little closer to what Bristol used to be like,” Allmendinger said.

“You’re seeing more bumping and banging now and it seems like everyone’s patience is a little shorter than usual.”

Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.,/b> has won the past two Nationwide Series championships but has yet to score a NASCAR win at Bristol. It won’t be any easier on Sunday as his Roush Fenway Racing team was forced to change engines on Friday and he will have to start the race from the rear of the field.

David Gilliland hasn’t finished better than 28th in the first three races with his Front Row Motorsports team but he did run exceptionally well in practice on Friday and will start 14th.

In 13 career starts at Bristol, Gilliland has one top-10 finish, a ninth in the 2008 season.

Danica Patrick in Victory Lane? It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Patrick was having one of her best Cup performances last year – running consistently in the Top 20 and on the lead-lap – in the August race last season before getting caught up in a wreck with 66 laps remaining.

The road, however, will not be easy. Patrick starts 41st on Sunday.

First time winners at Bristol

Drivers who earned their career-first Sprint Cup Series victory at Bristol Motor Speedway:

Driver, date

Dale Earnhardt, April 1, 1979

Rusty Wallace, April 6, 1986

Ernie Irvan, Aug. 25, 1990

Elliott Sadler, March 25, 2001

Kurt Busch, March 24, 2002

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