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It’s early but make no mistake, the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is a heavyweight battle of epic proportions as competitors head east for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in eastern Tennessee.
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and current points leader Jimmie Johnson effectively threw down the gauntlet by winning the Daytona 500. This year’s start – first, second and sixth – is Johnson’s best since 2010 when the Californian won two of the first three races en route to his fifth consecutive title. It’s the first time Johnson has started the season with three consecutive top 10s since 2006, when he won his first Daytona
500 and followed it up with his first championship.
Johnson has a single Bristol victory – the 2010 Food City 500. Seven of his most recent finishes at the 0.533-mile track have been top 10s.
Nothing – not a new season or a new manufacturer – has slowed 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. The reigning Food City 500 and 2011 Bristol late-summer winner, Keselowski is the only competitor with three top-five finishes to start this season. Another top five at Bristol would put him in the same class as the man he’s chasing. The last driver to start a season with four top fives: Jimmie Johnson in 2005.
Keselowski, five points behind Johnson, has fashioned an amazing run of 20 top-10 finishes in his most recent 23 races beginning with last June’s victory at Kentucky Speedway.
Pleased, yes, but Keselowski remains hungry.
“I feel like we’ve had a shot at winning all three,” he told interviewers after finishing third in his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford in Las Vegas. “I want to win really bad, but I guess the consolation is starting out the year with three solid finishes … and just kind of backing up where we finished last year with solid runs.”
Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., the series’ 10-time Most Popular Driver.
Earnhardt is off to the best start of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career with finishes of second, fifth and seventh. He stands third in the standings, 10 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.
Although not a factor for the Las Vegas victory, Earnhardt was thinking “big picture” after Sunday’s finish.
“We got a pretty good little start to the season,” he said.
A one-time Bristol winner (2004), Earnhardt has been just so-so since joining HMS: a top five and three top 10s with no finish worse than 18th in 10 starts.
Bristol can be a key component in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship season. A total of 24 different drivers have a Bristol victory during their title seasons. Three – Johnson, Keselowski and Kurt Busch – accomplished the Bristol/championship tandem during the Chase era.