johnson

NASCAR Monster Energy driver Jimmy Johnson signs autographs Friday afternoon before the first practice session.

BY BRIAN WOODSON

BRISTOL HERALD COURIER

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch has been the dominant force on the NASCAR circuit for a while now.

Don’t forget Kurt Busch. Kyle’s younger brother knows how to drive on the “high banks” as well, having won six Cup series races at Bristol Motor Speedway, including three straight in 2003 and ‘04.

He enters having placed in the top 10 in five of his last six races, and is currently 10th in the Cup points standings. His brother, Kyle, has won seven times in Bristol, and is currently the talk of the sport.

“I’m pleased with it,” said Kurt Busch, who drives the No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet. “It’s been a good start with us teaming up with Ganassi and everybody that was on the No. 1 car and the results they had from years prior. I would say that we jumped into another category. And we also know we can go and grab another category, and that is to get those top-5s.”

He’s had one of those this season, a third place finish in Atlanta. He will have to work his way up the pack today after a poor qualifying run has the 30-time Cup winner starting from the 30th position at Bristol. That followed being 14th in a practice session on Friday, but expects the track to be completely different due to the PJ1 [trackbite] that was applied to the track.

The big topic among drivers and media prior to the Food City 500 today at 2 p.m. was whether to drive on the top or bottom level of the track.

“As far as the spray and the rubber that they mixed in with it, as far as the drivers were told, it was going to be about four feet wide,” Busch said. “I was measuring it. It was about seven feet wide. And then it just didn’t look as much as normal. And then you saw us all waiting to start practice today [Friday] because again there’s traction compound, but it takes heat to activate it and for it to actually work and stick.

“Nobody wanted to go out there and be the first car to go out. We needed the Xfinity cars to kind of rub it in and those guys aren’t even going in there right now. Interestingly, Bristol, each time we come back here it’s like a brand new track.”

Another driver who has seemingly been forgotten is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is currently 15th in the points standings, including one top-5 and one top-10 finish. He will begin 10th today, having won in Bristol as recently as April of 2017. He won the last of his record-tying championships in 2016.

“We had a great qualifying session. Practice was so different with the grip strip not really coming alive, and us running in the middle of the track, which is really rare here,” said Johnson, who continues to drive the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet. “I think we all knew deep down it was going to go lower or higher. The bottom came in due to the Xfinity practice.

“The car was great, ran really well, wish we could have gotten a little bit more. I think our lap count on our tires was ultimately high. It took me two or three laps to get my fast lap. We’ll have to work on that before we come back here, but a top-10 starting spot here. We’ll take it.”

Ditto for Axalta Chevrolet No. 24 driver William Byron, who will start on the front row for the third time this season. He will line up next to pole sitter Chase Elliott.

“It’s awesome. To be one-two for Hendrick Motorsports two weeks in a row; I hate to be on the second end of it, but it’s still fun to start on the front row,” said Byron, who is 18th in points, with just one top-10 finish through eight races. “I feel like we’re making huge strides in the speed of our cars and it just makes things easier at the track.

“I feel like [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and I are starting to gel a little more. Thanks to Axalta and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for this race car, and Chevrolet, obviously. This is fun so hopefully we can keep it going on Sunday.”

Austin Dillon hopes to do the much the same, starting 15th in the No. 3 Symbicort Chevrolet. He was certainly pleased with that effort after sitting 26th after the first practice session on Friday.

“Yeah, we were way off in practice and looked through our notes. The guys did a good job dialing it in a lot closer,” he said. “If I knew what I had going in here, I think we could have made the top 12. Some small changes could have taken us a long way.

“So, I’m happy with where the car was. We can really improve on that for tomorrow. Starting position means so much here. To start 15th, I’m happy with that.”

bwoodson@bristolnews.com | Twitter: BHCWoodson | (276) 645-2543

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