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NASCAR Sprint Cup: Bristol Preview

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Ah, short track racing.

For many it is the bedrock of NASCAR, the kind of event that showcases the sport at its very best. The closest, most exciting racing of the year, and Bristol Motor Speedway is exactly the kind of track they're talking about.

And this year the close-quarters racing of the half-mile bullring just happens to be the first race after that incident at Atlanta, that decision by NASCAR and all the verbal jousting that has flown around the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage during the first off weekend of the season.

And if that isn't enough for one race this weekend's Food City 500 (so named because the race runs for a dizzying 500 laps) will be the final race of 2010 where it's the owner points from 2009 that guarantee starting spots under NASCAR's convoluted qualifying procedure.

That may be the motive behind the pair of driver changes on the entry list. Firstly David Stremme, sent packing from Penske after a disappointing 2009 moves into the Latitude 43 previously occupied by Boris Said that currently sits only 24 points behind the crucial 35th spot. Meanwhile Michael Waltrip moves into the no.55 car entered by Prism Motorsport.

The battle to remain in the top-35 also includes the no.36 car of Mike Bliss and Tommy Baldwin Racing, as well as a pair of cars belonging to the Front Row Motorsports stable and the Penske Dodges of Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski, who are 31st and 33rd, respectively in the owner points.

Conversely it is the third Penske who, off the back of winning at Atlanta remains one of the favourites for the race, with five career wins on the high Tennessee banks. His strongest opposition may come from his younger brother, who swept both races last year, but Kyle Busch is worried about the changes made to the track over the winter, feeling they could make it harder for him to continue his streak.

“[It's] gonna make it tough,” Busch says of the decision to extend the SAFER barrier by 84ft after the exit of the corners, making the track nearly 3ft narrower than previously. “[It was definitely not on my radar screen [as] a decision I would have made.” “I like all the room you can get,” he adds.

Busch believes the decision was driven by the desire to return the typical short-track 'bump-n-run' tactics to Bristol, tactics that were ushered out only a handful of years ago by resurfacing and the introduction of variable banking. One of Busch's former teammates, however, doesn't believe there will any difference come Sunday.

“The wall's still where the wall's at,” says Tony Stewart flippantly. “The good thing about us as drivers after these years of doing this it doesn't matter where they put it we have to stay a fraction of an inch.”

So what of potential winners?

Well, all the normal names are all present. The Busch brother, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, who looks to continue his recent form at a track he already has nine top five finishes at.

But top of NASCAR's statistics for the track?

Marcos Ambrose, despite only starting two Sprint Cup races at the track the Australian has an average finish of 6.5, including a third last August, a race he in which he greeted passing Jimmie Johnson with a rather glib “Jimmie who?”.

Ambrose will start the race ninth, a good spot on a track where track position is crucial.

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