Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – A tiny track but a towering beacon of hope.

That might be the best way to describe the view of Bristol Motor Speedway for Joe Gibbs Racing, which will enter Sunday’s Food City 500 with the promise of scoring its second short-track victory in three weeks.

Matt Kenseth’s pole position accentuated the first time this season that all four of JGR’s Toyotas reached the final round of qualifying as Carl Edwards (third), Denny Hamlin (fifth) and David Ragan (11th) also will start in the top 12 at 0.533-mile track where it helps to stay in front of the mayhem.

That was partly the key to JGR’s success in the March 29 race at Martinsville Speedway, were Hamlin’s win capped a trio of top fives for JGR (Kenseth fourth; Ragan fifth).

While Hendrick Motorsports’ chassis and engines have the field covered at the 1.5-mile speedways (Jimmie Johnson’s win at Texas Motor Speedway marked six consecutive victories by either Johnson or Kevin Harvick on the most common track layout in NASCAR), JGR seems to have rediscovered a short-track spark that was missing last season.

And with a Bristol victory virtually guaranteeing a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – and provide the stress-free security to work on improving the team’s speedway setups with an eye toward the five 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs – it’s fair to say this stretch of the season represents a critical juncture for JGR.

After Bristol, NASCAR will head to another short track (Richmond International Raceway) and then the unpredictable restrictor-plate chaos of Talladega Superspeedway. Afterward, the schedule turns back to four straight races at the high-speed ovals where JGR has struggled with cars that have lacked the speed and handling of Hendrick.

At Bristol, the equation shifts slightly more toward the driver than the car, and it’s easier to overcome such deficiencies just as Hamlin did at Martinsville.

“Certainly, when we get to short tracks they’re less dependent on aerodynamics and even the engine to a certain extent,” Kenseth said. “If you feel like you have a deficit in those areas then it doesn’t make as big of a difference at a short track, but I’m not so sure that we have a deficit in those areas. I think each track is important, and you try to make as much of a difference as you can everywhere.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Struggling “Smoke”: It’s been a long drought at Bristol for Tony Stewart – his lone win here was nearly 14 years ago – and Saturday didn’t provide much hope of a rebound. Three-time series champion slapped the wall in the first practice and couldn’t crack the top 15 on the speed chart in the latter session.

However, Stewart did manage a fourth at Bristol last year, and teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick set the mark for fastest lap and 10-lap average in the finale session. The speed is there at Stewart-Haas Racing, but Stewart needs to discover how to harness it into an optimum setup.

SAFER is better: This marks the first track that has covered its entire concrete walls with SAFER barriers (with the exceptions of the steel crossover gate in Turn 3) for a NASCAR race since Kyle Busch was injured by hitting an unprotected wall in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

While there were some concerns from drivers about the safety devices squeezing a few inches off a narrow racing surface, there were no major problems during practice and Saturday’s Xfinity race.

On deferment: After serving one day of a six-race suspension, Luke Lambert is back as Ryan Newman’s crew chief for at least one race while awaiting Richard Childress Racing’s final appeal of NASCAR’s penalty for tire manipulation. Newman could use the help at Bristol, where he has only one top five in 26 starts and one top 10 in his past six races.

Who’ll stop the rain? That was the refrain at Bristol over the course of two rain delays that lasted more than six hours a year ago, and it might bear repeating Sunday. The forecast is for a daylong onslaught of precipitation, and there’ll be many fingers crossed in hoping to avoid the first postponement of a Sprint Cup race since July 2014 at Daytona International Speedway.