Drivers to watch for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol dirt

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With only one Cup race complete on Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt surface, there isn’t a plethora of data points heading into this year’s event.

Ahead of Sunday night’s race (7 p.m. ET, Fox), though, there are some drivers who stood out more than others as Cup cars flung mud around the half-mile, clay-covered bullring.

Here are the drivers you should have your eye on entering this weekend’s dirt race:

FRONT RUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: 4th
  • Last three races: 31st — Circuit of the Americas; 17th — Richmond; 2nd — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Won the race and Stage 2, led 61 laps

Logano is the only active driver with a NASCAR Cup Series win on dirt, making him an immediate favorite for the second race at Bristol Dirt.

The Team Penske driver had a couple poor races at COTA and Richmond, but an impressive rebound at Martinsville Speedway saw the No. 22 Ford finish second while challenging William Byron for the win in overtime.

Logano had to hold off charges from Denny Hamlin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in overtime a year ago in the dirt at Bristol and claimed the checkered flag. The 2018 champion doesn’t have tons of dirt experience, but participated in dirt late model races to prepare for last year’s event and will rejoin the Camping World Truck Series for its Saturday race this weekend.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 12th — COTA; 3rd — Richmond; WIN — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Finished 6th after notching a 2nd-place finish in Stage 1

Byron is far better known for his ability in an asphalt late model, but the No. 24 Chevrolet had a decent showing at Bristol last spring.

Byron has now won two of the last four Cup races and established himself as a regular front runner in the series. If last year’s Bristol race proved anything, it’s that major dirt experience isn’t a requirement to run well in a Cup Series dirt race — evidenced by Logano, Daniel Suarez and Martin Truex Jr.

Momentum is in Byron’s favor. Whether that translates to the Bluff City red clay Sunday night is unknown, but hard to go against the only driver in the series with multiple wins this season after posting a top-10 finish here one year ago.

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 18th
  • Last three races: 24th — COTA; 16th — Richmond; 29th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: 4th in Stage 1, 2nd in Stage 2, finished 4th, led 58 laps

One of the biggest surprises in last year’s dirt race was Suarez, who took a still-new Trackhouse Racing car to the front of the field to lead 58 laps and bring home a top-five finish.

This year, Trackhouse has proven to be formidable on nearly every track type, but Suarez has struggled in the past three races, failing to score a top-15 finish after notching three top 10s in the first five races.

Bristol Dirt was the site of the organization’s first top five and Suarez already has two this season. The No. 99 team could back up last year’s performance Sunday night.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 21st
  • Last three races: 18th — COTA; WIN — Richmond; 28th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Finished 3rd in both stages as well as the race, led one lap

Hamlin was among the drivers with limited dirt experience who shined at Bristol a season ago. The No. 11 Toyota lined up second for the overtime restart but was unable to hold off Stenhouse, sending Hamlin back to third.

This year has been full of misses for the No. 11 team, which has failed to finish inside the top 10 in seven of the eight races. The lone exception, of course, was Hamlin’s win at Richmond Raceway on April 3.

Bristol Dirt is a beast of its own, so perhaps the woes that have plagued Hamlin will subside one more week.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 7th — COTA; 4th — Richmond; 22nd — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Led race-high 126 laps, won Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2; flat tire in OT while running 3rd

Truex dominated the Bristol Dirt weekend a year ago, leading the most laps in both the Cup and Truck races. He won the Truck Series race, but a flat tire in Cup Series overtime ruined what looked sure to be a top-five run.

But plenty is different about this year’s car than last, including an independent rear suspension and the banking in the corners.

Truex has arguably been Joe Gibbs Racing’s most consistent driver this season but has still yet to finish higher than fourth, where he finished at Richmond after leading 80 laps. But at his best track at Martinsville, Truex was a nonfactor. He and crew chief James Small should be eager to put that behind them with a strong run at Bristol.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 13th
  • Last three races: 29th — COTA; 5th — Richmond; 19th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Involved in Lap 53 crash with Christopher Bell, finished 29th

Running fourth at Lap 53, Larson was taken out of contention when Christopher Bell spun from second directly in front of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson contacted Bell’s door and was subsequently slammed in the left front by Ross Chastain.

Larson is unquestionably the top dirt racer in Cup and was expected to be the favorite in last year’s race. That hasn’t changed this season as PointsBet lists the defending series champion as the favorite at (+500) odds.

But Larson has had a terrible start to the season with five finishes of 19th or worse in eight races. His saving grace is the other three finishes are a win at Auto Club Speedway, a runner-up at Las Vegas and a fifth-place finish at Richmond. The dirt race might come at the perfect time for Larson.