Kyle Busch was so full of hope as he strode toward his No. 18 Toyota parked on pit road at Daytona International Speedway. The start of the season-opening Daytona 500 was only minutes away, and Busch slyly smiled at rival drivers as he neared his car, confident that 2013 would be the year he'd win his first Sprint Cup championship.
He had reason to believe that.
Over the final four races in 2012, Busch had reeled off four straight top-five finishes and scored more points than any other driver in the series, including eventual Cup champion Brad Keselowski. Though Busch had failed to qualify for the Chase for only the second time in the previous seven years -- he wound up 13th in the final standings in 2012 -- he appeared to have solved his greatest weakness: his history of fading in the last month of the season.
At this year's Daytona, Busch won his qualifying race. But then in the 500, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth, blew an engine as he was leading the race. Minutes later, Busch's engine gave out, which caused him to finish 34th. A week later at Phoenix, he struggled with the handling of his car and came in 23rd.
But last Sunday at Las Vegas, Busch showed why, in the garage, he's still considered to possess more natural talent than any other driver in the sport. On a restart on lap 166, he was in third place. But in an eye blink, he dove low onto the apron and made a gutsy three-wide pass for the lead as he charged into the Turn 1 corner at 180 mph. It was easily the most aggressive maneuver in the Cup series in 2013. Busch, a Las Vegas native, led 27 laps and finished fourth.
Now he's 17th in the standings as the circuit moves to Bristol (Tenn.). Busch has owned the steeply-banked, bowl-shaped half-mile in recent years: He's won four of the last eight Cup races there and in his 16 career Bristol starts he's pocketed over $2.7 million. Busch grew up racing on a similar track in Las Vegas -- The Bullring -- and he has an instinctive feel for Bristol that can't be taught.
"You have to be on top of your game anywhere, but [at Bristol] you've really got to have a good feel of the entry, center and exit [of the corners], and just make sure you can get your car as free as you can to withstand the back of the car sliding around a little bit," Busch says. "But yet you still have to have good forward bite off the corners and you've got to be able to drive it hard and make up lap time when you lack."
The season is still young, but this is an important race for Busch. To crack the top 10 in the standings and assure himself a spot in the Chase, he needs to perform well on the tracks at which he has historically flourished. I think he'll do just that on Sunday. He's my pick to take the checkered flag.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Bristol:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Is there any doubt that Johnson has emerged as the early season favorite to win the championship? He won Daytona, finished second in Phoenix, and was sixth last Sunday at Las Vegas. He's held the lead at one juncture in every race and currently sits atop the points standings.
Clearly, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have adjusted faster to the new Gen-6 car than any other driver/crew chief combo. There is precedence for this. The last time a new design of car was unveiled -- in 2007 with the debut of the Car of Tomorrow -- Johnson and Knaus won the championship.
Johnson reached Victory Lane one year ago at Bristol. Expect at least a top-five run for the No. 48 team on Sunday as its season will continue to hum along at a blistering pace.
2. Carl Edwards
After winning at Phoenix and snapping a winless streak that had stretched on for over two years, Edwards backed that victory up with a fifth-place finish at Vegas last Sunday. He's fifth in the standings, which is exactly where he stood at this point in 2012. But then he came to Bristol and his season started to slip away. He finished 39th here last March, triggering a free fall in the standings. Edwards ended the year in 15th, a career worst.
If only for psychological reasons, this is a big race for Edwards. He has two wins in 17 starts at Bristol and his average finish here is 14.4. I expect Edwards to do better than that Sunday. In fact, based on his performance the past two weeks, he could challenge for the checkered flag.
3. Kurt Busch
The was a time when Busch the elder dominated Bristol like no one since Darrell Waltrip in the 1980s, when DW won seven straight races on the world's fastest half-mile track. Between 2002 and '04, Busch reached Victory Lane in four of five starts at Bristol.
But last year, in equipment that wasn't as stout as what Busch piloted during his glory run at Bristol -- when he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing -- he struggled in the Bristol bowl. He finished 18th in the spring race and 28th in the summer.
Still, Busch is always a threat at Bristol. If he is going to win in 2013 with Furniture Row Racing, which is a single car team, it likely will be either at Bristol or on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, where he also excels. On Sunday, Busch will be a long shot worth watching.
4. Brad Keselowski
The reigning champion has been quietly stellar in 2013. Through three races, he's the only driver in the series with three-top five finishes. Though he's yet to win, it's clear that Keselowski will once again be a powerful force in the Cup series deep into the fall.
He should be very, very formidable on Sunday. He's won two of the last three races at Bristol. It says here that he won't match the speed of Kyle Busch, but expect Keselowski to rip off a fourth straight top-five run.