It should be one heck of a St. Patrick's Day party at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Sunday's 500-lap race at Bristol will mark the first event for NASCAR's new Sprint Cup Series car, the Gen-6, on a short track. It will also be the second time the series competes on the track's modified surface.
This 0.533-mile, high-banked oval was altered following the March 2012 races. The top groove of the concrete surface was grinded with the intention of bringing back traditional racing here. Six years ago, the track was reconfigured with the addition of variable banking. It produced more side-by- side racing and therefore lowered the amount of beating and banging among competitors. The number of cautions at Bristol had significantly reduced as well.
The night race at this track in August featured 13 cautions as well as 22 lead changes among 13 drivers. There were only five cautions in the Sprint Cup event here one year ago.
"I think we are going to see people running right up against the fence, and I think you're going to see people trying to slide-job each other and trying to make the bottom groove work," said Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola, who is currently 10th in the point standings.
Bristol will be the fourth different track configuration for the Gen-6. Since this car is faster and has more downforce and better grip than the previous car, which was used from 2007-12, the racing here will probably be different than what we've seen in the past.
"I think the mechanical aspects will help the cars at Bristol," said Hendrick Motorsports driver and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. "The last time there, we were very curious about the grinding and what would happen and what wouldn't. The track just changed in some ways, and we will just go back and get in a rhythm and see what happens."
After the first three races, Johnson holds a five-point lead over defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and a 10-point advantage over Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson won the Daytona 500 and finished second at Phoenix before placing sixth at Las Vegas.
Keselowski has finished no worse than fourth this season. The Penske Racing driver has been pleased with his results but admits he's hungry for a win. His most recent victory came in October at Dover, which is also a concrete- surfaced track (one mile in length).
"I feel like we've had a shot at winning all three (races)," Keselowski said after his third-place run last Sunday at Las Vegas. "I want to win really bad, but I guess the consolation is starting out the year with three solid finishes and just kind of backing up where we finished last year with solid runs."
Keselowski has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races at Bristol, including a victory in last year's spring event here. He finished 30th at this track seven months ago.
"Bristol to me is a man's racetrack, and I respect that place so much," he said. "I think it takes a level of respect for it. From day one, the first day I walked in there, I respected it but I also wanted to win there. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could be the man to win at a man's racetrack."
After Mark Martin drove the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Brian Vickers will be behind the wheel of that car for the first time season at Bristol. Vickers, who is now a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series, will drive the No. 55 in nine Sprint Cup races this year. He finished fifth at Bristol one year ago, leading 125 laps. He followed up with a fourth-place run here in August.
"I would have loved to have won one of those races, and we came very close," Vickers said. "Obviously, I was very pleased with the results and how it all worked out, considering it was part time."
This will be the first race with the 2013 Sprint Cup owner points being used to determine the provisional starting positions (37-42). The current owner points will also decide the starting lineup if qualifying for any one of the remaining races this season is canceled due to inclement weather.
Last week's qualifying at Las Vegas was rained out. Keselowski was awarded the pole since his No. 2 Penske team finished first in points last year.
According to the National Weather Service, the forecast for Bristol on Friday calls for no chance of rain, but there is a 60 percent chance of precipitation on Sunday.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Food City 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, March 17. Race: Food City 500. Site: Bristol Motor Speedway. Track: 0.533-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 500. Miles: 266.5. 2012 Winner: Brad Keselowski. Television: FOX. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.