Andretti Anxious For Bristol

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – If you’re looking for a favorite for this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, you should spare yourself the effort.

Bristol is the first short-track race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season, so the previous five races have little to do with this one. And a lot of teams are going to Bristol a little bit blind, as a test there two weeks ago was plagued by rained.

Sure, there are the usual contenders at Bristol. They all hit the track today for qualifying, which gets underway at 3:05 p.m. ET on the high-banked half-mile concrete track.

There’s nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace, who wants to get back to victory lane after nearly a year’s absence. There’s four-time winner Jeff Gordon, who wants to prove his personal distractions haven’t hampered his racing efforts. There’s two-time winner Terry Labonte and Mark Martin, who both just want to win.

There’s Sterling Marlin, the Winston Cup points leader who wants to stay hot. There’s Kevin Harvick, who is ready to shake off his sophomore slump. There’s Tony Stewart, who is ready to bounce back from a hospital visit at Darlington.

There are others, of course, and that’s the beauty of Bristol. When you put 43 cars on a tight track, anything can happen. Look at last year, when Elliott Sadler came 38th to win.

And the guy who finished second to Sadler is hoping he’s among the contenders come Sunday. John Andretti led 48 laps, but a two-tire stop by Sadler put him out front and Andretti had some damage to his car that left him wanting more.

“Looking back at last year’s race, and with all the good that comes from finishing second in a race, it is still pretty frustrating – how can it not be to come that close to winning?” Andretti said. “Obviously you only have certain opportunities to win races. Not every race that comes along is a golden opportunity to win. We had the car to beat, but we had a frame crack. That surely didn’t ease the pain at all. In my opinion we are there to win, and it was frustrating. Second was good, but we are here to win.

Andretti hasn’t had many chances at winning lately, as Petty Enterprises’ struggles have been well-documented. Andretti only had two top-10 finishes last year, the second at Bristol and a sixth at Darlington.

This season, even after all the changes at Petty Enterprises, Andretti hasn’t finished in the Top 10. In fact, he has more finishes of 36th or worse (three) than top-25 finishes (two). So while improving one spot from his finish last year would be great, Andretti is realistic.

“I think if this team ran second every week, people would be asking when is this team ever going to win,” Andretti said. “The guy that runs second every week is bound to win sooner or later. For us, it was frustrating because we had a great car, but things just didn’t work out. It’s hard to win races in Winston Cup, but we were the ones to beat at Bristol last year. We will just try again this weekend.”

Andretti’s track record at Bristol isn’t exactly stellar. Those laps he led last year where the first time he’s been out front, and his next best finish is a fourth in 1999. After that, there isn’t much to get pumped up about, so Andretti isn’t terribly excited.

“This team knows who is driving the car,” Andretti said. “I am not a guy who goes around jumping up and down that we are going to Bristol. I am not like a Rusty Wallace or some of these other guys who just love going there. I don’t hate Bristol, and in fact, it’s not that bad when I am out there by myself. I just hate it when things are getting torn up around me.

“You usually see a lot of that at Bristol. I don’t think anyone likes seeing things get torn up, but I really don’t like it when other cars are trying to ‘borrow’ the Petty Blue paint off my car.”

Survival is definitely crucial, and that starts way before the green flag drops. Because Bristol is so crowded, it’s easier to race when you are closer to the front.

“I hope we can have a good qualifying effort,” Andretti said. “It’s easier to start up front than in the back. I think we have a car again where we can stay up front and be a contender. You never know, maybe circumstances will be different this year – just a little bit different would do it – and we can land in victory lane.

“Last year was a bittersweet ending. This weekend I am just looking for a sweet one. I think we have a car that is good enough to get the job done. We just need to go and find out. This No. 43 Dodge was really close last year, and I am looking forward to giving it another try this weekend.”

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