Ask NASCAR drivers and fans which race – outside of the Daytona 500 – they most look forward to each year and most of them quickly respond with the same answer.

Bristol, baby!

The half-mile, high-banked short track produces some of the most thrilling, action-packed racing on the NASCAR circuit. And with 100,000 or more fans packed around the bullring of a track, it is one of the most popular stops on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Here’s what to look for in the first of two Cup races at Bristol this year:

Three Things To Watch

1. What kind of race will we see?

Fans loved the old Bristol, where drivers had to use their front bumpers to root cars out of the way to make a pass, leading to plenty of wrecks, caution flags and bad blood. But the new concrete pavement has changed the style there in recent years, allowing more side-by-side racing but fewer fireworks. Kevin Harvick predicts more of the same this year.

“You are going to have a lot of green-flag runs,” he said. “[It’s a] much easier race track to drive on than it used to be.”

2. Will there be payback?

Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and others all have scores to settle with other drivers, either from incidents early this year or dating back to last season.

The last Bristol race began with Keselowski calling Kyle Busch “an ass” for wrecking him the night before in the Nationwide Series race. Edwards and Busch got into it at Bristol in 2008.

Bristol is a track where scores can be settled without it looking intentional. Who will get even this year?

3. Double-file restarts

Nowhere are NASCAR’s double-file restarts more exciting and more chaotic than on the tight short tracks. Jimmie Johnson won last year’s spring race at Bristol when he snuck around the outside to take the lead while Kurt Busch and others got bottled up on a restart. This year’s race – and a big wreck – may well be decided on a late, double-file restart.

Who’s Hot ….

Carl Edwards – Win at Las Vegas gave him three wins in last five Cup races dating back to last year.

Tony Stewart – Dominated the race at Las Vegas, only to finish second, and sits atop the points standings.

Kurt Busch – Only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races so far.

… Who’s Not

Jeff Gordon – Momentum from winning at Phoenix vanished with a blown tire and a crash at Las Vegas.

Kyle Busch – Victim of a blown engine at Las Vegas, but must watch his rear bumper after causing a wreck that took out Edwards.

Greg Biffle – Everything that could go wrong has for Biffle. His latest adventure was with fueling problems at Las Vegas, which dumped him to 31st in points.

The Favorites

1. Kyle Busch – This used to be his big brother’s track, but Shrub has won three of the last four at Bristol.

2. Carl Edwards – NASCAR’s hottest driver won two of three at Bristol in 2007-08.

3. Jimmie Johnson – Finally broke through for his first Bristol win last spring. Can he do it again?

Winningest Active Drivers

Kurt Busch 5
Jeff Gordon 5
Kyle Busch 4
Carl Edwards 2
Matt Kenseth 2
Terry Labonte 2
Mark Martin 2
Jeff Burton 1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1
Bill Elliott 1
Kevin Harvick 1
Jimmie Johnson 1
Tony Stewart 1

By The Numbers

9 – Number of wins at Bristol by NASCAR legends Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace. Darrell Waltrip has the most career Bristol wins with 12.

Staff Picks

Kenny Bruce– Tony Stewart. Finished second in spring race last year and is looking mighty impressive after first three races of 2011.

Kris Johnson – Kyle Busch. This is akin to picking a No. 1 seed in your NCAA bracket; Busch's four career wins and 9.3 average finish are too good to pass up here.

Jeff Owens – Matt Kenseth. Everyone will be watching his teammate (Edwards) but steady Kenseth runs Bristol as well as anyone.

Bob Pockrass – Jimmie Johnson. Just when you think he might be vulnerable, he wins.

Last Time Around: Jimmie Johnson scores first career win at Bristol Motor Speedway

BRISTOL, Tenn. – When the 2010 season began, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had a checklist of things they wanted to accomplish.

At the top of the list – right behind a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship – was winning at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that has given Johnson problems over the years.

Quite frankly, the sport’s most dominant driver was tired of sucking at one of NASCAR’s most exciting and most popular tracks.

“Everything around Bristol is what people focus on,” Johnson said. “There are parties for it. The fans get excited for it. To walk into this facility and look around, you want to run well here.

“It's been a real downer for me to walk through the gates, look around [and say], ‘Man, I'm going to suck today, wreck on lap five today.’ I really had that mindset coming here.”

Not anymore. Johnson checked Bristol off his list Sunday by winning the Food City 500 in dramatic fashion.

And he did it by beating Kurt Busch, Bristol’s most successful driver over the past decade.

Johnson charged from sixth to first in the final 10 laps, making a daring three-wide move past Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for second, and then darting past Tony Stewart to take the lead.

He beat Stewart to the checkered flag by 0.89 second for his third win this season. It was also his 50th career victory, tying him with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 10th on the all-time win list.

Busch, who has five wins at Bristol, led a race-high 278 laps but wound up third after losing the lead on the final round of pit stops.