BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Despite transitioning to the all-new Gen-6 car, the early 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings bear a remarkable resemblance to those at the conclusion of 2012, when it was Jimmie Johnson chasing Brad Keselowski going into championship weekend at Homestead, Fla.
Keselowski, coming off his third place finish at Las Vegas, has finished no worse than fourth in any of his first three races in a No. 2 Penske Racing Ford.
Johnson, who won the Daytona 500, has been no worse than sixth in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
It comes as no surprise to either as they prepare for Sunday's Food City 500, the season's first short-track race, at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"I think Brad has shown that he and that team are going to be a familiar face up there (in the standings) week in and week out and year after year," said Johnson, who holds a five-point lead heading into Sunday's race.
"We have been able to stay in and around the top spot for the 10 years, 11 years, which is staggering to me that we have had that type of staying power."
That's why it's no shock to Keselowski that Johnson is the driver he's chasing.
"You know the 48 (Johnson) is gonna be tough to beat and it's flattering to be in a league where we can compete with them week in and week out," said Keselowski, who has won two of his previous six Sprint Cup starts at Bristol and threw in a 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series victory for good measure.
"I feel like we've been tit-for-tat each of the last three weeks. We've just got to keep pushing forward. I'm not so naïve to think that we can just keep our feet still and not be caught or passed by anyone in the field."
With seven top-10 finishes (including a win in 2010) in his last eight races at Bristol, Johnson is excited about racing the high-banked short track, a prospect that wasn't so appealing in his early years as a driver. Johnson managed just two top-fives in his first 14 Cup starts at Bristol.
"It's nice to walk through the tunnel and emerge inside the race track with a smile on my face," Johnson said. "For years, I would walk in here with a frown. Although I love the race track, I just wouldn't run very good."
Justin Allgaier had an eventful Nationwide race in Saturday's Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300. Allgaier, who captured the fourth pole of his series career, led the first 62 laps but was tagged with a speeding penalty on pit road. His day ended in a heated conversation with Chris Buescher, who finished one spot ahead of him in seventh.
Allgaier's version: "The last lap, we went into Turn 3. There was a car on the inside so I protected the middle. Instead of his checking up and finishing the way (we were) he drove into the back of us."
An accident on Lap 104 brought the Bristol safety crew to the assistance of driver Nelson Piquet Jr., whose car caught fire after a Turn 1 collision with Jamie Dick. Piquet scurried from the cockpit as flames leaked from the engine compartment. ... Nationwide points leader Sam Hornish Jr. finished fourth, easily his best performance at Bristol where he'd never finished better than 10th in Nationwide or 25th in Cup. ... Defending race champion Elliott Sadler started fifth but finished 36th, retiring with engine problems.
Busch still fastest
A day after capturing the pole for Sunday's Food City 500, Kyle Busch was still setting the Sprint Cup pace.
Busch, who has won five Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway but will be starting his first from the pole, posted the fastest laps in both Saturday practice sessions - 125.831 mph in the morning and 124.824 in Happy Hour.
Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the morning chart, with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin second and third-fastest behind Busch. They were followed by string of seven Chevrolet drivers, led by Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton (125.601).
Kasey Kahne, whose Chevrolet will share the front row with Busch's Toyota on Sunday, was second-fastest in final practice (124.638), followed by Ford driver David Gilliland (124.638), who starts 38th.
Foxworthy appreciates Bristol
Hours before the Nationwide race bearing the name of his grit chips product, Jeff Foxworthy, the self-proclaimed "King of the Rednecks," was a bit sheepish to admit that he'd never been to Bristol Motor Speedway prior to this weekend.
"It's cooler in person than I thought - and I thought it would be cool," said Foxworthy, prior to Saturday's Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300. "TV just doesn't do it justice.
"A couple years ago, my wife and I, on our 25th anniversary, got to go to Italy - try the spaghetti, by the way, if you get to go -- and we got to go to the Coliseum. Standing down there on the infield, that's all I could think of was the Coliseum in Rome and gladiators doing (battle)."
Foxworthy, who hails from Alpharetta, Ga., says that Bristol is one of the big three in terms of tracks for rednecks, ranking it along with Daytona and Talladega. He said it's an honor to be associated with a race.
"I think, for a redneck," he said, "the No. 1 thing that you want is to go to heaven. No. 2 would have to be to have your name on a race at Bristol."