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5 Things to Watch at Bristol Motor Speedway
1. How's the arm feeling, Smoke?
It's been nearly seven months since Tony Stewart took to the NASCAR pitching mound. The three-time champion removed the frown from track magnate Bruton Smith's face by hurling his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car after they crashed battling for the lead last August at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Stewart hit his target—Kenseth's windshield—perfectly. He gestured angrily to the crowd. The fans roared.
The "night race" was back.
Bristol had been a huge source of complaints among fans since its soul was resurfaced in 2007. Between the March and August races that season, Smith and his staff approved the first major change to NASCAR's most famous high-banks since it went concrete in 1992. The deteriorating surface would be replaced and the track's iconic banks changed to progressive banking in a bid to foster more side-by-side passing.
What a dud.
From 2003 to the spring 2007 race, Bristol was sold-out and rocking for every NASCAR visit. Fans got what they wanted: an average of 13 cautions a race due to crashes. The new concrete surface dropped that number significantly, as multiple lanes of racing opened up and the move-or-get-moved mentality of making up ground at the east Tennessee bullring disappeared."
Crashing, of course, isn't the point of racing. But at Bristol, it's what people on the waiting list of a track that seated more than 160,000 wanted to see. By 2010, the waiting list had disappeared and Bristol Motor Speedway was facing a crisis. There were empty seats and the fans weren't happy—even if the drivers loved the racing better than ever.
So Smith, after another un-Bristol race in the spring of last season, set out to make things right. He ground the track and made the groove tighter. He promised a better show.
Stewart, and 11 of 13 cautions for crashes, gave the fans what they wanted. Even Danica Patrick, irritated after being wrecked herself, made a gesture to a passing driver in anger. By the end, Denny Hamlin had held off charges by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all while completing a Bristol race that felt Bristol of old.
Will that hold up Sunday? For the sake of Bruton Smith, the engineers he hired to "fix" Bristol and the fans still longing for a tell-my-coworker-about-Monday sort of race in 2013, let's hope it does.
2. Hamlin doesn't plead guilty, but gives up NASCAR fight
The biggest news heading into a NASCAR weekend again is Denny Hamlin and his dispute with NASCAR. It was a week ago Thursday that NASCAR rocked the media center with news that Hamlin was docked $25,000 for completely unmemorable comments he made at Phoenix about his initial reaction to NASCAR's new car.
Hamlin swiftly built a following of grassroots support as he vowed to fight to not pay the penalty.
That all changed Thursday when Hamlin and NASCAR released near simultaneous statements saying that Hamlin was dropping the appeal, yet still not paying the fine. He actually will, though, as NASCAR will simply remove $25,000 from the next check Joe Gibbs Racing receives for competing.
Hamlin decided against the appeal in fear of negative attention it would bring to his team and sponsors. It's a disappointing move because it seems many fans had galvanized alongside Hamlin in rebellion of one NASCAR's poorer decisions as a sanctioning body in a long while. Now, NASCAR has won.
Of course, they probably would have anyway.
3. Upsets not exclusive to college basketball in March
Bristol, thanks to its lesser dependance on aerodynamics and overall car design, presents an opportunity not normally found for drivers and teams who wouldn't typically be seen as contenders. No, it's not easy to beat the top-flight Sprint Cup teams and drivers at any track. But Bristol's close quarters and all-day track position struggle presents opportunities for smaller teams or drivers racing limited schedules.
This weekend, keep your eye on two drivers: Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger.
The former Red Bull teammates are both trying to work their way back to full-time Sprint Cup level competition and will be in part-time rides Sunday. Vickers posted a pair of top-5 finishes for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55 last season at Bristol, and Allmendinger drove the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet to an 11th-place finish on the Phoenix "shorter" track two weeks ago.
4. Point standings aren't a concern…yet
Any team that struggles in the first three races of the season undoubtedly feels some angst to get a strong finish and improve their standing in the point rankings. Until that good run comes, the creeping doubt can only do more damage to a team's morale.
For teams still struggling this season, there's comfort in knowing that last year's champion Brad Keselowski didn't get off to the most impressive start himself. Heading to Bristol for the fourth race of 2012, Keselowski was 22nd in points, 60 out of first.
It's been a much better start for the defending champion this year, but others with Chase hopes like Ryan Newman (31st, -79 points) and Martin Truex Jr. (22nd, -65) are mired deep in the standings. Another some unexpected struggle this season has been for Kurt Busch in his ride with Furniture Row Racing. That team, essentially a satellite operation of Richard Childress Racing, is 29th and 72 points out of first.
Each driver still has 33 events to sort things out, of course.
5. Figuring out "Go Time" during Bristol's 500 laps
Five hundred laps at Bristol can almost become an out of body experience for drivers. The laps—nearly four per minute—leave them pressed against the right side of the seat. Roughly one-eighth of a lap is spent not turning the wheel. It's all about hitting turning and braking points, keeping a consistent line. Lap after lap, after lap, after lap.
And that's just before the first pit stop.
A race at Bristol, despite it's 500-circuit distance, is the second-shortest scheduled oval race of the season. Figuring when to be ready to fight for the lead can sometimes take drivers by surprise. Inevitably, most races at Bristol feature at least one long green flag run in which a car that isn't handling nearly perfectly could get lapped quickly.
Kurt Busch has five career wins at Bristol. With 75 miles to go, Busch wants to be in ready to fight for another win.
“To contend for the win you want to be in position by Lap 350,” said Busch. “That is definitely the ‘Go Time’ at Bristol."
Advanced statistics from NASCAR back him up. In the 18 races in Bristol since August 2004, the eventual race winner has been no worse than fourth on lap 350.
See if that streak continues on Sunday.
THE BRISTOL ETC.: Among active drivers, three have a series-leading five wins at Bristol. Jeff Gordon has five, joined by brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. The last win by any of those three was Kyle's spring win in 2011. Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, hasn't won at Bristol in over 10 years… Mark Martin leads active drivers with nine poles at Bristol… Ryan Newman's 14.908-second lap at Bristol in 2003 set the Sprint Cup Series track record, but it's much slower than a 12.742-second lap turned by Brian Gerster at the half-mile in a winged sprint car in 2011… 14 drivers have finished each the last 10 Bristol races, but only Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished on the lead lap of at least nine of those events… 80 percent of Bristol Sprint Cup races have been won by a driver starting in the top-10.
by Geoffrey Miller
Follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller