Few topics in NASCAR have been as polarizing as track owner Bruton Smith’s decision to “narrow up” the historic half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.
Once the scene of some of NASCAR’s most memorable on- and off-track antics, the rough ’n’ tumble short track in East Tennessee recently played nicer, thanks to progressive banking that allowed drivers to safely run two- and three-wide into Bristol’s massive turns. Smith’s call to shave off a groove’s worth of concrete near the wall was intended to force drivers low and into a more aggressive mode.
Turns out, Smith got it wrong. But in being wrong, he got it right.
Drivers were initially forced to the low and middle grooves, but as the night progressed, the ground-down high groove took on rubber — so much rubber, in fact, that the high groove was the only place to run with meaningful speed.
A rotating door of drivers spent time leading the field (22 lead changes among 13 drivers) thanks to varying pit strategies. But in the end, the proverbial cream rose to the top. Denny Hamlin, in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, muscled his way past Carl Edwards with 39 laps remaining and pulled away, winning his third race of the season and first career Cup event at Bristol.
“Honestly, it’s just a different kind of racing,” Hamlin said of the track that favored one-lane, upper-groove racing. “There’s nothing (Smith is) going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom — that’s not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing; we were all running in the line, and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around.
“So that’s what you’ve got to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which, you know, that won us the race.
“I don’t think that we saw as much side-by-side racing but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5.
Whether the grounding process was the main reason for a more intense race, the fact was the drivers were feeling friskier than normal.
Thirteen cautions punctuated the event (11 for wrecks), the most witnessed at the track since March 2007. Two incidents, in particular, brought back memories of Bristols-past.
The first involved Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart — a pair with a history — who took one another out on the frontstretch while racing for the lead on lap 334. After climbing out of his wrecked car, Stewart waited for Kenseth to exit pit road, where he fired his helmet at the No. 17 Ford in disgust, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Stewart’s unofficial teammate, Danica Patrick, had a surprisingly solid run going in her first Cup start in the bullring. While running 19th and on the lead lap, Patrick was turned into the backstretch fence by Regan Smith with just 64 laps remaining. In turn, she waited for Smith to pass under caution, waiving a disapproving finger in his direction.
Even the soundbites were classic Bristol, with Stewart vowing to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year,” and Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatening to strangle Smith.
In the end, fans seemed pleased with the mayhem, while drivers were split.
Five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch had the most critical comments, deadpanning that the track was “terrible.” While another five-time winner, Jeff Gordon, sang its praises:
“I say grind the whole place. That was awesome. That reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”
So while tempers and soundbites were the order of the night, the true measuring stick of whether Smith’s plan was a success will be seen at the turnstiles next season.
Until then, Bristol will remain as polarizing as ever.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro