Matt Stallknecht · Friday March 15, 2013
Ah Bristol, you never cease to amaze us. Whether it was Texas Terry Labonte getting punted by Dale Earnhardt on a warm August night in 1999, or Tony Stewart delivering a perfectly timed helmet toss at the car of an unsuspecting Matt Kenseth just last summer, there’s always something to remember after a race at Bristol, and that is exactly where the stars of NASCAR are headed this weekend. There are of course a litany of questions that need to be answered heading into the race, most notable among them being whether or not the track will still have some of the “old Bristol magic” that made a bit of an appearance the last time the series made a trip to the famed half mile oval. What about the drivers? Who looks primed to take the first short track race of 2013? Well folks, I’m here to offer some clarity as fans across NASCAR Nation mull over this week’s line up of Four Burning Questions.
1. Will the Bristol of old return this weekend like it did last August?
The fans wanted it. The fans got it. Well, sort of at least. After six years of listening to fans complain about how stale the racing had become at the race track he reconfigured (well, he ordered it to be reconfigured, but you get the point) in 2007, Bruton Smith finally bit the bullet and made an attempt at “fixing” Bristol Motor Speedway. After the aforementioned 2007 reconfiguring, it turned what used to be a one-groove-around-the-bottom track to a bona-fide mini cookie cutter track with progressive banking and multiple grooves to race in from top to bottom. ‘Ol Bruton’s attempt at reconciling this mess was made last summer, as track operators ground the top groove of the track in order to turn the facility back into a one-groove race track. It worked, but instead of the one-groove being around the bottom of the track like the Bristol of old, the groove ironically went to the top of the track.
Whether or not you agreed with Smith’s decision to “fix” Bristol, what’s done is done, and Bristol is back to being a one-groove race track, which, quite frankly, it should be. Last year’s summer race (which took place under the “fixed” configuration), saw much of the beating, banging, and wrecking that made Bristol a can’t miss destination in the first place, and there is little reason to believe we won’t see such racing again this weekend. The Gen-6 cars more than likely won’t change the racing much, as short-track racing is only minimally affected by aero changes (which is really the only thing separating the Gen-5 from the Gen-6 cars). Most drivers this week seem to be in agreement that the groove will once again be around the top, and thus there will only be two ways to complete a pass. The very best cars will be the ones who are able to complete a pass on the bottom and slide back into line up top, and this will be the only way to make a pass cleanly assuming the racing hasn’t changed much since August.
The other method of passing, of course, will be to use the chrome horn. With passing likely to be at a premium, drivers who are struggling to make the bottom work will be forced to bully their way to the front using the “bump and slide” maneuver that we saw a lot last August (see Denny Hamlin’s race winning pass in that race to see what this looks like). Any time the chrome horn is in play, the caution flag follows suit, so expect many laps to be run under yellow and expect there to be more than a few frayed tempers as drivers get frustrated with the lack of racing room on restarts.
2. Just how much will pit strategy affect the outcome of the race?
Part of the reason why last August’s Bristol race was so unpredictable was because of the constant barrage of differing pit strategies which jumbled the event’s running order. With Bristol being a one-groove track (not to mention the lack of fall off in Goodyear’s tires), a two-tire or no-tire call can gain a team some serious track position, and track position will be incredibly important this week. The right pit call at the right time could very well win you the race.
Of course, much of this pit strategy business will be dictated by the flow and frequency of caution-flag occurences in the race. The August race was an absolute caution-bonanza, thus opening the door for teams to go wild with varying strategy calls that created all sorts of mayhem in the running order. If Sunday’s race turns out to feature a lot of wrecks and a lot of cautions, you can fully expect that crew chiefs up and down pit road will be employing all sorts of pit strategies in a desperate attempt to stay up front on restarts. Knowing all of this, expect teams with savvy crew chiefs (think Paul Wolfe, Chad Knaus, or perhaps even Jason Ratcliff) to be the ones dueling for the win on Sunday.
3. Could this be Aric Almirola’s coming out party?
Go take a look at the current top 10 in the standings right now. Notice anything unusual? If you’re answer to that question was “Yes, I noticed Aric Almirola is sitting 10th in points,” you would have answered correctly. The 28-year old Cuban American is quietly off to the finest start of his young NASCAR career, and I actually believe that this could very well be the weekend that he delivers his first career Sprint Cup win.
Many of you who just read that last sentence are probably sending pointed e-mails to my editor demanding I be fired after what would seem to be such a shocking statement. This is of course the same Almirola that I personally called out to be fired for lack of performance on this very website last year, no? But if you look at Almirola’s last 10 Sprint Cup races (dating back to last year’s Chase), suddenly he starts to look like a real contender. Over these last 10 races (3 in 2013 and 7 in 2012), Almirola has delivered a top 5, 2 top 10s, battled for the lead multiple times, and has scored the 9th most points of any driver in that time span, all while driving subpar Richard Petty Motorsports equipment. Mr. Almirola is for real, and his quiet but effective start to 2013 is a testament to that.
But why, the lingering doubters would ask, could Bristol be the sight of Almirola’s first win? Well, Almirola has traditionally performed best on short tracks. One of Almirola’s aforementioned top 5s came at Martinsville, another short track. Going a bit further back, Almirola scored his first ever top 10 in Sprint Cup back in 2008 at, you guessed it, Bristol. Thus, if Almirola is going to score his first win this year, it’s going to happen at a track shorter than 1 mile, and with how much unpredictability beckons at Bristol, this weekend could be the one in which Almirola finally breaks through.
4. Will we see Gordon v. Bowyer Round III at Bristol?
Remember that little tussle that happened in last year’s Chase race at Phoenix? Remember how Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon have yet to say that either party has “made up” with the other? Keep that in mind on Sunday when you see the 15 and the 24 car near one another, because if there were ever a place for the two drivers to go at it once more, Bristol would be it right?
Many followers of the sport set aside the Gordon-Bowyer rivalry two weeks ago after there were no fireworks between the two in Phoenix, the very track where their rivalry came to a boil. But let’s be honest, Phoenix doesn’t necessarily foster the close beating and banging that leads to rekindling of an old conflict. I really can not stress enough the fact that these two drivers still do not like each other. This point was rendered rather clear during the Daytona Media Blitz when both drivers continually dodged and weaseled around questions pertaining to the rivalry.
If Gordon and Bowyer happen to be fighting for position late in the race, or God forbid the win, expect to see some contact. And if there is contact…there may not be enough of a police presence in the Smokey Mountains capable of containing the ensuing brawl.
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