Editor’s Note: Mike Neff’s Full Throttle will be posted on Thursday this week instead of its regularly scheduled Tuesday slot. Instead, enjoy a special extra commentary from Matt McLaughlin in Mike’s place.
It seems I am in the minority about the “new” Bristol – I actually enjoyed Saturday night’s Cup race, a drowning voice in the face of mounting criticism against the track. What I saw throughout was a lot of two- and even three-wide racing, along with passing throughout the pack. Yes, two cars – the No. 9 and the No. 99 – dominated the race, but keep in mind that Matt Kenseth led 415 laps en route to his win in the 2005 Bristol night race. So, such domination is not without precedent even at the old Bristol.
Still, many fans and even some members of the media proclaimed Saturday night’s race at Bristol “boring” (or worse). In fact, many feel the night race has been ruined. So what, if anything, went wrong? If we set the 1999 Bristol night race and Dale Earnhardt‘s now legendary “rattle his cage” pass of Terry Labonte as the highwater mark, what has changed since then?
Well, the cars themselves are now rid of the hideous new CoT design, the track surface was changed to parabolic banking, Goodyear bought a brand new tire to Saturday night’s race, and the focus on where drivers are in the points standings has changed to the Chase, which likely loomed large with the playoffs only two weeks away at the beginning of the event.
Let’s look at all four elements. Many drivers commented that the new Goodyears were not soft enough to allow for hard racing. I’m sure there’s some truth there, because the tire test at the new track was canceled by weather. As such, Goodyear bought a very conservative tire to the track to make sure there was not a rash of tire failures, just like the debacle of the Charlotte race after the track was levigated.
Along those same lines, Goodyear has suffered some very embarrassing incidents, with tires prone to frequent blowouts that cost them a lot of face. Because of that, they now tend to be conservative. If the race is boring, that’s OK… just so long as their product isn’t failing left and right on national TV, giving potential customers a less than rosy picture of the company’s technology.
Now with a race under their belt, they can probably bring a more aggressive tire to Bristol next time; that might allow for better racing. But it’s hard to pin too much of the blame on the tires, because the same tires were used in Friday night’s Busch race, and that race was an instant classic.
I’m not ready to point a finger at the new track design. In fact, I love how it turned out. I am a big fan of side-by-side racing, and there hasn’t been much of that at Bristol for a decade. It was the new track design that allowed that “fans on their feet hooting and hollering” finish on Friday night. No, we’re not even going to blame the track for this one.
So, the biggest difference between Friday night’s Busch Series race and the Saturday night Cup event were the cars. The Busch rides were old school, while Saturday’s race featured those decidedly awkward, to the point of being homely, Cars of Tomorrow (by the way, Rusty, that’s the correct use of the plural) with their comically oversized rear wings. Once again, the old-school cars provided much better racing than the new cars.
“But, Matt, the Busch cars are less powerful too,” you say. I agree. The level of horsepower has reached insane levels in the Cup Series. It’s time to dial that back a bit. So in my eyes, the new cars were the main culprit in why Saturday night’s race paled in comparison to Friday night’s, and that doesn’t speak well towards what’s going to happen next year when the new cars become the series’ full-time mounts.
I also have to assign a lot of the blame to the new Chase points systems. Some drivers, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kenseth and Denny Hamlin are already locked into the Chase, so they could run the ragged edge with no worries. But for other drivers who could still at least mathematically be eliminated, they had to drive much more conservatively. Bristol is a dangerous place, and a small misstep can leave a driver climbing from the smoking wreckage of an irreparable car and leave him with a finish in the 40s.
Among the group that couldn’t get too wild Saturday night was Kurt Busch, a master of Bristol. He might have been able to get up there to challenge Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards if he had free reign. So, in my mind, the new points system concocted to make racing more interesting actually conspired to make Saturday’s race less exciting. The Chase from its inception has been fatally flawed and that’s been borne out every season it has been in place. The much hoped-for TV ratings bonanza didn’t occur – in fact, ratings are actually declining. It’s a time to admit this dog won’t hunt and replace it.
Given a little weathering and a somewhat softer tire – the first occurring naturally and the second gradually – I think we’re due for more classic races at Bristol. And if NASCAR finally drops these failed CoT monstrosities, along with the Chase, things could get even better faster. Meanwhile, if you really can’t live without a constant series of wrecks, there’s always the local demolition derby.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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