Though it is fair to debate whether or not it is wise for the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule to have a bye week only four weeks into the schedule, few would disagree that scheduling a race at Bristol Motor Speedway after an off-week is a great way to restart what is sure to be a long, grueling season for fans and competitors alike. Seems that if there is one thing that the diverse fans of the sport can agree on is that Bristol Rocks!
Just this past Tuesday, colleague Danny Peters in his Yellow Stripe commentary posted the results of an internal polling of fellow Frontstretch writers as to which five tracks currently on the Sprint Cup series were their favorites. Not surprisingly, Bristol Motor Speedway ranked near the top of the unscientific survey; however, year after year sellouts of Bristol’s two races and the distinction as the toughest ticket in NASCAR to obtain mean the results of the informal polling probably are accurate.
Race enthusiasts, though diverse in their opinions when it comes to the variety of track configurations Sprint Cup events are held at, are almost singular of mind when it comes to the high-banked .533-mile oval located at the northeastern corner of Tennessee and bordering the state of Virginia. The track is well known for its throwback to the early years of short-track racing that the sport was built on and the fans can never seem to get enough of it.
This Sunday’s race is poised to clear any cobwebs that have remained even after the first four races at Daytona, California, Las Vegas and Atlanta. The country is in a general malaise due to a whole lot of negativity that has permeated even NASCAR nation – for many , it has made the beginning of the Sprint Cup season seem trite and difficult to enjoy. The barrage of news concerning financial hardships of team owners that have caused a rash of team realignments, layoffs, closed shops and shuffling of drivers has dampened the start of the 2009 Sprint Cup season, but this week the story will be racing.
For all the changes that BMS has undergone since its first race some 48-years ago, it is still the same Bristol in many ways that it was when Fred Lorenzen battled Junior Johnson in the early ’60s, or when David Pearson swapped wins with Richard Petty and when South Carolinian Cale Yarborough recorded nine victories. The event is still as grueling on competitors as when Darrell Waltrip dominated the early ‘80s, at one point winning seven races in a row on the way to a record 11 wins at Thunder Valley.
The greats have always been great at Bristol. The glance at those drivers that have won multiple times at Bristol reads like a prerequisite list to be considered for the hall of fame. Following Waltrip’s 11 wins, Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace are on the list of those that have bested the field at Bristol nine times. Other noteworthy multi-time winners include Pearson with five victories, Bobby Allison with four victories and Lorenzen and “King” Petty with three apiece.
The track, owned by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) since 1996, has been altered numerous times throughout its history. Yet, through all of its transformations, it has always been considered a fast, difficult short track requiring a skillful balance of aggression and patience to first finish races known for a high number of accidents. For years the track had been considered a “one groove” track requiring drivers to stay on the bottom and, more often than not, “root” competitors out of the way to pass. In 2007, SMI completed an ambitious construction project, resurfacing BMS and configuring a graduated banking into the track that is believed to range from 24 degrees at the apron to 30 degrees of elevation at the outside walls. The result is that there now is a second groove that is proving to create more side-by-side racing at the nation’s fastest half-mile instead of single-file racing that had been the norm for a number of years.
Fans can expect that Bristol’s second groove will have “come in” this weekend after having had time for the surface to “cure.” Side-by-side racing is what the term “rubbin’ is racin’” has always referred to and is what piqued the interest of a nation to the sport in the first place. Expect plenty of racing Sunday!
Economy aside, it can be expected that there won’t be many empty seats for the Food City 500. After all, it’s Bristol and if there was a time to empty out the piggy bank, now’s the time. For many, it is the must see race of the season and for others the one they have always wanted to see.
Bristol Motor Speedway has, more than any other track on the Sprint Cup schedule, retained its appeal while still selling its one enduring and little-changed commodity – hard racing! The exact same approach to the race and skills needed to be successful in 1965 are required in 2009. If anything, with the car of today and all its supposed deficiencies, it is very much like the “hand-fulls” that have competed on short tracks like Bristol since, well… even before there was a Bristol.
Like the aforementioned greats of yesteryear that amazed and astounded race fans at BMS throughout the years, this years race will have no shortage of future legends and multiple winners on hand.
Drivers such as the reemerging 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch, who has visited victory lane five times and is no doubt encouraged by his early season success, is sure to be confident with the knowledge that he’s “been there and done that” a number of times in the past. Tied with the elder Busch brother in career Bristol wins at five is four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001). Expect the points leader to be pressing to extend his lead in the drivers’ points standings at a track he, too, knows how to get around. Past Cup champion Matt Kenseth (2003) also has recorded two wins demonstrating that he too can get it done. Last August’s Bristol winner Carl Edwards has scored two wins, as has Hendrick Motorsports elder statesman Mark Martin. Then there is Tony Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup champion (2002, 2005), that notched a Bristol win in 2001 and will be in the mix looking for win number two. All those are names that are one day destined to be listed amongst the sports greats.
Bristol will be a shot-in-the-arm that race fans truly need. The talk will not be on the economy or the trials and tribulations that owners, drivers and crews are experiencing. There will be no time for such talk. There’s talent aplenty. The race is fast and the action is furious. Sunday, it will be stock car racing as it was meant to be.
You can bet on it!
And that’s my view from turn 5.