NASCAR Race Weekend Central

“Brisdull?!” The New Thunder Valley Roars Under the Lights

Rewind back to 2007, and the first night race at the “new” Bristol. I wasn’t even on staff at Frontstretch at the time, but I distinctly remember reading Jeff Meyer’s column on the split that existed everywhere, between the fans, the media, and even apparently Bristol track personnel, as to whether or not the progressive banking and three-wide racing in place of a one-groove wreckfest was a good or a bad thing.

On one side, we’ve got a bunch of fans, Meyer and fellow Frontstretch writer Mike Neff, who have continually praised the new Bristol for actually living up to its moniker “Racin’ the way it oughta’ be.” On the other side, there’s been a plethora of fans who’ve given up their coveted night race tickets, dubbing the new track “Brisdull.”

Here’s hoping this past weekend will shut up anyone out there foolish enough to have ever called Thunder Valley “Brisdull.”

The Coliseum of NASCAR was packed. There was beating. There was banging. There was carnage. And when the cars out there weren’t wrecking, they were racing two- and three-wide all night long, Friday and Saturday night.

It was the Bristol night race weekend, and it was awesome.

Friday night’s Nationwide race packed a destructive punch from the drop of the green flag. Be it Chase Austin‘s losing control and taking out Kyle Busch and Reed Sorenson, Kevin Harvick spinning Trevor Bayne and taking Danny O’Quinn with him or Peyton Sellers‘s hard front-side impact, plenty of sheetmetal was bent up by race’s end. And while the Austin wreck may have been the highlight of the evening, as Busch’s wreck brought 100,000 cheers from the grandstands, there was a lot more to the Food City 250 than the wrecks. The racing was short-tracking at its finest.

Brad Keselowski and Justin Allgaier staged a furious battle for the lead in the early stages of the race. Busch made things very exciting in all but trading paint with Harvick for the race lead prior to his wreck. And though David Ragan led the last 55 laps en route to victory lane, Carl Edwards kept him in striking distance for the majority of the race’s conclusion. More telling was the racing through the rest of the field. Unlike the days where Bristol races amounted to a parade of drivers protecting the bottom, now it was possible for drivers to move forward. Just ask Paul Menard, who somehow finished ninth after starting dead last. Or David Reutimann, who made up 30 spots en route to finishing 11th. Or even Matt Carter of all drivers, who rebounded from a spin under green to finish 12th, on the lead lap.

A Bristol race with an abundance of passing and carnage? Pinch me.

What’s more, even with the Race to the Chase rendering even some of the world’s most aggressive drivers (see Juan Pablo Montoya) slaves to points racing the last few weeks, Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol was more of the same great stuff fans saw on Friday. Drivers may have been points racing, but it didn’t show… just look at many of the Chase contenders:

Busch and Mark Martin dueled inches from each other for the win over the race’s final 30 laps or so. While there was no contact between the two, there was also no inch given, none taken, between two drivers decidedly on the Chase bubble. The lack of contact was not the product of playing safe, but of, as Busch put it in victory lane, Mark Martin “being a class act” and not forcing the issue. For the record, Busch also drove Martin commendably clean but very hard in scoring his fourth win of the year.

Denny Hamlin started 41st, and drove like a man possessed all night, much like he did at Pocono a few weeks back. Finishing fifth after starting that far back on a short-track doesn’t come without aggression.

Clint Bowyer ended up with a mangled mess of a No. 33 car at the end of the night, but one can’t fault him for lack of effort. Bowyer was continually in the middle of every battle he could get into Saturday night, coming back from a plethora of contact time and time again before settling for 21st.

Montoya’s team’s safe approach went out the window when they were running in the top 10 late in the going; instead of pitting for a potential tire problem under a caution, the No. 42 car stayed out to try and contend for the top five, if not a win… and ended up paying the consequence with a flat tire and a green-flag pit stop that left JPM 25th in the final running order.

And with all of this drama going on around the guys trying to get into the top 12, there were plenty of drivers outside that fold making noise as well. Just look at the run that Marcos Ambrose had. The No. 47 was one of the fastest cars in the field, and thanks to the track now having passing lanes, Ambrose was able to show that hand, picking off big-time names like Jimmie Johnson and Edwards en route to his best career-finish on an oval. The same can be said for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who officially moved from 27th to ninth by race’s end, but seemed to pass as many cars as anyone in the field on Saturday night.

Yes, there were plenty of wrecks Saturday as well… just ask Harvick, Bowyer, David Gilliland and any of the other drivers out there whose cars resembled those of a demolition derby’s by night’s end.

The point of all this summarizing? The new Bristol put on one hell of a show, one that could not come at a better time for NASCAR. After dealing with two straight rainouts and perhaps the most fuel-conscious fuel-mileage race ever ran at Michigan, the Bristol night race returned to form as one of the crown jewel events on the Sprint Cup slate. The improved racing that many Bristol fans have praised was present for 500 laps, while the wreckage, intensity and sheer unpredictability yearned for by those who relish the days of 20 caution flags (like we saw in 2003) was back at the forefront as well.

This race didn’t feel like the Race to the Chase… it felt like Saturday night short-tracking under the lights.

Almost makes me forget that Kyle Busch won.

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