NASCAR fans head to Bristol this week for the first time since the track made major modifications earlier this summer in an attempt to narrow out the racing groove and bring back the type of racing that the track was known for: beating and banging, and using the chrome horn to make a pass. Since the track was reconfigured in 2007 with progressive banking, the wide groove made two- and three-wide racing the norm, rather than the bump-and-run, which was often good for taking out several cars in one move. In short, fans are asking Bristol to turn back time.
The problem with that is that it’s simply not possible. No reconfiguration of a racetrack can bring back the “good old days.” There are simply too many factors that have changed; the track is just one factor in the evolution of racing at Bristol (and elsewhere). The change is more complicated than the track reconfiguration—the sport itself has undergone many changes in the last decade that at least partially contribute to the feeling of racing’s inadequacy among fans:
*The racecar* It’s as easy, perhaps even easier, to paste the blame on the racecars themselves, because they came about at an inopportune moment, and when first released, they…well, they _looked funny._ And the racecar once known as the Car of Tomorrow does have its faults, chiefly an anonymity that left fans wondering why teams bothered to pretend they raced different makes of car. Is it any worse of a racecar than the one it replaced? No, not really. It’s disappointing in that it was touted as being better, but the reality is, the “old car” at the end of its incarnation was just as terrible on the racetrack as far as aerodynamic dependence and its need for clean air.
Early in its evolution, that car was better than the current one, but by the end there is little difference in the way they race. The new car does have one advantage in its superior safety, and that’s no small thing, but on the track, there’s little difference in the racing except for the fact that a frustrated driver can no longer shove his front bumper under another’s rear end and lift the back wheels off the ground. Still, in the last decade or so, regardless of the car, aero dependence and, especially in the newer cars, lack of areas for teams to work on to gain an advantage has watered down the racing. But there’s another component of the cars that teams have no control over.
*The tires* Here’s where it gets trickier to define what’s best. The current tire compounds are made for durability. As speeds approach and exceed 200 miles per hour more and more often, that’s good from a safety standpoint; blown tires have caused some very serious injuries over the years, and obviously, reducing that type of incident is very important. However, the more durable tire has taken away a strategy that was an important part of the sport in the not-too-distant past. Surely with the technology of today, Goodyear could produce a tire that is durable enough not to blow out on a regular basis but that the surface tread wears away on more quickly, forcing teams to decide between making tires last a fuel run by running conservatively or risk having them fade too soon.
Tires that last for an entire fuel run contribute to an increase of fuel mileage races, something many fans loathe. Concrete tracks, like Bristol, used to be hell on tires. Now, not even Darlington, with its notoriously rough asphalt, causes teams to have to make difficult decisions. And it was those kind of in-race decisions that separated the best of the best from everyone else on the track; it was more a game of race day strategy and less one of finding some tiny mechanical advantage back at the shop. The Cup tires are reportedly softer than those being run in the Nationwide Series and the ones we saw on the Camping World Trucks on Wednesday night. But whether they, coupled with the track changes, will be enough to truly make a difference in race strategy remains to be seen.
*The Chase* It’s impossible to deny the impact of the Chase on the way teams race during the season. In the first 26 races, many teams race conservatively, looking for consistency to simply _make_ the Chase rather than the brilliance it takes to win races but is also a larger risk of failure or accident. Even with the wild card, wins are no guarantee of success without consistency.
While that was true under the old system to a point, the Chase, which was supposed to reward winning has made it even more important to race conservatively at times because making the cut, not winning individual events, has become of greater importance to teams. This year’s wild card race could spice things up; with several drivers, including Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Marcos Ambrose, all of whom need a win and all of whom are excellent at Bristol, making them more likely to have a checkers or wreckers mentality. On the other hand, they will be mindful that in order to win, they must first get themselves in position to be there at the end…and that could have the opposite result in the end.
There are also a handful of drivers who will likely clinch their Chase spots this week who can afford to go all out for the win. But there are also several in the middle of the mix who will want to protect their points positions. And if respect breeds respect on the track, you won’t see some of the top drivers make moves that could come back to bite them. With the Chase just weeks away, there isn’t time to make up a terrible finish. Under the old system, drivers could go all-out every lap at races like Bristol because there was time to regain any lost ground. Now, every point is simply too important for some teams to risk.
*Lack of prestige* There used to be a few races on the schedule that every team owner, driver and crewman wanted to have on their resumes. After the Daytona 500, there was the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the summer race at Talladega, and the night race at Bristol. The more difficult the track, the more a driver wanted to win there. Now, that has changed. Schedule changes added the race at Indianapolis, which was immediately hyped as the biggest thing since asphalt, and teams wanted to win there. That race, coupled with the ever-growing number of intermediate tracks on the schedule, caused teams to work in a different direction in order to accommodate the increasing necessity to finish well on those tracks.
Short tracks and unique tracks were no longer the lion’s share of the schedule, and therefore had to take a back seat to the ones that led to championships. The Southern 500 is gone, replaced by a race that is alike in name and location only, but the prestige of winning under the punishing Labor Day sun as the Lady in Black destroyed tires long before a fuel run was over is gone. The summer race at Talladega is also a memory, with the powers that be claiming the brutal heat as a deciding factor for both.
NASCAR also dropped its incentive programs when the title sponsor changed from Winston to Nextel/Sprint. The Winston Million, while Bristol wasn’t included, gave drivers a reason to gun for a win, and the No Bull 5, which often did include the Tennessee bullring did so even more. Sprint attempted a similar program last year, but it led directly up to the Chase, and therefore didn’t produce the hoped-for result. Putting the prestige back into certain races, while increasing the money paid to individual race winners while reducing drastically the amount paid through the end-of-year point fund would make an impact on the racing almost everywhere. Programs like the No Bull 5, which gave a group of select drivers an incentive to go for a million-dollar prize for themselves and a fan would at least put those drivers on a different agenda from the normal good points day that we see so often today.
*Lack of emotion* Before you blame drivers for being vanilla (because the vast majority truly aren’t if you get to know them), take a look at the multi-million-dollar corporate sponsors, who, through various PR reps and handlers, stifle their drivers into acting a certain way…and that often bleeds over onto the track. It seems like nobody wants to sponsor the bad boy these days. While it’s understandable to expect a certain level of behavior from drivers, it’s sometimes obvious in their actions that they are being stifled. Bristol once meant hot tempers and sponsors-be-damned driving. Now…perhaps some drivers are being held back from doing something that could label them as dirty or as jerks.
Consider Jimmie Johnson. As a rookie, Johnson got dumped by Robby Gordon at Bristol and his reaction was purely emotional: a double-fisted flipping of the one-finger salute to Gordon as he passed by under caution…and Johnson wasn’t telling Gordon he was number one. Fast forward ten years and you can’t even imagine that kind of behavior from Johnson. And perhaps it’s not Johnson who has changed, but the expectations of him…to the point where he walked away last week rather than to risk saying what he actually felt.
No, that wasn’t a very sportsmanlike move, either, but if a driver is going to behave in a less-than-stellar manner, which would you rather see: the one that tells the other guy exactly how he feels through gesture or a well-thrown helmet or gloves, or the one who walks away because he’s afraid of getting in trouble? It seems like more and more often, fans want drivers to show emotion on and off the track and the sponsors are allowing it only when the driver is in victory lane. And while Johnson’s joyful one-man food fight celebrating his one Bristol win was great to see…so was his long-ago reaction to Gordon. There’s a difference between showing negative emotion and being a jerk, but many sponsors and handlers don’t seem to know that…and it ends up negatively impacting the way they race as well as the fans’ impressions of the drivers.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads back to the new—old—whatever it is Bristol, it’s important for fans to go in with a clean slate of expectations. Enjoy the three-wide racing and close quarters clean passing for what they are…and remember that at most tracks, that kind of racing would be a welcome change. The days of exacting revenge with a bumper and multi-car chain reactions may well prove to be a thing of the past…but before blaming the racetrack, remember that there are many reasons for the change, and no bulldozer or paver can change them. But before you blame the racetrack or even the drivers…consider the reasons they are no longer the same as they once were. Expecting the racing at Bristol to be exactly the same as it was 20 years ago or more is, for better or for worse, unrealistic, because the entire game has changed so very much.
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