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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Small Track, Big Storylines: Bristol Made Its Comeback

Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t tune into the race or trek into the tracks with high expectations. High hopes, maybe, but certainly not high expectations. After all, why should we? These may be the best drivers in the world, but that also means they know how to conserve, preserve, and basically ride around for the time being. Only with 20 laps to go these days do we see some hard-charging, balls-to-the-wall racing that makes us hold our breath longer than we knew was humanly possible. Either that, or we leave claw marks on the edges of our seats.

But, with Bristol, we allow those expectations to drift ever so higher. The highlight reels, of a generation of hard-fought finishes tell the tale. Bristol is a world where sheet metal has wrinkles, tires leave trails, and helmets grow wings. Drivers may get ticked, but the on track racing is spectacular. It’s fun to watch throughout.

Over the last few years, however, many have since chalked Bristol up to yet another “chore day, and maybe a race afterwards” kind of afternoon. After an unpopular reconfiguration and even more unpopular conservative racing, it just didn’t have the “Bristol” short track feel. It felt more like a squashed up intermediate. I personally liked it, but many didn’t and it showed.

On Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series pulled into Bristol for one of two stops on the schedule and this time, though, there was a buzz. Bristol had been, essentially, changed back to “old Bristol” (kind of) but that wasn’t the only thing that was new. What was this “newest of the new”, this hyped-up, old-school, chivalrous knight in shining armor that would make stock cars both stock and fun again?

The Gen-6 chassis, that’s what. Fans had already seen it on three different types of tracks, with what NASCAR calls mixed results. Fans said, “it freaking sucked.” Again, I was in a small minority thinking, “Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad.” It wasn’t, but the court of public opinion said otherwise.

It was because of these “mixed” results that Bristol was again being viewed with skepticism prior to the waving of the green flag. What would we see on this toilet bowl-shaped racetrack with a glistening new, showroom-friendly cockpit as the star of the show?

Surprisingly enough … it rocked! It felt like Bristol. The Bristol where the on-track product lived up to the pre-race hype, and with which there was rarely a dull moment. Sure, some well-timed cautions for tires and various instances of field shakeups helped spur that on, but in what “exciting” race didn’t that happen? That’s just how it works!

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Three abreast at Bristol? That’s difficult to impossible after the recent repave. But plenty of two-wide action, compared with a fair share of old school wrecks left a lightning rod of excitement in Thunder Valley.

The best part had to be, though, that the cars could actually race. Passing was difficult, sure. It always has been on a racetrack with no breathing room. But you’ll know what I mean when I say that watching Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski race for the top spot with just under 100 to go felt more like a green-white-checkered Duel to the Death. You sucked air in when Kahne would try and make a pass up high, only for Keselowski to cut up in front of him off the corners. You’d see Kahne’s nose inch forward and wonder how close Keselowski would dare get. And this battle wasn’t even the finish.

Now, to be fair, this race wasn’t “old” Bristol. While admittedly before my time as a NASCAR viewer, let alone as a writer, I’ve learned enough about the history of this racetrack to know that it was anything but a multi-grooved speedway. It’s how the “bump and run” got its name and how some of the most iconic finishes in the history of NASCAR came about. And, honestly, it looks like it was really fun to watch … the finish. Honestly, though, I’d rather have a track where drivers can pass than one where the only way to do so is with a bumper. How is that “real” racing?

That doesn’t mean Bristol isn’t one of the coolest racetracks on the circuit. Just because it isn’t like it used to be doesn’t mean it’s not something that everyone can’t get excited about. Listen to how Brad Keselowski put it post-race:

“I say that the old Bristol isn’t back,” he explained. “But I quite honestly feel like this one’s better. Now, it’s hard because you don’t have the nostalgia effect, the Terry Labonte/Dale Earnhardt battles for the win, all that kind of stuff. That’s not coming back. But I think you have something better than that right now. I know there’s a lot of people that don’t see it that way. I think if you look at it objectively, this was a great race. I felt like probably the last half-dozen races here have been solid races in retrospect to what we’ve seen in the past.”

I think he’s right. It doesn’t have to be “old” Bristol to be “good” Bristol. If this action is the Thunder Valley we see in the fall and for the next several years, we shouldn’t complain. There is a time and place for everything, but there is also always room for improvement.

Quite honestly, while many fans aren’t willing to openly admit it, they also enjoy the “temper” factor that comes into play almost every single time the series races there. Even with a little more room to work with, in terms of passing grooves and more “racy” cars, it’s still a very close quarters racing surface. So, essentially, what I believe we’ll continue to see is a perfect mix of the old and the new. You have the new generation of track with a new generation of cars, but still a decent bit of nostalgia to go with it.

It seems like a win-win to me, and maybe we’ll see Bristol Motor Speedway back up at the tops of fans’ bucket lists again sometime soon.

Kahne Posts Quality Win
After 2012, last Sunday’s winner Kasey Kahne had a lot to be concerned with as he headed into 2013. Though he would eventually finish fourth in the final standings, it was no easy task to get there after starting the year off with several finishes that left his new No. 5 team in a deep hole.

In the first four races of the season, it appeared to be déjà vu for Kahne. With a 36th-place showing at Daytona, then a 19th at Phoenix, Kahne admitted that he was having flashbacks to the horrible start he remembered from the 2012 season.

“It actually seemed really similar to the start of last year, those first two,” said Kahne after his race win at Bristol. “Had two great cars at Daytona and Phoenix. Phoenix, we kind of fell off a little bit. Definitely had a good car at Daytona and we lost some points the first two.”

In Las Vegas and Bristol, though, Kahne and his team would begin to show their true colors. A dominating performance in Vegas was only stopped short of a victory by the determination of eventual winner Matt Kenseth. Not to be outdone, he quickly followed up with Sunday’s first-place performance. He led a total of 109 laps, adding to a total of 223 of a possible 1,283 led this year. That leads all drivers, even five-time champion Jimmie Johnson as Kahne pursues the most difficult victory possible: rising to No. 1 in the Hendrick stable with that type of top-level talent racing alongside.

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