(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2019 Food City 500

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Defending race winner and active Bristol Motor Speedway win leader Kyle Busch suffered damage in a chain-reaction crash on the initial start of the race after starting 17th. Busch suffered damage to his car’s rear bumper after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ran into him from behind.  Fortunately for Busch, no one hit him when he spun and recovered to battle his way back.  By the end of stage one, he’d recovered to sixth place and moved up another spot to finish fifth in stage two.

But it was a late strategy call by Team Penske that gave Busch the boost he needed to win. Before the final caution flew with just over 20 laps remaining, teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were duking it out for the lead and the win, with Busch a fairly distant third. But both Keselowski and Logano chose to pit for tires under the yellow, banking on the faster speed of new rubber to bring everyone behind them to pit road.  Busch and several others stayed out, capitalizing on track position, relegating the Penske teammates too deep in the field to mount a comeback.

In the end, Busch was able to power away from the rest of the field on the final restart and hold off older brother Kurt Busch for his eighth Bristol trophy.

Sometimes, a move to a new team is just the shot in the arm a driver needs to take the next step in his career—just ask Logano. While leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, arguably NASCAR’s top team might seem like a step backward, being replaced at JGR turned out to be a boon to Logano, and it’s starting to look that way for Daniel Suarez.

Suarez has been strong for the last three weeks, finishing in the top 10 every time out, including a third at Texas and eighth this weekend.  Suarez started 20th on Sunday, deep in the field for Bristol, but raced his way into the top 10 by the halfway point. Even after looking a bit like a pinball in the second half and scraping the wall, Suarez worked his way back into the top 10 for a strong finish. He’s 12th in points and has a 14.6 average finish despite hiccups at Daytona and Phoenix.

Suarez is looking a lot like Aric Almirola did a year ago.  Almirola made the playoffs and won a race last year and this year he’s off to a hot start despite finishing last on Sunday after getting spun early.  He’s looking more like a win is around the corner each time out.

What…  is the takeaway from this race?

A lot of people like to call Bristol a drivers’ track, and it is.  But it’s also a strategy track.  A little something different in the pits, or not in them as the case was for a few drivers early, can make a team a contender that might not have been somewhere else. Strategy handed Ty Dillon a stage win and allowed a couple of different teams to have great days.

Part of that is cautions.

This column touched on whether they’re necessary a few weeks ago, and Bristol shows why they can make a race a lot more interesting. Crashes are not fun, and seeing a driver hurt is something no real fan ever wants to see, but they set up the ability of teams to play some different cards.  Dillon’s stage win would not have happened without one which allowed him and a couple of others to stay out while most of the leaders elected to pit.  That led to a better finish for the No. 13 team than it’s accustomed to as well.  Matt DiBenedetto also had an above-average run for what the No. 95 team has pulled off so far this year and Chris Buescher had a great day as well until a loose wheel derailed him with under 50 laps remaining.

That’s good for NASCAR and for fans. What fans want to see when the sun sets on race day are drivers—preferably not always the same ones—making things happen on track. Team strategy calls are great, too. When it comes down to more car than people, that’s when the sport suffers.  Fans have asked for more short tracks because the driver and the team behind him are what makes the difference for the win.

Where… were the other key players at the end?

Pole sitter Chase Elliott lost his power steering early—difficult anywhere but particularly challenging at Bristol. Elliott led the first 38 laps on the day but fell to the back half of the top 10 as the race went on, scoring a top 10 in the first stage but none thereafter, finishing 11th.

While it’s easy to say that drivers back in the day ran without power steering, they weren’t doing it when the rest of the field wasn’t, so Elliott’s performance was commendable, just not memorable.

Kevin Harvick was heavily penalized for failing pre-race inspection, starting from the back and serving a pass-through penalty as soon as the race went green, leaving him two laps down from the beginning.  Harvick and his team were behind the eight ball, but they didn’t roll over.  By the final caution of the day, Harvick had maneuvered into position for the free pass when that caution flew.  From there, Harvick was able to pass a handful of cars in the last 16-lap stint to finish 13th.

First-time stage winner Ty Dillon got the win by staying out during a very late caution in the stage when almost all of the leaders came to pit road. With just four green-flag laps left in the stage, Dillon was able to run side-by-side with frontrunner Clint Bowyer and nip him at the line for the win.  The move paid off for Dillon, giving him enough track position to stay on the lead lap all day, finishing 15th.

When… was the moment of truth?

Lucky for Kyle Busch, his older brother couldn’t quite get to him on the final lap, because the elder Busch said after the race he had plans for Kyle had he been close enough to execute.

“I was going to wreck him,” Kurt Busch said after the race. “I was wanting to stay close enough so that when we took the white, I was just going to drive straight into (Turns) 3 and 4; I mean he’s already won (this year). I figured he could give a little love to his brother, but no. I wanted that one bad. I feel like him right now. I’m like ‘ugh, I’m mad because I didn’t win.’”

Would the elder Busch have made good on his words? It’s definitely possible; he’s certainly not afraid to use a bumper to win and he’s too often in his brother’s shadow.

Does NASCAR need drivers wrecking each other to win? No. It’s hard to imagine such tactics making racing better; playing dirty rarely makes anyone like the result. But does NASCAR need drivers to be willing to wreck each other to win?  Yes.  There are exceptions, but many drivers don’t seem to be willing to risk their reputation or their sponsor’s reputation on a winning move.

Part of that’s understandable.  Some fans will vilify any use of the bumper, including a bump and run for the win. A true bump and run doesn’t wreck anyone; it moves them out of the groove but they keep going. Logano put a perfect bump and run on Martin Truex Jr. at Martinsville for the win last fall. No lines were crossed.

Still, sponsors seem to have created a sport where everyone has to toe a line that’s so generic it should be on a plain black-and-white box with nothing else but a bar code to distinguish it. The sport needs the bump and run and it needs drivers both skilled enough and willing to do it. And that means being willing to rattle a cage.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

NASCAR sent a strong message to teams that they’d better show up with a legal car on race day. They’ve punished teams for failing pre-race inspection in the past, but the added penalty of a pass-through on lap one (and of losing their finishing position if something is amiss afterward) seems to have curbed teams’ enthusiasm for pushing the rules and kept them on the straight and narrow.

That’s a good thing.  Are teams still pushing the envelope? Is the sky blue?  Of course they are, but having very real and very tough consequences is better for everyone, and that includes fans, who deserve, above all, to know that the race winner did it in a legal car.

It became clear last season that teams were willing to push inspection limits, and starting at the back in itself isn’t enough of a deterrent for a fast car.  Harvick scored a lead-lap finish even with the harsher penalty, so simply sending him to the back wouldn’t have been much of an obstacle. Changes like this, and like taking away finishing position, even wins, are positive for everyone.

How… come empty seats aren’t just about the racing?

You’d have to be blind to not see the empty seats at Bristol, a track that once had a waiting list for tickets estimated to be years long for some on it. The track left large sections of seats in the corners unsold and there were still empty spots on the straights.

As bad as it looks, though, there are a couple of things to consider here.  One is that estimates have somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 tickets sold. A lot of teams in major sports would like to have 35,000 people come to a game. Bristol holds more than four times that number, though, so it looks like nobody’s there.

And as much as it’s been said, Bristol’s rural location has a lot to do with it.  Hotel prices are in the $200 a night range on the low end within about an hour radius of the track, maybe a bit more. Add in tickets and food and travel from wherever to the track and hotel and it’s probably at least a $500 weekend. That’s steep, even to the point that some smaller media outlets can’t afford to cover it anymore. Sure, there’s camping, but that costs money as well, plus you need provisions and at the very least a good tent and sleeping bag.

And while it’s hard for race fans to think about, but if the family isn’t into the sport? There’s not a whole lot for the non-fans in the family to do at the small-town tracks while the fans do their thing. While $500 might be ok for a family weekend, it’s steep for half the family to go while the other half is stuck at home. And if the others want a weekend of their own?  It adds up fast.

So while racing as a destination vacation might not be a thing of the past, tracks like Bristol are a harder sell in terms of anything other than the race track. Martinsville is an easy day trip from the Charlotte area; Bristol is pushing it as far as driving in and home on Sunday.

At the checkers, it’s still about the racing, but it’s also about the money and about the sustainability of a fad and other things.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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14 comments

  1. Avatar

    Everyone tries defend NASCAR tracks, comparing them to other professional sports venues. Mind you a baseball team has to fill a 35,000 seat stadium 81 times a year. A football team has eight home games to fill a generally larger stadium. Hockey and basketball teams have 40 home dates. NASCAR tracks have only or two dates to fill. Failure to do that really speaks volumes.
    To many of us, these empty seats are vindication that just about everything NASCAR (and this case, the track itself) has done in the last 10-15 years has not worked.
    To Amy’s credit, she didn’t blame the 2008-2009 recession (as some NASCAR apologists still try to cling to a decade later).

    • Avatar

      Thank you for pointing out these simple truths. And with pressure building to reduce the time of the race, it will be even harder to justify travel times to and from. Quite a conundrum.

  2. Avatar

    I looked into tickets to go to Bristol, still would love to someday. Currently my debt to income ratio doesn’t allow my to though. Ticket prices are way to large for nose bleeds (>100$ when I looked). Plus the day drive, hotel stay, and day drive back….just flat out too expensive, you’d think with the amount of seats they have available vs the amount they sell it would make sense to offer cheaper options, especially sense they are no where near their capacity. Bummer :(

  3. Avatar

    “A lot of teams in major sports would like to have 35,000 people come to a game.”

    STOP TRYING TO JUSTIFY THIS DECLINE LIKE THIS. If I have an event that pulls in 160,000, and then the same event pulls in 35,000 15 years later, I’m assuming something is seriously WRONG…

    I wish everyone would quit glazing over this and get your freaking heads out of the sand. We’re beginning to talk about the survival of the sport now…

  4. Avatar
    Jeffery Richards

    As hard as it is to say, maybe Bristol should go to one race, replace the spring race with Nashville, then the fall race, being a cutoff race for the playoffs, would have more meaning. That being said, the crowd for the small.rave has always been smaller. The tracks also out built themselves, thinking that the huge popularity would last forever.

  5. Avatar

    Bristol didn’t use to be a ‘hard sell’, did it? How many consecutive years of both races selling out? Crowds starting fading when Nascar started fiddling with the sport as a while, and bristol became less unique than is used to be. For me, the introduction of ‘the chase’ castrated the night race, and I found myself fighting to stay awake with 150 laps left to go. Thus ended 7 years of consecutive attendance. When you depend on people traveling great distances to see your product, you better put the best product on the table. Or the track

    • Avatar

      Funny that they didn’t have a problem raising the prices when demand was greater than supply but they are now unwilling to lower the prices now that supply is greater than demand (and that includes hotels as well). NASCAR has no chance of growing until they lower prices across the board, and significantly. That is why fans aren’t coming, it got too damn expensive. There was a lag between people shelling out ever increasing amounts and the realization that it had gotten ridiculously expensive. It didn’t help that Brian then kicked the diehard fans in the nuts with all the unrequested changes. Fans finally took a step back and realized how costly it had become. If costs had been that high all along, Bristol would have never gotten as big as it did. If the NFL had to rely on 80% of their fans traveling greater than 3 hours to an event, and half of them having to pay for a hotel room, they’d have issues too.

  6. Avatar

    The best seats at Bristol are up high in the turns. Other than the pits, it’s not like a football game where you want to sit at the 50-yard line/start and finish line.
    Because there is often action on both ends of the track, sitting in the corners allows you to see the entire race track.
    Hence, they even blocked off the wrong seats (although corners only would have given an interesting optic on the broadcast.

  7. Avatar
    Scott Richardson

    Please quit trying to justify the low attendance. As you yourself mentioned in the article, Bristol never had a problem previously selling out each and every seat. There was also a waiting list for several years of people just wanting a seat if you didn’t want it.

    This is a HUGE indictment of the displeasure with all of the changes currently going on in this sport. If some major changes don’t occur soon, we may be talking in the past about watching NASCAR races, because there won’t be any present-day races.

  8. Avatar

    I’m not trying to justify the empty seats, or the gimmicks that are a part of today’s Nascar, but I will say this… the glory days of Nascar are a thing of the past and nothing is going to bring them back. Attendance was inflated in those halcyon days because Nascar was the latest “IN” sport during the nineties. Then things happened to bring Nascar back down to earth. Ticket prices jumped. Hotels started gauging race fans. Jimmie Johnson started winning championship after championship. Earnhardt got killed. And the sport began being run by a moron who couldn’t even speak a coherent sentence, much less run a business.

    Today, things are settling back down to where the sport was in the eighties. Regardless of what happens with the sport going forward, the boom days are over. We can accept that, or we can whine in vain.

    • Avatar

      The south shall rise again!!!

      Seriously, I agree with all your points but you can’t ever say never about the sport reaching those heights again. Why can’t NASCAR become a fad again? What will be interesting is if anyone learns from history or if they just repeat past mistakes. Making huge changes and alienating the core audience to try to get more rubes to come is always a bad idea.

  9. Avatar

    I attended this past weekends race at Bristol. First of all, it was a GREAT race. One of the best NASCAR races I’ve seen in the last 30 years. Everybody who was actually there left satisfied with the race. So what is keeping people away? The last 15 to 20 years of nonsense decisions from NASCAR is a large part of it.

    I took my 16 year old daughter with me, this was her first Cup race, and her observations were interesting. She noted that all of the cars look the same and that the ‘Mustang’ race car looks virtually nothing like a real Mustang. She thought group qualifying was stupid – she asked why they didn’t go one at a time like the local short track. Good question. She wondered why so many cars were getting penalized for no apparent reason (uncontrolled tire – yeah right). She wondered why the track doesn’t cut ticket prices when the grandstands are clearly less than 25% occupied. Even the scalpers outside the track couldn’t unload all their tickets.

    Hotel prices and ticket prices are part of the problem, but the bigger problem is NASCAR’s long string of really bad decisions going back 15 years or more. It’s time for a back to roots movement in NASCAR. Its time for independent track owners to put pressure on NASCAR to dump the changes, throw out the rule book, and go back to stripped-down stock car racing.

  10. Avatar

    Yeah, ticket prices are too high – BUT scalped tickets are available outside the track for a fraction of face value. Plus, with mostly empty grandstands, you can really sit anywhere you want. On Saturday, I paid $60 for Sunday tickets. I probably would have paid even less if I waited for Sunday to buy. Scalpers have booths set up outside the track, and they have bundles of tickets – hundreds of tickets. Don’t let price keep you from the best Cup race you’ll likely see.