In The End, And No Matter How, It Was Return To ‘Old’ Bristol

In a wreck-filled, emotion-charged night race at Bristol, Denny Hamlin emerged the winner with a daring move to pass Carl Edwards with 39 laps to go. The victory was Hamlin's third of the season.

For those of you who wanted a return to the style of racing at the “old” Bristol, well, by and large, you got it in the Irwin Tools Night Race at the high-banked, 0.533-mile track.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup event was indeed a near-clone of the slugfests that characterized races at Bristol for so many years.

There were 13 caution periods for 87 laps, the most since 15 on March 25, 2007.

The track surface was again, essentially, a one-groove oval on which passing was difficult.

The difference was the groove was on the high side of the track whereas, in the past, the best way around was to stick to the bottom.

There were frayed tempers and confrontations, the most notable of which was an irate Tony Stewart’s response to Matt Kenseth – whom he blamed for their wreck on lap 334.

Stewart angrily threw his helmet at Kenseth’s Ford as it departed pit road during the caution. Incidentally, at Bristol, it wasn’t the first time an upset driver used another’s car for target practice.

Frankly, it was all very entertaining.

So it begs the question, did the grinding process ordered by Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., to return the track to the way it was before its 2007 reconfiguration work?

Well, depends upon your point of view.

As said, Bristol remains pretty much a one-groove track. The lower groove disappeared – or at least it was slow and thus the bump-and-run tactics used to pass there did not return.

Tempers flared because of several wrecks, which is nothing new for Bristol. Danica Patrick, knocked out of the race because of a crash, angrily points a finger at Regan Smith, the transgressor.

Instead, drivers utilized the upper portion of the track, which was clearly faster.

Maybe that means Bristol may not have changed completely, but through an improbable series of events, the night race returned to the exciting affair it once was.

There were moves that were reminiscent of the old bump and run. Already mentioned were the displays of temper.

Stewart was certainly not alone. Danica Patrick expressed her anger by pointing a rigid finger at transgressor Regan Smith following an accident on lap 436.

And winner Denny Hamlin’s move to take the lead on lap 461 of 500 was just like the old days.

Hamlin shot low in the first turn and slid up in front of Carl Edwards. Edwards had gained so much momentum he hit the rear end of Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

By rights, Hamlin should have spun out. Instead he kept his car straight, led the rest of the way and went on to win by 1.103 seconds over Jimmie Johnson.

“You did what you had to do,” said Hamlin, who has now won three times this year. “ The only thing you could do was slide in front of somebody. You still had the old Bristol. It’s still one line and you had to knock someone out of the way to make them move.

“Somehow, our car worked so phenomenal on the bottom all day. We made most of our passes without touching a soul. That was the difference.

“No matter what Bruton does nothing is going to make us stay on the bottom if it’s not the fastest way around the track. But we were able to make the most of it.”

Before the track grinding, Bristol had become a two-groove track. Drivers, now free to pass easier and race side-by-side more often, reveled in that.

Seems many fans did not and showed their disapproval by staying away from the spring race this year.

So Smith, with much publicity, announced the reconfiguration.

Again, while the race itself was entertaining and recalled the past, changes made to it were, perhaps, were at least marginally successful.

“Inside the car, to complete a pass, you had to set someone off and make a banzai pass to slide up in front of them,” said Johnson, who has also won three times this year and earned his 17th top-10 finish of 2012. “But when you are around the top, the pace was so high up there.

It was intense for us inside the car, but I don’t know if that crossed over for everyone.

“It was very difficult to pass. Over the years we had a period of time where it was easy to run side‑by‑side and now a big effort to get it back to a single‑file lane again.

“So in some ways it’s the same. We are just racing on different parts of the race track.”

Brad Keselowski was a pre-race favorite because he had won the previous two Bristol races. But he ended up as one of several unhappy victims of an accident.

He was taken out of the event on lap 272 after a backstretch incident with Bobby Labonte. Keselowski finished 30th.

“We were just fair,” Keselowski said. “ You know, we weren’t prepared for the track to drive this stupid and that’s what it is.  It’s the way it is.

“Yeah, I know the goal was to make a one-groove race track so there’d be more action. But it had an inverse affect to where now everybody is running up against the wall.

“And the pace of the field, combined with hard tires, has made the track just even more of an aerodynamic fest.”

As mentioned, there was plenty of driver intensity, which, most likely, the fans could feel.

Most of it was created when competitors were forced to adapt to the high side of the track – and then move even higher when more rubber was ground into the top side.

Adaptation was not easy.

“Yeah, I mean, the pace was fast,” said Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate who finished third. “You could fly up around the top like that with all that rubber down.

“I don’t know what kind of lap times we were running, but I hit my rev limiter every single lap, we didn’t have it set right for that pace.  It was fast, and it was intense, because it was so tough to pass.”

But it was, in the end, the old-time Bristol. It was one groove, high speed and difficult to pass.

“Any time you feel like you’re better than the guy ahead you and he’s holding you up,” Gordon said,  “you look and the cars are lined up behind you, then you’re like, ‘Man, if I make a move, I’d better be sure that I’ve got him.’ ”

“It’s all the same thing,” said Hamlin. “We’re all running in a line and just waiting for a guy to screw up.

That’s what you had at the old Bristol.

“And it’s the way Bristol racing is supposed to be – rooting and gouging.”

 

 

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