Posted: 8:46 pm Monday, April 24th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
NASCAR’s off week stretched one extra day…kind of. Rain postponed the annual Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway to Monday at 1 p.m. and raised even more questions about how the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars would take to the track. Track officials took to adding an adhesive substance again and again in a fine mist the bottom groove of the track. This is the latest attempt by BMS officials to drive racing back to the one-groove, bump-and-run, confrontational cadence that turned Thunder Valley’s half-mile track into a coliseum.
The track has tried for years to regain the magic after a repave nearly 10 years ago created multi-groove racing, i.e. less wreck and wrasslin’. Since that reconfiguration, track attendance has gone from a waiting list sell out to only half or two-thirds full in the monster grandstands that hold 150,000.
This weekend’s races may bring sunny optimism, in light of the rain that rinsed out Friday qualifying, threatened the Xfinity Series race, cut in half the K&N Pro Series East race, and delayed Sunday’s race by 23 hours. Both the NXS and MENCS races eventually saw multi-groove racing, but those that dared venture up to the high line and gain ground had to fight harder for the real estate. The bottom lane always remained the preferred line around the track.
But did the old knock-and-drag Bristol rear its head? Kind of. The bottom line was the best, but not the only way around the track. As drivers rubbered up the top groove (as in, above the middle groove), the speed there equalized. So there was a passing lane, for sure. But that really was not a lane that drivers wanted to stay in side-by-side.
Drivers still gave the chrome horn when they needed to get around an ailing car. And confrontation even broke out in multiple grooves, for example, as Trevor Bayne drew runner-up finisher Clint Bowyer’s ire by driving down on his door and almost wrecking him early. Just after it happened, Bowyer was ready to pulverize Bayne’s No.6 Ford.
No matter how much Bristol tries to turn back time, by taking stabs at creating a single-groove surface, track brass can’t get around about NASCAR in the 2010s: it is a far more refined sport than it was in its glory days. I just watched the 2001 Bristol night race on YouTube. Even then, as NASCAR’s popularity was exploding, there was a certain roughness to the sport. There was less parity, less engineering, and less money. The skill level between drivers was far greater and, thus, there were more wrecks. Plenty more.
The skill of both the teams and the drivers now is so much more. Cars are much more durable. The tone is just different now and has prompted NASCAR in the past few years to create the multi-tiered, elimination playoff system and stage racing.
The bottom line Saturday and Sunday is that the battle for the lead went right down to the checkered flag in both races. Both events saw Kyle Larson spank the field early (he lapped well into the top 10 in the first stage of the NXS race), but saw multiple drivers in the mix for the lead at the end. The MENCS race saw drivers constantly coming and going up and down the leaderboard and five drivers (Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Larson, Clint Bowyer, and eventual winner Jimmie Johnson) all each other in the late-running for the win. They may not have wrecked each other, but they ran hard.
The Bristol of old and new procreated some sort of permutation this weekend. The track had two grooves, but not easily. Tempers flared, lead cars battled, and sheet metal buckled. The new, new Bristol produced very compelling racing with the 2017 rules package. Can we really ask for more than that?