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Notebook: Drivers find their way at Bristol

March 15, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

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Top lane still might be best route; big impact shortens Nationwide practice

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- With plenty of laps still to be turned this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, including 500 of them in Sunday's main event, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers set about trying to find a groove in Friday's practice. The only issue is that Friday's groove might not be Sunday's preferred line.

The short track will host its second race on its newly ground concrete this weekend, and the early indications are that Sunday's Food City 500 could share the complexion of last August's slam-bang affair. Hours of Friday practice for Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars put plenty of Goodyear rubber into the racing surface; by day's end, the groove had already moved three-quarters of the way up the steep banking.

"As far as the race goes, I think we'll definitely see the top lane come in, for sure," said Kyle Busch, who blasted to his first Coors Light Pole at Bristol with a track-record lap Friday of 129.535 mph. "When or how fast, I'm not sure about that exactly."

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Bristol executives opted to overhaul the .533-mile layout between the track’s two annual events last season after hearing a fan outcry -- and ensuing internet vote -- in favor of altering the track to improve the racing. As a result, the progressive banking was modified and a layer of concrete in the outside line around the track was ground down.

The racing it produced made the high groove the fastest way around, especially after the field wore its tires into the pavement. To gain positions, drivers used the dirt-track tactic of the "slide job," which requires a certain amount of gusto to dive low before sliding up in the turns in front of a rival.

"It does take you back to the dirt track days, even though you aren’t completely sliding it sideways, you are still very committed to that move," said Jeff Gordon, who cut his teeth on dirt speedways. "You are carrying so much momentum to make it work to get ahead of that car; you have no choice but to take it all the way to the wall."

While the opinion in the garage seems to be that the slide-job strategy will return, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said there was no way of knowing last season that removing some portions of the top banking would actually boost its popularity.

"They were trying to eliminate the top groove and ended up making it even stronger," he said. "And so it didn’t really have the intended result, but it was a good result nonetheless. Everybody seemed to enjoy the race. I did.

"So, I think everybody needs to put away the pick-axes and hammers because we really don’t know what makes a good race track. We really don’t need everybody hammering away at the surface of the race track trying to fix it, because nobody really knows what the result is going to be."

Heavy hit
A savage-looking four-car crash red-flagged the second Nationwide Series practice of the day, with Joey Gase and Brad Sweet taking the brunt of the damage.

As Gase slowed to avoid Tony Raines' spin on the backstretch, his almost-stationary car was slammed from behind by a fast-closing Sweet, lifting Gase's rear wheels off the concrete. Both drivers were evaluated and released from the infield care center.

"I wasn't really expecting to see a wreck halfway down the backstretch and it just caught me off guard," Sweet said. "I think I overreacted with my brakes, just locked 'em up and I was kind of along for the ride." 

The impact brought a premature halt to Gase's weekend. The 20-year-old driver for Jimmy Means Racing said his team did not have a backup car for Saturday's Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300.

Gordon goes viral
Jeff Gordon has had plenty of victories through his 20-plus years of NASCAR racing, but one of his biggest might be the viral video that won the internet this week. The web video of a disguised Gordon terrifying an unsuspecting used car salesman in a test drive topped the 18-million views mark Friday, becoming a hot topic at Bristol, where stunt-driving skills might be considered an asset.

"When you are at Bristol, you're just scaring yourself every other corner," Gordon said. "That's why this place is so much fun."

The debate quickly ensued over whether the video was real, partly staged or an outright fake. Gordon didn't do his own driving, though he said he thought he could "pull off 90 percent of it," but no matter how contrived the short film was or wasn't, the court of YouTube opinion has judged it an online hit.

"I know how much fun I had doing it, but after watching, I thought they did an awesome job editing it, making the whole thing really come together and be a lot of fun," Gordon said. "I laughed my butt off, to be honest. I’ve watched it probably six or eight times, and every time I’ve just cracked up."

Pit notes
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s car went up in smoke during the first Sprint Cup practice, the victim of an engine failure. "A lot better to have it happen during practice than when we get in the race and it really matters," said Stenhouse, who qualified 28th but will drop to the rear of the field Sunday because of the engine change. … Scott Riggs was the only driver who failed to qualify for the 43-car field.

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