Chase breeds more beating and banging at Bristol
August 22, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For many, seeing Bristol Motor Speedway jutting out of the ground and stretching to the sky conjures images of historic NASCAR races at the fabled site.
Others take it one step further.
"It reminds me a little of the movie 'Gladiator,'" Clint Bowyer quipped. "You know someone's going to agitate you."
How fitting, considering this galactic arena is known as the Last Great Colosseum and has produced battle after battle ever since the series' first event here in 1961.
Expect another one or 20 on Saturday in the Irwin Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) when the sun goes down and the lights come on.
"All Bristol races are rough, so to speak, and this is a tough place -- a really, really tough place," said Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle, currently seeded last in the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field. "You come in here and run as hard as you can. ... You take chances and passes, do all the things you can do to win."
It was that last phrase that hung in the garage area Friday, like the early-morning fog that cloaks all those trees surrounding the track.
Perhaps more than any other facility on the circuit -- or at least most of them -- a driver running behind the leader can control his fate late in the race. On an oval that measures 0.533 miles, lapped traffic is always prevalent here. That means there's often an opportunity for cars to close the gap on the leader and get on his bumper as the race winds down.
That was the case last year when Kasey Kahne harassed eventual race winner Matt Kenseth over the final five laps, moving all over the concrete in an attempt to make a clean pass -- and ultimately not doing so, but also not initiating contact. It's an incident drivers can see replaying itself this year, although perhaps ending without the grace Kahne showed in not intentionally spinning his competitor.
"If you are in that spot, you're going to want to do whatever you can to get that win but ... most people I don't think are going to go wrong someone and wreck somebody for the win, but everybody races as hard as they can for the win," Kenseth said. "If you've got that opportunity and you can take it and make the pass then you're going to do it."
But how? The new tire combination here produced conditions that favor drivers hugging the wall at the top of the track, perhaps even higher up than in recent years.
Moving drivers up the track to pass down low becomes a dangerous equation when there's not much room with which to move the opponent without putting those cars into the outside wall.
The first round of Friday's group qualifying ended with four drivers having incurred damage. Kyle Larson -- the only driver to finish in the top five of both practice sessions -- got loose three minutes into qualifying. His No. 42 Chevrolet brushed the outside wall and careened down to the inside, hitting there as well.
Aric Almirola, Casey Mears and Cole Whitt would follow suit with solo wrecks.
"Yeah, a lot of guys are going to hit the wall," Joey Logano said earlier Friday in predicting both Friday's qualifying and Saturday's race. "We're going to have to find a way to be able to run up there all day and somehow have your car good enough to be able to pass. It's going to come down to aggressive strategies and aggressive restarts."
That aggression is magnified both with the stakes of a victory for the winless drivers -- Chase assurance -- and the ability to bump and grind in this bullring.
Those winless drivers have to find that intrinsic balance between winning a race or earning the maximum amount points if they don't win -- all while being aggressive, but not so aggressive that a driver takes himself out of the race with mistakes.
It's a unique, pressure-filled situation. The word AJ Allmendinger used to describe it was "desperation."
No matter the language you use, Saturday's situation is clearly a recipe for volatility.
"It's gonna be Bristol, baby," said Austin Dillon, who will wheel the famed No. 3 Saturday night. "It's going to be fun."