Crew chief sets the scene of what to expect from the 'World's Fastest Half Mile'
Editor's note: Brad Parrott, a 19-time winner in NASCAR national series competition, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis ahead of Sunday's Food City 500 (1 p.m. ET, FOX) for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway:
The arrival of Bristol Motor Speedway on the schedule each spring always marks a return to stock-car racing's short-track roots. You're going to see some beating and banging, tempers flaring, and you might even see a helmet thrown.
The biggest changes to start the weekend will come in qualifying. You're looking at guys getting out there and running 15-second laps. Drivers are going to make more laps at Bristol in qualifying than they have anywhere else, primarily because of the traffic and trying to achieve a fast, mistake-free lap.
NASCAR coming out Tuesday with the qualifying changes will definitely make for safer driving on the race track. It gives everybody a chance to cool down without clogging up the track. The change probably won't have that much of an effect at Bristol, but I think the following week at Auto Club Speedway, it'll show up more. Having the cool-down unit hooked up through the cowl unit is a plus for everyone involved.
New tires are the way to go at Bristol but the way the last two weeks have turned out, qualifying times with five or six laps on the tires are the fastest that guys have run. At Bristol, we'll see the same thing, and there's not nearly as much fall-off in terms of grip.
Look for the Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to be up on the front row again, believe it or not, three weeks in a row. They've really shown the performance gains that they've made over the winter, but it will still boil down to who gets the cleanest lap. We're looking at only a two-session qualifying format with the cut immediately being made to the fastest 12 drivers. With just five minutes in that last session at Bristol, you can probably make up to four qualifying attempts for your best lap because it only takes 15 seconds to get around.
The top 12 is still going to come from the smartest teams whose drivers get the cleanest laps. There may be an accident or two, just because one guy might be faster than the others. There's nowhere to hide at Bristol. It's the fastest half-mile track we go to, and it's very demanding. You can go from the start-finish line to Turn 2 in six seconds -- you almost can't count to six in that amount of time. It's going to be high-adrenaline, very demanding on both the driver and crew chief.
A win at Bristol can carry you a long way throughout the season because it's so demanding. The biggest thing about Bristol for drivers and crew chiefs alike is getting the high lane to work for you. The last three races that we've been there, the high groove has been the favored lane.
This will be the fourth race since track officials ground down the high lane around the outside of the track. You'd think that experience with the new configuration would give crew chiefs a leg up on setting up their cars, but the new ride-height rules established this year have thrown that out the window.
Beforehand, Bristol was the biggest spring on the right-front that we ran all year. Now with these guys that are trying to keep the cars' noses on the ground, you're going to see some old-school setups. It's going to be back toward what it used to be, just because a crew chief is more familiar with that setup. But you'll see some crew chiefs trying this low ground-effects spring package, and those guys may be the ones with the fastest cars because lower is always better.
The track is actually rougher than a lot of people think, and that's just a byproduct of the ripples in the concrete. As a result, the shocks move faster there than any track we visit.
It might sound overly simple, but at the end of the race, the winning driver is the one who keepstheir car the cleanest. Bristol's not an aero-dependent track like Las Vegas is, but you have to have your fenders on the car and you have to have your brake ducts working.
The drivers use less brake at Bristol than any short track they go to because of the way they roll through the corners. Overall, you'll tend to play the traffic game more. You'll start lapping cars in just eight to 10 laps there. If the cars get strung out, 43 cars at Bristol cover the whole race track. The biggest thing to watch out for is traffic.
It's a far different experience than the short tracks in Martinsville or Richmond. With the speeds and the intense banking, you won't see brake rotors glowing red nearly as much at Bristol. You'll see the driver touch the brake for maybe a second or so,just to set their car getting into the corner and that's about it.
More than 50 years after it was built, Bristol remains a fearsome challenge for both driver and crew chief. Some things never change.