News & Media

Drivers hesitant about venturing into gray area

August 24, 2012, Joe Menzer,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Concerns abound that changes to Bristol track will make it difficult to pass

Aric Almirola leaned back in a chair outside his No. 43 Ford hauler and gestured toward the 0.533-mile track that is Bristol Motor Speedway.

He pointed at the high groove -- or what used to be the high groove -- and noted how the new concrete is a distinctly lighter shade than the older surface below it. Therein lies the key to the track that was altered following a spring race that left fans howling for something different, Almirola said.

Irwin Tools Night Race

Practice 1
2.B. KeselowskiDodge122.162
3.G. BiffleFord122.123
4.A. AlmirolaFord121.999
5.J. LoganoToyota121.999
2.B. Keselowski122.15415.708
3.D. Gilliland121.92915.737
4.M. Kenseth121.92215.738
5.Ky. Busch121.88315.743

"I don't foresee getting up there. It's very distinct, where that last 8 or 10 feet is, where they ground that down," Almirola said following Friday's final practice for Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race. "I think people have flirted with getting close to it, but it's pretty slick. I think during the race, people might get up there. Probably not by choice, but they might get up there.

"I think, right now, we've got a two-groove race track, and it's going to be really tough to pass. I think, obviously, if it's tougher to pass, you're going to see a little more rooting and gouging, which is what the fans want."

In other words, Almirola thinks the changes made to Bristol that were ordered by track owner Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., likely will succeed in making the new Bristol like the old Bristol. Smith said he commissioned the changes after hearing too many complaints from unsatisfied fans who longed for the good ol' days.

But not every Sprint Cup driver agrees with Almirola.

"I think it's terrible. That's about it," said Kyle Busch, who nonetheless was fifth-fastest during Happy Hour with a top lap speed of 121.883 mph.

Joey Logano, Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, topped the speed chart in the final practice with a lap of 122.404 mph. He was followed by Brad Keselowski (122.154 mph), the surprising David Gilliland (121.929 mph), Matt Kenseth (121.921 mph) and Busch. Denny Hamlin (121.674 mph), Regan Smith (121.620 mph), Brian Vickers (121.328 mph), points leader Greg Biffle (121.228 mph) and Kasey Kahne (121.205 mph) rounded out the top 10.

Busch said he watched the Camping World Truck Series race unfold Wednesday night on the new surface and complained that "nobody passed anybody." Timothy Peters led from start to finish in winning that race.

Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, admitted they watched the truck race with great interest as well. They added that they intended to pay special attention to the Nationwide race that was scheduled to be run Friday night, weather permitting.

"I think the Nationwide race will probably teach us more than the truck race did because the trucks were the first vehicles to put rubber down," Biffle said. "Nationwide will have the opportunity to push the envelope a little bit."

But like Almirola, neither Edwards nor Biffle had any intention of being the first to venture into the gray area on the track.

"I don't want to be the first guy to go up there if there's no grip," Edwards said.

"I never drove up there against the wall or in the third groove in practice anyway [before] Biffle added. "I used that groove during the race when I had to, or you went up there when you were kind of searching around for grip. I wasn't always the first one up there even then; when it looked like it was working for other people, that's when I'd explore.

"So that lane being gone now will probably affect the outcome of the race or passing. We'll just have to wait and see exactly what it does."

One driver who said he will miss the highest groove is Martin Truex Jr., who added that the challenge now for him on the track will be to run as high as he can without getting into the gray area.

"I still feel like the high groove on the long runs with old tires -- right up against where they stopped grinding -- is probably the fastest way around," Truex said. "It's still very difficult to run the bottom like it's always been here. Really the track is the same except for that very outside groove through the middle of the corners that you really don't want to get on -- and it's pretty slippery.

"There is definitely a little less room to race, but I still feel like you'll be able to run side-by-side and make some passes on some guys."

Almirola said only time -- and multiple laps around the track with all 43 cars on it -- will tell for certain.

"I think it will take the race to find out exactly what we've got," he said. "Maybe we'll get a few more cautions and see people back in the fence. I know the truck race promoted some of that. The first 70 laps or so went green, and after that it was caution after caution after caution. I think the Cup race is going to be a lot different than the truck race or the Nationwide race. We're on a different tire as well, so I don't think any of us really know what to expect until [Saturday] night. That's what makes Bristol so exciting. It's Saturday night racing under the lights."

Almirola knows only one thing for sure. When it gets dark Saturday night, he's staying away from the gray.

"I don't know what other people's mentality is, but I don't want to be the first one up there. I'm staying where it's black," Almirola said. "That shiny white stuff up near the top where they ground it down is kind of out of bounds for me. ... I think you'll see people up there in the race, but not by choice."