News & Media

'New' Bristol surprises but does not disappoint

August 26, 2012, Joe Menzer,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- After initial hesitation, drivers discover that track's high line is the place to be

Who knew? In the first race at Bristol Motor Speedway since track owner Bruton Smith ordered changes that he insisted were the mandate of unsatisfied fans, drivers expected one development but quickly adjusted to another.

In doing so, they learned to enjoy the high life. On a pleasant Saturday night, when the drivers began the IRWIN Tools Night Race seemingly convinced that driving the high line at the .533-mile short track would be far too treacherous, they all ended up taking their cars there at one time or another to help decide the race's outcome. Along the way, there was more than enough slicing and dicing, side-by-side dueling and outright wrecking while battling hard for positions to satisfy the varying fancies of every fan in attendance and watching via television.

"I started playing with it, and I could watch the progression on every spot of the track. You could see every car flirting with it, and off we went."


But being able to run the high line as much as they did? To a man, the drivers confessed that caught them by surprise.

"It was slick up there, but it laid rubber," said Jeff Gordon, who finished third behind race winner Denny Hamlin and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. "So guys kept creeping up there and laying rubber. The rest of the track is so abrasive that it doesn't lay rubber. It's smooth enough up there where these Goodyear tires just start laying rubber, and all of a sudden, we were all the way up against the wall. It had more grip up there than it did on the bottom. I think that tells you something."

Johnson said it was a revelation to learn relatively early in the race that the high line not only was safe enough to run but also was the quickest way for most cars to make their way around the track. After Brad Keselowski dominated the spring race at Bristol, leading 232 laps en route to victory, Smith ordered the top groove of the concrete surface to be grinded down and re-done, taking some of the banking out to supposedly take that groove away and narrow the race track. In the past, multiple grooves allowed for more passing but less beating and banging.

"Strategy-wise, it was tough to know what was going on," Johnson said. "I would say the eye-opening experience for me was 50 laps in. [Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] told me the 5 car [of driver Kasey Kahne] got up onto the ground surface and was making up a ton of time there. I started playing with it, and I could watch the progression on every spot of the track. You could see every car flirting with it, and off we went.

"That was the big moment in the race. And then from there, you just had to be very, very smart and strategic about when you tried to pass the car in front of you. If you had a good gap behind you, you had to work maybe on the bottom for a corner or two and have a hole to fall back into if it didn't work out. And if not, you just had to wait and sit and wait. It was tough to be patient. I watched a lot of guys jump out of line being impatient, and we would just fill that spot and move our car forward and work our way up."

Brian Vickers, who finished fourth, said he was downright shocked to be able to run the high line as much as he did.

"Was it the race I expected? No. I don't think anyone saw this coming," Vickers said. "I heard that Tony [Stewart] and some of the other guys tried to come off the top in the test after they ground it down, and every single time they wrecked or almost wrecked. Then lo and behold, we come back for the race, and it's two-tenths [of a second] faster than going around the bottom. No one expected this. Listen, I give Bristol credit. They tried to make a change, and it took some courage to do that. I don't know if it worked out or didn't work out, but it was a big difference from what we saw in the first race [of 2012].

"No one in a million years could have predicted the high line was going to be the place to be, especially after the test or the start of the race weekend. But I think it made for a very exciting race. As long as the fans are happy, we're happy. I'll race whatever they give me. I liked the old track. I liked the one they had right before this one. And I like this track. Whatever. Let's just go racing. If the fans like it, let's keep it. If they don't, let's try something else."

That's not likely to be deemed necessary after a race that produced 22 lead changes among 13 different drivers. There were 13 cautions and enough varying pit strategies that it was difficult to figure out how who had the best car and how it was all going to play out. Joey Logano led a race-high 139 laps but ended up eighth. Carl Edwards gambled on fuel and lost, running out with four laps to go after he had led 45 of the final 84 laps. He ended up 22nd, and his hopes for making the Chase for the Sprint Cup appeared to fizzle out on fumes as well.

"I don't know how many of you remember like 1991, 1992, but I remember standing up on top of the suites in the spotter stand watching DW [Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip] run a line like we were running [Saturday] night," Gordon said. "It was a heck of a battle then, and I thought it was a heck of a race [Saturday] night. Who would have thought grinding that race track would have turned into what it did?"