Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Analysis: Even with an oddly quiet Thunder Valley, Bristol delivers again

Bristol Motor Speedway has long been built on atmosphere. The eggshell-anticipation that comes with the Colosseum theme of full-contact racing. The noise that echoes off the grandstands and surrounding hills, giving it the Thunder Valley nickname. The roar that erupts from the bleachers when tens of thousands react to the almost inevitable short-track drama.

The speedway — no dummies — markets that bottled-up emotion to the hilt. Sunday, with COVID-19 safety restrictions still in place, there was no admittance save for essential personnel. It didn’t stop a handful of hearty faithful from parking outside to soak in a whiff of it — sounds only and sights unseen.

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Sunday’s Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 brought back many familiar ingredients to the “It’s Bristol, Baby” formula that built the place. Never mind that the track was very nearly built in the nearby Piney Flats community, and that the slogan “It’s Piney Flats, Baby” wouldn’t have quite the same ring.

Digressions aside, shades of the Bristol that brought people clamoring for more emerged Sunday. Crumpled sheet metal and equally damaged egos were commonplace, and winner Brad Keselowski was one of the few who left the .533-mile bullring smiling.

It was dynamic, just far, far quieter.

“Early on in the race everybody was hitting each other. It carried in all the way to the end,” said Keselowski, who sprang up to lead the final three laps. “Some people ran me over. I probably ran some people over. Everybody is mad at everybody going into Atlanta next week.”

NASCAR’s five-race return since the pandemic outbreak has been heavy on drama and subplots. Besides the unique situation of racing under new public-health protocols, the addition of shorter midweek races has ramped up the urgency to gain ground wherever possible. Darlington’s second event erupted with a Chase Elliott vs. Kyle Busch confrontation, and Charlotte’s pair of races came loaded with heartbreak then redemption for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.

Bristol stood next as a likely candidate to add more pressure in the cooker. The track’s calling card was already close-quarters racing, but NASCAR’s reduced-downforce package for its shorter venues in 2020 meant a greater challenge. Holding the event without practice or qualifying produced more variables, and the addition of PJ1 traction compound to the lower lanes in the turns offered grooves, options and possibilities as the race’s complexion evolved.

As the daytime start progressed to evening, the cream rose and the specter of late-race contact among some of the sport’s heavyweights came through. Elliott was again at the center of that crescendo, with Joey Logano as his rival this time, and both of their cars cramming together into the Turn 3 wall with fewer than five laps remaining. They dismounted and argued, with reasonable social distance and through face masks, but oddly without any crowd buzz to stoke the confrontation. Piped-in cheers and jeers just wouldn’t have done the trick.

That’s where the long-range hopes come in. Bristol’s annual night race remains one of the best tickets on the Cup Series schedule, an event that mixes all of Sunday’s recipe essentials under the glare of bright lights. In a delicious wrinkle, those ingredients move this year from mid-August to a September date in the NASCAR Playoffs with elimination from the postseason picture in the balance. Same formula, higher stakes.

“More of the same. That’s Bristol, man,” said runner-up Clint Bowyer, who likened the place to I-70 Speedway in Missouri, a short track entrenched in his racing roots. “Just like this place. They called it the action track. When you pull in here, you know all hell’s going to break loose. You don’t know where it’s coming from, where it’s going to be, how it’s going to be, who is going to be the benefactor, who is going to leave pissed off.

“That’s short‑track racing at its best. Nobody does it better than Bristol.”

It’s an atmosphere that the faithful fans parked outside Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday can hopefully feel, hear and see when September arrives.