Monday, March 23, 2009

Rearview: Bristol

Historically, the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is close and intense, with too many cars in too little space. The combination left many drivers with frayed nerves and hot tempers. But if the recently completed weekend at Bristol is any indication, the era of the 15-caution flag race at Bristol is over.

The old concrete surface was a single-groove nightmare that didn't allow the drivers to race at all. The only way to pass was to move someone out of the way, and using the bumper often meant sending someone spinning into the wall.

The new surface and it's compound banking allows for two and even three-wide racing. There is still plenty of hardnosed racing and some bumping and banging, but the number of wrecks has dropped dramatically. I've always hoped for the return of a layer of asphalt at Bristol (because it's a better racing surface) but I have no real complaints about the new concrete at Bristol. However, many so-called fans are upset because there are fewer crashes. There are thrill shows at most short tracks and county fairs where cars are smashed beyond recognition. Crashes are a part of racing, but like anything in sports, you aren't guaranteed to see them. If that's the reason why you're watching racing at Bristol, you're better off taking your family to the demo derby at the county fair.

The racing is reminiscent of the old Bristol when drivers could run high or low all day long. The CoT is the limiting factor right now; once the car is more developed it will make for even better competition front to back.


It's about time that a JGR driver closed the deal at Bristol, isn't it? How many laps has the three-driver team led at BMS without going to victory lane? To no one's surprise it was Kyle Busch who drove to victory lane. Busch let one get away on Saturday when a wheel got loose on pit road. If Busch's relatively short history in the sport tells us anything it's that he needs little motivation to win, and any little misstep along the way only drives him harder. When that wheel rolled away on Saturday it ended his chance to win that race but it served notice to the Cup guys on Sunday that it wasn't going to be their day.

Busch took a backhanded poke at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following his win, stating he would rather win races and hear the jeers of the crowd than be the fan favorite and not get to victory lane. Of course that's just going to further fan the flames from Jr. Nation, but the numbers don't lie. Since Busch vacated Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Earnhardt, he has scored ten wins and 20 top-five finishes in 41 races. In contrast, Earnhardt has one win and ten top-five finishes. In all of 2008, Casey Mears (the driver who took over Busch's ride in the No. 5 car) picked up just one top-five and six top-ten finishes.

Jr. Johnson used to say it's easier to slow someone down than speed him up when he would talk about how he wanted his drivers to drive. Busch may have been hard to handle - his comments after winning the first CoT race at Bristol in 2007 are an example - but he gets the job done as well as anyone in the sport right now and he's only going to get better. Rarely does Rick Hendrick make a mistake, and I doubt he would ever admit as much, but keeping Mears and letting Busch go to JGR is one of the biggest errors in judgment in the history of his race team.


For all the heat Earnhardt, Jr. takes because of his choice in crew chiefs I think he's right to lash back at the media and tell them to lay off. Never in the sport's history has one driver been critiqued as heavily as Earnhardt. It's still a mystery to some why he's quite as popular as he is. There is no doubt that Earnhardt is a good driver, and he still has time to become a great driver. But with each week that passes and he's not out performing Jimmie Johnson of Jeff Gordon, the chances of him becoming one of the sport's elite drivers lessens. Regardless of what his fans want or what the media says, the comfort between driver and crew chief is the single most important aspect of building a successful team. Earnhardt says he wants Tony Eury, Jr. calling the shots for him and until Earnhardt changes his tune there won't be a change on top of the pit box.


For a short while it looked like a couple of the little guys might have a good day at Bristol. Dave Blaney and Todd Bodine ran well in the very early laps but before the race hit lap 75 both had been spun out and were behind the wall. These teams might not have the biggest budget, and it's likely they wouldn't have been able to run to the end of the race anyhow, but it's nice to see them be able to compete with the best in the business even for a short while.


Marcos Ambrose showed he's the real deal with a solid top-ten finish on Sunday. I had a lot of fun with Marcos during his rookie year in the Truck Series and could tell even then that he would have a solid future in the sport. It's interesting to watch his progression, from the Trucks to Nationwide and now Cup. Considering he had a successful career in Australia before coming to America one could easily see how he might have wanted to jump directly into a Cup car, but he started from scratch and learned from the ground up and now he's reaping the rewards. It's a good lesson for some of the young kids out there who think success in Legends cars or Bandoleros means they deserve a shot at a Nationwide ride.


The racing world might have been shocked by Justin Allgaier's fifth-place finish on Sunday. Don't be. He's a terrific short track racer with a lot of experience on the highbanks at places like Salem and Winchester. He won at Salem and Toledo last year on his way to the ARCA championship. He'll do quite well in the Nationwide car this year and if Sam Hornish and/or David Stremme continue to struggle he could be on the fast track to a Cup ride soon.


It's a shame to see the troubles of the No. 28 team. Travis Kvapil has done a solid job behind the wheel but the team has never been able to find the sponsorship to keep the team going. Once he fell out of the top-35 it was a clue that the team wouldn't continue to run that car without sponsorship. Unfortunately, his teammate Paul Menard also finds himself out of the top-35 and faces the prospect of missing races unless the Yates team can pick up the performance of that car very soon.


It's a shame to see Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix announce it will cease operations in April. The track has been there for 50 years and its closing should tell racing fans everywhere that their short track could be next. If you like watching NASCAR racing on television, do yourself a favor and visit your local short track. Almost every short track in the country runs some sort of special event throughout the year that gives you the most bang for your buck - whether it's a long-distance feature (some tracks run 100 or 200 lappers a couple times a year), or a special touring series event (such as USAC, the USARacing Pro Cup Series or the ASA Late Models), or even something crazy like a school bus figure-8 race - there's always something cool to check out. Most tracks average a hundred cars or so spread out over three divisions and give you a solid three to four hours of entertainment for ten or fifteen bucks.

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