It has often been said that if you could only attend one race on the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, Bristol Motor Speedway’s annual August night race would be the one.
Bristol, it seemed, had the blueprint on how to provide the kind of banging and rubbing that would put the fans on their feet but at the same time deliver great racing that would always feature a great finish.
The highly competitive racing came courtesy of a very fast halfmile track that featured turns with 36 degrees of banking. The track also had an all-concrete racing surface that promoted a onegroove race track that made a driver’s patience as important as the setup under his car. When the patience wore out (and it usually did) the sight of the caution flag became a common sight as drivers ended up bumping and pushing their way to the front at the cost of a fellow driver’s car.
That was the old Bristol; the Bristol that the series will race on this weekend was redone in March of 2007. The high banks were replaced with variable banking in the turns that go from 24 to 30 degrees. The surface is still concrete, but without the old banking the racing has changed. Drivers don’t seem to lean on each other as much, and that is evident by the number of times that the caution flag now waves.
Gone are the days when a dozen yellow flags was the norm. We now see long stretches of green flag racing without all of the rubbing that made a race at Bristol so unique. The new layout of the track isn’t the only thing that has cut back on the action we once saw anytime the series rolled into the East Tennessee track.
The action in the August race has been hurt somewhat by its position on the schedule as it relates to the Chase. With it being the third race before the field for the Chase is set, drivers entering Bristol safely in the top-12 have raced more to protect their points’ position than to really go out and race for the win.
All of that should change this time around as at least half of the those drivers now in the top-12 are not really safe. Several drivers lurking just outside of the elite list still have time to make a move and secure their spot in the field that will eventually run for the series title. Instead of just driving to protect a spot in the Chase, drivers will now have to race not for the win, but to stay in the top-12. With only stops at Atlanta and Richmond remaining before the field is set those drivers near the final 12th spot will have to be very aggressive.
It may also help that a few drivers such as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have all but guaranteed their spot in the field which will let them race for the win with very little regard for how the points shake out on Saturday night. These drivers know that a win now gives them 10 additional bonus points to start the Chase with, which should be enough incentive for them to put on a great show if they are in position to race for the win as the race winds down.
Drivers will have an extra week after Bristol to prepare for the Atlanta and Richmond races, as the series will enjoy its final open weekend of the season. The schedule ends with 12 consecutive weekends of racing which includes the entire Chase stretch of 10 races that will decide this season’s champion. The extra week will no doubt be put to good use by those teams expecting to make the Chase as the final 10 weeks of racing provides a wide variety of tracks that must be conquered if a driver has any dreams of holding the championship trophy at season’s end.
Teams must have cars ready for every type of track ranging from the short track of Martinsville all the way to the restrictor plate track of Talladega. The best prepared teams entering the Chase will have the greatest chance of winning, and the open week will give every team one last opportunity to get ready for the final push of the 2009 season.
Race P review — E vent: Sharpie 500. Track: Bristol Motor Speedway 9 .533-mile oval, 24-30 degrees of variable banking). Date: Aug. 22, 7 p.m. TV: ESPN. Radio: PRN. Defending Champion: Carl Edwards.