The sight of empty seats at the four races that have been held so far this season in the Sprint Cup season seems to have dominated the headlines as much as the ontrack action. NASCAR isn’t immune from the same problems that our country is facing and everyone seems to agree when money gets tight it is the entertainment dollar that is the first to be held back.
There were empty seats at Daytona, California, Las Vegas and Atlanta, but the truth is there have always been empty seats at California and Atlanta. These will not be the only tracks this year where you will see empty seats, but for some this weekend at Bristol may be the chance of a lifetime as the speedway still has tickets left for purchase. Bristol has long been the toughest ticket on the schedule and the speedway has the statistics to back it up, as it has a 53-race string of consecutive sellouts going into this weekend’s running of the Food City 500.
Chances are the string will be broken, but for those lucky enough to be there what awaits may be the best racing of the year as the spring race at Bristol in recent seasons has become the better of the track’s two events. The fall race has always been “the” race on the schedule, but ever since the Chase format has been used to crown the sport’s champion, it has turned into a race where the top drivers racing for one of the 12 spots in the Chase have more or less just protected their position in the standings.
While the night race still provides an incredible show once the lights come on, it is the spring race that has produced the best racing in recent years. The fall race is the next-to-last race before the field for the Chase is set, and the spring race is only the fifth race of the season, which is early enough that drivers are still just trying to position themselves in the standings to have a shot of going on and making the Chase.
There will be a tremendous battle going on the entire race this weekend for those drivers trying to either move into or stay in the top 35 in owner’s points as next week at Martinsville the series begins using this season’s owner’s points to set the field. There will also be a battle to either stay in or move into the top 12 and nothing would improve your chances of achieving that more than pulling your car into victory lane after 500 long, grueling laps.
Either fighting for a spot in the top 35, the top 12 or victory lane will not be easy as Bristol presents a challenge for every driver with its all concrete racing surface that features variable banking between 24 and 30 degrees in the turns. Seldom is a driver running by himself when racing on the world’s fastest half-mile as the field quickly gets spread out, forcing the lead cars to continually have to work their way through traffic. That’s just part of the old school charm of Bristol, which constantly gives the fans some good racing whether it is for the lead or a couple of cars fighting over a spot in the top 20.
Like every other stop on the Sprint Cup schedule, there is a handful of drivers that seem to have the handle on what it takes to win at Bristol. While they may each have a little different strategy about how to get around the track, they all will tell you that it is the energy of the crowd that pumps up both them and their crew for a great day of all- out racing.
Atlanta winner Kurt Busch has to be feeling good about coming to Bristol as he has five wins in 16 starts at the track. He shares the title of having the most wins by an active driver with Jeff Gordon, but a look at the rest of Gordon’s stats may put him in a class by himself. In 32 Bristol starts Gordon has led 2,438 laps with an average starting position of 5.3. His finishing average of 11.5 is the third highest among active drivers. Only Kevin Harvick at 9.6 and Greg Biffle at 9.8 have a higher finishing average.
When looking for a sleeper this weekend, look no further than Mark Martin. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins in 40 races but it is consistency that really shows how well he performs at Bristol. Over half of his finishes (21) have been in the top 10 and he leads all active drivers with seven poles which have helped give him an average starting position of 10.
Race Preview — Event: Food City 500.
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile oval, variable banking between 24-30 degrees). Date: March 22, 2 p.m. TV: Fox . Radio: PRN. Defending champion: Jeff Burton.