The Sprint Cup Series has now had stops at Daytona, California, Las Vegas and Atlanta, which are all over a mile and a half in length and all offer up what you would call clean racing. All of that will change this weekend when the series rolls into Bristol Motor Speedway.
Last season’s Bristol race was the first time NASCAR used its new Car of Tomorrow in a race, and afterward even winning driver Kyle Busch said the car was horrible to drive. It’s no secret that most teams are struggling trying to figure out that same car as it is now used at every stop on the schedule and has been more than a handful for most teams so far this season.
While the new car still has plenty of questions to be an- swered, the same can be said about Bristol’s newly paved oval. Before the second race of last season, the speedway replaced the old worn-out track with another all-concrete surface. The new concrete returned the track to a two-groove racing surface, but in the process took away much of the beating and banging that made it the favorite among the majority of race fans.
The newly repaved surface did take away some of the close racing during the August night race, but all of the blame can’t be put on the new concrete. The track’s Sharpie 500 comes just two races before the final race that sets the field for the Chase at Richmond and since the beginning of the Chase, few drivers have been willing to gamble their position in the points to try and earn a Bristol win.
Most drivers and teams will settle to get out of Bristol without taking a big hit in the points and it is that line of thinking that has hurt the quality of racing at “the world’s fastest half-mile.” Bristol has never had a problem selling tickets because of its unique layout and highly competitive nature, but this weekend’s race needs to be a throwback to the days when the wreckers and pace car put a few laps on their tires.
The first four races of the season have produced some great racing with plenty of lead changes and wins by three different manufacturers, but for the hard core fan, it is important they see the kind of racing that made Bristol one of the toughest tickets on the entire schedule. Fans should benefit this weekend from actually having a race within a race as Bristol will be the last stop to use last season’s top 35 in owner’s points to set the field.
Beginning with the following race at Martinsville, the starting field will be set by using this season’s top 35, which makes the results of Bristol all the more important. The competition for one of the top-35 slots will be tough this weekend as only 61 points separate 30th-place driver Casey Mears from Dario Franchitti in the 38th spot.
Following Mears in the points in order are Jamie McMurray, Dale Jarrett, J.J. Yeley, Jeremy Mayfield, Michael Waltrip, Sam Hornish Jr., and Dave Blaney. Waltrip is the driver on the bubble as he sits in 35th, but every one of the drivers that was mentioned knows that this early in the season one race’s results can move a driver up or down as many as a half-dozen positions. Casey Mears’s 17th-place finish at Atlanta moved him up five positions from the 35th slot going into this week’s race, while Jeremy Mayfield’s 39th-place finish dropped him four spots to the 34th position.
There is no doubt that Sprint Cup racing is all about winning, but remember this weekend that winning for some drivers will mean leaving Bristol in the top 35. Going into Martinsville knowing you are already in the starting field takes away all of the pressure leading up to the race and allows a team to work on its race-day setup instead of being forced to spend all its practice time trying to fine-tune its qualifying package.
It’s a huge advantage being in the top 35 and for some teams their “win” each weekend comes from leaving a track in the top 35. It will be this way the rest of the season and unfortunately it always seems that it’s the same teams fighting for one of those secured spots.