RICHMOND, Va. — If track owner Bruton Smith thinks the changes to Bristol Motor Speedway announced Wednesday will alter dramatically the nature of racing at Thunder Valley, he may be disappointed, to hear Dale Earnhardt Jr. tell it.
“As far as Bristol goes, I think the racing will be the same,” Earnhardt said Friday before NASCAR Sprint Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I think the track is going to be the same.”
That opinion doubtless would be disconcerting to Smith, who announced a track-grinding project designed to inject a higher level of excitement back into racing at the .533-mile short track. Flagging attendance at the 160,000-seat facility prompted the move.
According to Smith, grinding and lowering the degree of banking in the outside groove is designed to lessen a perceived advantage to the outside lane and promote closer racing with more contact between cars.
Earnhardt doesn’t believe the grinding will have the desired effect.
“Just grinding that groove is going to take a little grip away from it,” Earnhardt said. “Once we lay the rubber back down, which we will, it will be just like the track is now — which I think is fine. I don’t think everybody needs to get too stirred up about it.”
Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, says no one will know what effect the grinding will have until cars are competing on the track.
“In one respect, I applaud Bruton for trying to make a change and for trying to so something, but we won’t know what the race will be like until we’re there,” Johnson said. “Really, even in a practice, it will be tough to tell.
“I think we’ll have to get into the race and really see tire fall-off, tire wear and what tire Goodyear brings — all that kind of stuff — to figure it out.”
Earnhardt believes factors other than the nature of the racing are major contributors to the attendance issues at Bristol.
“I think the reason that attendance is down is that they spiked the hotel rates so bad there in that town, as they do most of the towns,” Earnhardt said. “Gas is expensive. To stay in Knoxville or somewhere like that doesn’t make a lot of sense because of how expensive gas is.
“It’s just not as affordable to go to events as it used to be.”