BRISTOL, Tenn. — Jokingly calling herself a “bottom feeder,” Danica Patrick knows the need to run the high line at Bristol Motor Speedway might not play into her hands on Sunday.
But Patrick says she won’t be intimidated by the .533-mile, high-banked oval nor shy away from at least trying to run the bottom lane in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500.
“In the second Cup race last year, (the fastest line) moved to the top,” Patrick said. “If you can get the bottom to work and get the car turned, you have some options in your pocket for lapped traffic. In general, I would say I’m more of what I could call a bottom feeder. But, you do have to run where the grip is.”
As a Sprint Cup rookie, Patrick started 10th at Bristol and ran 434 laps before tangling with Regan Smith in a crash that also ended eventual Cup champion Brad Keselowski’s afternoon last August.
She knows that simply surviving 500 laps will be her first priority on Sunday.
“If you get taken out, you get taken out,” Patrick said. “When we are racing nose-to-tail, really close, it’s always more of a risk. I don’t mind some beating and banging out there. I don’t mind pushing your way around a little bit. It is just the nature of short tracks when you are running really close to one another. When you put 43 cars out on a track this size, you are filling up a lot of the track.
“It is a little daunting to say ‘500 laps.’ (But) whether it’s a 200-lap race, or a 500-lap race, you find your rhythm. All I can hope is the car has a decent balance because when it doesn’t, that’s when the laps seem long.”
Beyond survival, the challenge for Patrick and her 42 rivals will be to determine, early on, if running anywhere but at the top of the concrete oval makes sense.
“It seems like the higher you get on the race track the faster you can go,” said fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr., during Friday’s mid-day practice.
Bristol ground the top lanes of the track prior to last season’s August race, hoping to tighten the top groove and force the drivers to the bottom of the track. But the result created the opposite effect.
“(The top) is now the place to be it seems,” says Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, no worse than sixth in any of the season’s first three races. “I assume we will be back up there once the race starts. The good news is that is where everybody wants to be, so maybe we will rough each other up around the top instead of around the bottom as the fans want to see.”
Kevin Harvick made a similar observation earlier in the week.
“I don’t think the changes that were made to the track did much to the top lane,” Harvick said. “Everyone still wound up in the top groove and the racing ended up pretty much as it was in the past.”
That doesn’t mean it can’t be exciting.
“I think any time you go to a short track, no matter if the groove is top, bottom or middle you’re going to have cars beating and banging on each other,” Harvick said. Everyone is a little more aggressive in trying to slide themselves into a spot, so you have to be aggressive to take the opportunity to pass somebody.”
And it doesn’t mean there won’t be the opportunity or plenty of time to try multiple tactics.
“I think we’re gonna see people running right up against the fence and I think you’re gonna see people trying to slide-job each other and trying to make the bottom groove work,” Ford driver Aric Almirola said.