Scintillating racing comes to Bristol from a botched plan

Casey Mears leads the field to the green flag for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 25, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Getty Images)
Casey Mears leads the field to the green flag for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 25, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

Jeff Gordon remembers vintage Bristol from 1991 B.C. — Before Concrete, that is.

Gordon got his first look at Bristol Motor Speedway as a teenager racing in the NASCAR Nationwide (then Busch) Series. Back then Bristol was an asphalt track — and the optimum racing line was much closer to what fans saw Saturday night than at any other time in the intervening 21 years.

“I can remember being up on the spotters’ stand, watching the Cup race and just enjoying the heck out of it,” Gordon said Saturday after running third behind Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson in the Irwin Tools Night Race at the .533-mile track.

“Darrell (Waltrip) — and I think maybe Davey (Allison), Ernie Irvan — those guys are just running up against the wall, diamonding the race track. It was hard to pass. You did slide jobs on guys when you got runs, and that’s what we had tonight.”

To hear Gordon tell it — and he’s one of a handful of active drivers who actually raced on and remember the asphalt surface — the racing at Bristol this weekend mirrored that of 1991 and before. A year later, Bristol resurfaced the track with concrete, and it was on concrete that Bristol built its reputation as the premier short track in America.

With concrete, Bristol became a one-lane racetrack. Drivers hugged the bottom and used their bumpers to pass. The action was hot and the tempers hotter.

That was the nature of Bristol in its glory years. That’s why Bristol tickets were essential elements in wills and divorce litigation. That was the Bristol that track owner Bruton Smith vowed to restore after a yawner of a race in March that played to a half-empty house.

He failed.

But let’s go back for a second. The action at Bristol had suffered markedly since 2007, when Smith introduced graduated banking to the concrete surface, concurrent with NASCAR’s introduction of a new-generation racecar.

Two-wide and three-wide racing replaced the one-groove root-and-gouge. The March race was merely the tipping point where as many fans stayed home as showed up for the race. Smith had to do something.

The solution was to grind two degrees of banking from the top lane of the race track. In theory, the idea was to make the outside grove undrivable, which, in turn, would force cars closer together through the turns and increase the level of contact and action.

The plan failed miserably, to the astonishment of Smith and everyone who competes in the sport and reports on it.

Kasey Kahne began to venture into the high groove early in the race, and other drivers soon followed suit as their spotters began telling them that the high line was working. Cars stuck like glue to the layer of rubber that accumulated at the top of the track, providing a drive-off akin to that of the “cushion” at a dirt track.

Not only was the top lane drivable, it was hands-down the fast way around Thunder Valley.

“They’re grinding the track so no one will run up there?” crew chief Chad Knaus radioed sarcastically to Johnson before the race was 100 laps old.

“That didn’t work out,” Johnson replied matter-of-factly.

“They’ll have to move the wall down,” was Knaus’ facetious response.

No, they won’t. Even if the Saturday’s racing resembled ancient asphalt Bristol, rather than the “old” Bristol Smith promised, the action left nothing to be desired.

So even if the plan backfired and created a racing line where none was supposed to exist, it’s time to leave well enough alone and enjoy the “failure.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.