NASCAR centerpiece: Bristol 101

Rob Sneddon

Bristol Motor Speedway has undergone dramatic changes in its 50 years. When it opened in July 1961, the track was asphalt. Its banking was a relatively modest 18 degrees. Fred Lorenzen won the pole with a speed of 79.225 mph. The stands, which were open at both ends, held just 25,000 people. Flash forward to 2011. Bristol is now a high-banked (30+ degrees) concrete bowl that produces dizzying speeds. (Kurt Busch holds the track record, 128.709 mph.) Walled in by towering grandstands, the half-mile track has a seating capacity of 160,000. And yet some things are much the same. The inaugural Cup race at Bristol was a test of survival. The eight caution flags consumed more than 75 laps. Only 19 of 42 starters finished, and none escaped damage. Junior Johnson had his door torn off in a crash yet managed to maintain the lead “after plugging the hole with something resembling a table top,” according to one account. And while its unlikely that any team will have a table top handy this weekend, the 101st Cup race at Bristol could well follow a similar story line. Here’s what to expect.

Someone will be upset

You can’t cram 43 cars onto a half-mile track, with drivers clicking off laps at roughly 15 seconds a pop, without tempers boiling over. “This is certainly one of the most volatile tracks we go to as far as stuff happening — getting into a wreck that you didn’t cause, causing a wreck, things like that,” says Jeff Burton. Adds Kurt Busch, “You have to be cool during the race. There are so many adrenalin-packed things that happen at Bristol, whether it’s guys bumping into you from behind, or guys checking up three or four cars in front of you and you running into them or getting pushed into them.”

Track position will be vital

Although passing has gotten a bit easier since the track was repaved in 2007, progress at Bristol can still be torturously slow, particularly for drivers who qualify poorly. Make a slight mistake during qualifying on a superspeedway, and you can make up for it. But at Bristol the laps are so short that “if you miss it just a little bit (in qualifying) there’s 20 guys (ahead of) you,” says Kurt Busch. And that deficit can take ages to overcome under race conditions. To compound the problem, any mistake in the pits, from a fumbled lug nut to a speeding penalty, can instantly turn a contender into an also-ran. “I’m very self-conscious not to get caught speeding entering pit road,” says Jamie McMurray. “A pass-through (penalty) here would just end your day.”

The cream will rise

Sprint Cup champions have won 74 of the 100 races run at Bristol. The list includes Darrell Waltrip, who heads the all-time list with 12 wins; Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Rusty Wallace, who each won nine; and David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, who each won five. (Gordon and Busch are the active leaders.) That helps explain why Jimmie Johnson, defending champion of this weekend’s race, was so excited last March when he made it to Victory Lane. He may have won multiple Cup championships — but he had never won at Bristol before. “When a track kicks your butt for so long and you finally can win at that track, there's just something really (gratifying) about that,” says Johnson. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, sounds almost like a kung fu master as he describes the level of enlightenment necessary to succeed at Bristol. “Before, it was like we were almost flying bind,” Knaus says. “(Jimmie) was out there chewing on the steering wheel, going as fast as he could, throwing the car around. The really good guys — the Busch brothers, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart — they feel the racetrack, get the rhythm and momentum, understand what's going on. Jimmie started to get that.”

ONE TO WATCH: Kyle Busch

WHY HE MATTERS: He’s won three of Bristol’s last four Cup races.

WHAT HE SAYS: “Bristol is a place I expect to run well at.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: No wonder; toss his rookie season, and his average Bristol finish is 5.1.

NEXT RACE Jeff Byrd 500, Bristol Motor Speedway

THE LOWDOWN Longtime sponsor Food City has agreed to rename this weekend’s Sprint Cup race in honor of Bristol’s late president and general manager, who died last October at age 60. The race is officially called the Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City. Byrd had been with the track since 1996, when it was acquired by Speedway Motorsports. Said Food City president and CEO Steven C. Smith, “It’s only natural to honor someone who worked so hard to build this facility, this sport and this region.”


2010 Jimmie Johnson

2009 Kyle Busch

2008    Jeff Burton

2007    Kyle Busch

2006    Kurt Busch

ABOUT Bristol

TRACK: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.), .533-mile high-banked paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 500 laps, 266.5 miles



Quote of note

“I’m really glad I came.” – Kasey Kahne, winless in Sprint Cup since 2009, after winning the Too Tough To Tame 200 truck series race at Darlington last Saturday, on an “off” weekend for Cup drivers.

Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at 12:30 EDT, followed by the race at 1:00.


On the short list

A top-10 finish brings a greater sense of accomplishment at Bristol, which is often strewn with wreckage after 500 laps, than at most Sprint Cup tracks. It’s surprising, then, that Kyle Busch — a driver known for his win-it-or-wear-it style — would have the highest career percentage of top-10 finishes at Bristol among active drivers (see chart). The worst? Among the current top 10 in Cup points, A.J. Allmendinger has no top-10s in seven career Bristol starts. But he has a long way to go to catch Joe Nemechek, who is 0 for 29, with a best finish of 12th in 2005.  

TV bears watching

Although the spike in gas prices may hurt race attendance as the season progresses, TV viewership has been trending up. On average, ratings for Fox’s Sprint Cup broadcasts have been 17 percent higher than last season. “We're obviously pleased we’re up dramatically in our ratings,” said NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. “The general interest level is going up and that's what we’re going to be working on — creating new fans.”


Kurt Busch, who shares the Sprint Cup points lead with Tony Stewart, made the field for the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., last weekend in his professional drag-racing debut. Busch topped out at 211.46 in Pro Stock qualifying, which put him into the elimination round against Erica Enders — who promptly eliminated him. Said Enders, who was unfazed by the prospect of facing a NASCAR guest star, “When you put the helmet on, everything’s equal. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kurt Busch or George Bush.”


Percentage of top-10 finishes at Bristol

RANK        DRIVER            STARTS    Top-10s    PCT.

1        Kyle Busch            12        9        75%

2        Matt Kenseth        22        14        64%

3        Greg Biffle            16        10        63%    

4        Kurt Busch            20        12        60%

5 (tie)    Jeff Gordon            36        20        56%

5        Ryan Newman        18        10        56%

7        Kevin Harvick        20        11        55%

8        Dale Earnhardt Jr.        22        12        55%

9        Mark Martin            44        23        53%

10 (tie)    Jimmie Johnson        18        9        50%

10        Clint Bowyer        10        5        50%

10        Denny Hamlin        10        5        50%

10        Marcos Ambrose        4        2        50%

14        Jeff Burton            34        14        41%

15        Carl Edwards        13        5        38%

16        Jamie McMurray        16        6        38%

17        Kasey Kahne        14        5        36%

18        Tony Stewart        24        8        33%

19        Bobby Labonte        36        10        28%

20        Juan Pablo Montoya    8        2        25%