BRISTOL, Tenn. – Bristol, only better?
That might very well be what’s in store Saturday night for 160,000-plus fans and an ESPN television audience as Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya lead the field to the green flag for the Sharpie 500 at what has long been NASCAR’s most popular venue.
“I'm telling you, I’m driving around here thinking this is the first time I’ve ever been here,” said four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, a five-time Bristol race winner who will start 18th in his 30th career start here Saturday night.
“I didn’t think you could make Bristol any cooler or more fun, but they have. They’ve basically made this track have more room to race on.”
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Saturday’s race will mark the 51st-straight time a Cup race has sold out, so the thought of messing with that kind of success had to be a little scary.
But the concrete surface put down in 1992 was literally crumbling in places. It also was brutally bumpy and, with everyone hugging the bottom lane, passing usually involved bumping – and, often, wrecking.
So the new Bristol is three feet wider, and the .533-mile oval’s banking has been changed so it varies from 24 degrees near the bottom to 30 degrees against the outside wall.
And, so far, most everyone seems to love it. Or, at least, to be intrigued by the possibilities.
“I don’t know if there will be more passing, but there will be more side-by-side attempts for passing,” said Jeff Burton, who’ll start 10th.
“In the past there was always an attempt for a pass going on, but it was very difficult to make that pass happen.
"The same's going to be true now, it's just that you're going to see guys rolling on the outside of a guy or rolling underneath a guy, but pulling that pass off is going to be difficult.”
Matt Kenseth, who has won the August night race here in each of the past two seasons, starts 12th and said he thinks the high side will be the preferred line in at least one end of the track, something that would have never happened on the old surface.
"I think the preferred groove in (turns) 3 and 4 in the race is probably going be the high side,” Kenseth said.
“I think you’re going to run the second or third groove. ...I think the guy leading the race, if the guy in second is running him down, I think he’ll move up before he’ll stay on the bottom.”
It’s also going to be hot and humid for Saturday night’s race, but Denny Hamlin said the changes to the track and the car of tomorrow, which debuted here earlier this year, might even help that a little.
“You don't have the G-forces here that you used to have,” said Hamlin, who starts 37th after a disappointing qualifying effort in his No. 11 Chevrolet.
“The cars don't have as much grip. You're more on top of the race track, you're sliding around more, which doesn't give you that 'into the race track', pushing-down feeling.
"I can actually talk after I run five laps here where in past I really couldn't just because it almost took al l the breath out of you.”
Speeds were not as breathtakingly fast here as they have been at times in Bristol qualifying, but Kahne’s lap at 119.805 mph was good enough for his second pole in what has been a rough season for the driver of the No. 9 Dodges.
Montoya ran 119.447 mph and will start on the outside of Row 1 for the second time this year – he started second at Indianapolis, too. Jamie McMurray and rookie David Ragan, in Roush Fenway Racing Fords, are on Row 2, with Dave Blaney’s Toyota rounding out the top five.
Ryan Newman, who is 171 points out of the top 12 with just three races left until the Chase for the Nextel Cup cutoff, starts seventh. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is eight points ahead of Newman, starts 17th. Kurt Busch, who has won two of the past three races as part of a surge that has carried him to 12th in the standings, starts 19th in his No. 2 Dodge.
A.J. Allmendinger, who had missed the past eight races, got the final available slot in qualifying. Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett made it, with Waltrip starting 16th and Jarrett 33rd, but their teammate David Reutimann didn’t. Sterling Marlin, Brian Vickers (who finished eight in Tuesday’s rain-delayed race at Michigan), Kevin Lepage and Stanton Barrett also failed to qualify.