BRISTOL, Tenn. - Has Bristol lost some of its bite?
The track notorious for its beating and banging got a new paving job before last year's August night race. Trucks and Nationwide Series races leading up to the Sharpie 500 were memorable and there was great anticipation for the Sprint Cup race.
Perhaps because those expectations were so high, a lot of folks went home disappointed after that race. There were 10 cautions, but only 12 lead changes among eight drivers in a race dominated by two cars. Kasey Kahne led 305 laps, but wound up second behind Carl Edwards, who led 182 of the other 195.
There were plenty of possible explanations for the new look and feel of what has long been considered one of NASCAR's most popular events. Saturday night's running marks the 30th anniversary of the night race at Bristol and will be the track's 53rd straight Cup ticket sellout.
The most obvious reason was the new track surface, which was smoother than the previous concrete pavement. While being repaved, the contours of the transitions in and out of the turns and the banking in the turns themselves were also altered in an effort to give Bristol a second racing groove.
"There's probably less bumping now just because you don't have to bump a guy out of the way to get a position,” Edwards said. “But I think it's better racing for sure.
"I don't enjoy the races where you have to bump somebody out of the way to pass them. That's not any fun. I don't think that's the right way to race. It's frustrating when that's the only way you can pass somebody."
Maybe, however, Bristol has been a bit tamer because it's taking Cup teams a little while to adjust to driving both on a new surface and with a new race car. The "car of tomorrow" actually made its debut at Bristol in the spring race in 2007, and it was used there again last fall and this spring on the new surface.
"The first time we went there, I think the tires were a little too hard," said Kevin Harvick. "The last time we went there, it was more like the old Bristol, but you still had a couple of options from the bottom to the middle. I think once they got the tires squared away, the race track kind of came back around and the racing was a lot more normal."
Another theory is that Bristol's spot on the schedule could have something to do with what happened last fall. After Saturday's race there will be only two races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set. For drivers who come into the weekend on the Chase bubble, Bristol can be a track they're just looking to keep their title hopes alive on.
"The changes to Bristol made it a little less of a wild card," said Jeff Gordon, who comes into the weekend ninth in the points but just 82 points clear of the Chase cutoff. "Any time you go to a one-groove race track, especially on a short track, you're going to have kind of a little bit of Russian roulette. But now, we've got multiple grooves there.
"I love it. I think the racing is three times better. It's just the crashes don't happen as much, so if you love crashes, you're still going to see them at Bristol but you're not going to see them as often or as much as you used to, because basically when the guys got frustrated with the car in front of them, they just took them out. That's not racing, in my opinion. That's more bumper-cars."
"Now, we're going to Bristol and we're racing and I love it. We haven't been as good there since they re-did the track, so I'm anxious to get there and be better, but I do like what they've done."
Jimmie Johnson said that he knows there can be a difference in what drivers like and what fans like.
"The tracks the drivers say they enjoy the most are tracks where we have options and we can pass," he said. "Typically they are tracks that the fans aren't too receptive to. Michigan is one of the best tracks for the drivers, but we get spread out and there aren't a lot of cautions and you have some people that think that's not good racing because there are no cautions.
"Bristol kind of falls in that same category now where there are a lot of options on the track to use. From a driver's standpoint, Bristol is much more enjoyable now than its ever been. You can really race people, try different lines, explore around the track, and explore set-ups. So I like the challenges that Bristol gives us now, but it's because I can control my own destiny. I'm sure the fans paying for the seats have liked the fact that there was so much pushing and shoving and knocking people out of the way in the past and we just don't have that there anymore."
Still, when you put 43 cars on a .533-mile track it doesn't matter how many grooves there might be. Anything is possible.
"There aren't too many other places we race where you can leave with a top 10 and have a race car that's pretty beat up and maybe even been wrecked," Kahne said. "I really don't know of another track you can compare it to. It's a place I look forward to racing just because you really never know what to expect, which makes it fun and challenging."