By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
The Sprint Cup Series is racing on several repaved race tracks this season, at Pocono, Michigan and Kansas, all tracks that chose to put down new asphalt because of the deterioration of the existing surfaces.
This weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway also will be run on a much different surface, but the changes were made for an entirely different reason. After seeing Bristol’s years-long string of sellouts come to an end, and a sea of empty seats at the race back in March, track owner Bruton Smith decided to redo the top groove, taking away banking and making it less likely that drivers will run up there during the race.
The idea was to put the high-banked concrete half-mile oval back like it was before a 2007 reconfiguration that brought about side-by-side racing, but not as much beating and banging as before.
Many in the sport say the changes in the racing were due more to the cars than the track, but fans say they wanted the track changed, and Smith responded accordingly.
Saturday night’s race should provide an indication of whether the track was the problem or not, but the debate likely will continue for years.
“I just hope they didn’t screw up the race track,” said Ryan Newman, who holds the track record at Bristol with a lap at 128.709 miles per hour back in 2003. “The racing was different than what we had there in the past because of the tire, to me, not because of the race track.
“I hope that the racing is good. I hope they didn’t take the racing away. The beating, banging and crashing is not the racing that I like. That’s what some of the fans enjoy, but that’s not the racing I like. I like being able to run side by side.”
He said the problem with the tires is that they were too good, in a way. The tires didn’t wear significantly, so speeds didn’t drop off over long stretches of racing.
“Your car didn’t fall off, your balance didn’t change, and everybody was virtually the same speed,” he said. “We passed, and we raced side by side, but it made it difficult to see the guy coming from 10th on new tires to pass the guys that were in the top five.
“It just didn’t happen the way it used to. To me, the tires are the biggest issue when it comes to a place like that.”
Carl Edwards, who got his one Bristol win in Sprint Cup back in 2008, is among those taking a “wait-and-see” approach. He did say that since all the changes were to the top groove, it will affect him less than others because he spends most of his time on the bottom anyway.
“Who knows what will happen,” Edwards said. “Anytime you change a track like that there is no telling. It might make it a completely different race, and I guess in the end that is what they are trying to do.
“I give credit to Bruton [Smith] and those guys for trying to make the racing as good as they can and not afraid to make changes.
“I think all of us go there hoping for a really good race.”
Brad Keselowski, winner of the past two Sprint Cup races at Bristol, said that no matter how the track is configured, it’s at the top of his list of tracks.
“Bristol, to me, is a man’s race track, and I respect that place so much, and I think it takes a level of respect for it, which from Day One, the first day I was there and walked in there, I respected it, but I also wanted to win there,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could be the man to win at a man’s racetrack. So it’s always been a challenge to me, and it’s one that for some reason has taken a piece of me somewhere deep inside and made it rise to the next level, and I just love it for that reason …
“It feels good going there.”