Friday, August 20, 2010

Resurfaced Bristol Provides Broader Pool of Drivers to Win Than Old Surface

by Micah Roberts

Saturday night’s race under the Bristol lights will be the 100th run on what is known as the world’s fastest half-mile. For the first 92 races, picking a winner of the race was relatively simple. In most cases, you’d fare very well just by taking the driver who won the previous Bristol race run or take a random pick of any former Cup champion.

All throughout history there has been a succession of winners that won year after year, ranging from likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch. All former champions and all multiple winners, they gobbled up wins in bunches and no one could touch them during their runs.

That type of consistency all changed somewhat when Bristol repaved their track in the summer of 2007, taking what was 36 degrees of banking and changing it to a multi-grooved progressive banking track that begins at about 24 degrees. No longer are drivers fighting for that all-important bottom line because passes now can be made on the outside. Drivers aren’t battling for position as much now and, over the last seven Bristol races run with the new surface, we haven’t seen the type of fireworks and feuds that NASCAR fans have been accustomed to at Bristol, making it one of the hardest tickets to get in sports.

This weekend's race will be the eighth with the new surface, the seventh with the Car of Tomorrow and the first with the new spoiler since going to the COT. The new spoiler doesn’t figure to make as much difference as it would at one of NASCAR's larger tracks, but it still is another recently changed component that has made handicapping Bristol tougher than ever.

In the last seven Bristol races there have been only four drivers to win, but each of the drivers' first wins over that span was their first ever there. Kyle Busch has won three times, once on the old surface and sweeping the 2009 season. Carl Edwards won this fall race in back-to-back years in 2007-08, with Jeff Burton taking the checkers in the spring of 2008, his first win on the track in 30 starts.

The biggest sign that the new track runs drastically different from the old was Jimmie Johnson winning this year's spring race. Always the gentleman on the track, Johnson never had what it took to gain position on the old track, which meant getting mean and nasty. The track now runs like a miniature Dover, a place that Johnson can race and succeed without ruffling feathers. All the aforementioned drivers, like Waltrip and Earnhardt who had success on the old track, did so with a menacing attacking mode that fostered both fear and respect from their fellow drivers at Bristol.

So now we're back to the handicapping drawing board, where the formula this week is based on the spring Bristol race, a little bit of the Dover race — a track also similar because of the concrete surface — mixed in with some of the driver’s chassis selections, how the team is performing lately, and, of course, practice results from Friday.

After brewing it all together, we get Johnson on top of three Roush cars, Tony Stewart, and the Busch brothers. It looks very similar to the top-nine finishers from the spring race, but there is a little more involved in solving the formula even though the shortcut takes you to the answer quicker.

For the three Roush drivers, they all showed up within the top eight at Bristol and Dover this year. All three were very strong in practice and all three have a terrific recent past history at Bristol. Edwards and Biffle are each bringing their Dover chassis with Kenseth’s car unannounced by the team. As far as recent history goes, no team is running better collectively over the last five races than the Roush group. They’ve got everything pointed in their favor this week.

Yet, Johnson still tops the charts. He’s got his Bristol win under his belt and he looked outstanding in practice. He’ll be starting from the pole which is always a great place to begin on a short track.  He’ll also be using a strong chassis that he most recently finished sixth with at Michigan in June and won with at Las Vegas in February. He hasn’t had a top-five finish in six races, which doesn’t bode well in the formula, but he looks to have a set-up close to the dominant car from the spring race.

Tony Stewart had a better practice and qualifying session than normal and will be using the same car that finished runner-up in the spring race. While his team was in the midst of struggling to begin the year, two of Stewart’s best runs came at Bristol and a ninth place at Dover. Stewart has put it all together now and has finished in the top-10 for five consecutive races leading up to this week.

Kyle Busch didn’t have a very good practice, but so much more has to factor into his equation because of his recent history. Three wins in seven Bristol races is pretty good. His 5.7 average finish at Bristol while driving the COT stands alone, with the next best coming in at 9.3 per race. He finished ninth during the spring race, after practicing much worse than he did Friday, and also happened to win at Dover in May. It all looks pretty clear that Busch is currently the Concrete King!

Kurt Busch didn’t have a very good practice Friday either, but he gets major consideration for this race just because of the car he’s using this week, which is the same that finished third in March. Busch didn’t practice well for that race either — though not as bad as Friday — and managed to lead multiple times during the race for a race-best 273 laps. Busch was a five-time winner on the old surface and his best run on the new surface came this spring.

Jeff Gordon gets consideration because of his great practice sessions Friday. He’s got one of the better cars this week, even though qualifying 26th doesn’t necessarily say so. As far as recent history goes, Gordon doesn’t look as good as his car does. He has five wins at Bristol, but the last came in 2002.

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