AP Photo/Wade Payne
Start Your Engines
This probably was not intentional on NASCAR's part, but the schedule's first off week perfectly delineated the difference between Cup racing genres.
Before last weekend, the competition was all about horsepower and conquering the wide-open spaces of 1.5-mile and longer tracks. Now, over the next two Sundays, completely different mindsets and setups will come into play.
The short tracks are taking center stage.
After running 1,017 laps and 1,816 miles in four races, teams will face 1,000 laps and about 540 miles in eight days between Bristol, Tenn., and Martinsville, Va., NASCAR's iconic half-mile bullrings. It's the fifth consecutive season the Cup Series visits the tracks in back-to-back weeks, a sequence that will test drivers in a far different way than the season's opening month.
First up is the Food City 500, Bristol's daytime race in the Colosseum-like setting where 160,000 fans sit practically on top of the concrete oval and drivers simultaneously negotiate the high banks and each other.
"Bristol is just so intense. You can't relax at all," Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle said. "It's like walking a tightrope for 500 miles and holding your breath the whole time. No other track is like that."
This will be the fourth Cup race on the new Bristol surface, now with variable banking, from 26 degrees near the apron to 30 at the wall. Drivers now have options as far as racing lanes, although it's an overstatement to say there now is room to roam.
"It's still a place that can invite trouble," said Ryan Newman, one of a number of drivers near the top-35 owner points bubble who doesn't need any more trouble. "But to me, the racing is at an all-time high at Bristol compared to the way it used to be. It's no longer a one-lane racetrack. You kind of had to root somebody out of the way before, and fans really liked that. But from a driver's standpoint, that's not the best way to race. You don't want to be looking in your rearview mirror and worrying about avoiding a crash."
At the previous Bristol race, the fall 2008 night event, Carl Edwards was the rooter and Kyle Busch the pushed-aside victim as Edwards got the win. Busch had led an amazing 415 laps -- from Lap 55 to Lap 469 -- but as is often the case at Bristol, the trailing car got a fender in the right place and opened its own lane.
"A lot of times you end up rubbing on people, and they do the same to you," said Edwards, also a Bristol winner in 2007. "You see a lot of wild finishes like that. Overall, you have to be tough all day with the grind, and you have to be able to deal with it until the end."
Sometimes you deal with it even after the checkered flag, as Busch and Edwards tangled on the cool-down lap. Emotions don't just shut off after 500 miles.
The way the schedule sits now, it's a two-week roller-coaster ride. Any unsettled scores from Bristol can be carried right across the state line to Martinsville.
Kurt Busch: Dodge strength was an early season story line in 2008, with Ryan Newman winning the Daytona 500 ahead of several other Chargers, but it was only that -- an early season story. Those are a dime a dozen in the Cup Series.
This Dodge dalliance, however, feels like it could have some staying power. Restrictor-plate wins usually are flukey, and the other Dodge win last year -- Busch at rain-shortened New Hampshire -- was a weather-strategy deal. But when you lead 234 laps at Atlanta in a Penske Dodge, including passing a Roush Ford (Edwards) and holding off a Hendrick Chevy (Jeff Gordon), you've got more than circumstantial evidence.
"We've proven ourselves on the big tracks this year and we've shown that we can win again on the intermediate tracks," said the 2004 Cup champion, now third in points.
And in the all-important buzz department, a victory lap in reverse was flat-out brilliant. Busch and Dodge got plenty of mileage out of that over the break in the schedule.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Gotta See This
Kasey Kahne: Not all Dodge's eggs are in the Kurt Busch basket; the No. 9 also is building momentum. Kahne was a nonfactor 29th at Daytona but has improved every week since with a 12th-place run at California, 11th at Vegas and seventh at Atlanta.
"The guys have been working hard and not making mistakes. We have been more consistent, and that's what you need to have a good season," said Kahne, ninth in points for Richard Petty Motorsports. "We do need our cars to be better if we want to win races and make the Chase, but every week we are making gains."
Off The Pace
Ryan Newman: Speaking of Dodge strength, how's that move to Chevrolet working out, Newman? It would be one thing if there was a theme of new-team growing pains throughout Stewart-Haas Racing, but the owner is sixth in points with three top-10s in four races. The No. 39 is alone in its struggles, 32nd in points with zero lead-lap finishes.
"So far, it's been a challenging time," said Newman, whose last top-10 finish was the 2008 Bristol fall race. "We've had fast cars. We know where we're at performance-wise, and it's a lot better than what our finishing results show. We've just had too many hiccups and unforced problems that have stalled our momentum."
Inside The Numbers
8 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s average finish in his past 15 Bristol starts
9.56 -- Kevin Harvick's average Bristol finish, tops among active drivers
56 -- Caution laps at 2008 Bristol fall race, fewest in 13 years
550 -- Cup races for Gordon if he starts Sunday
249 -- Top-5 finishes for Gordon