Bristol allows drivers to control fate
The bruising, bull-ring confines of Bristol Motor Speedway is an odd place for a driver to come looking for a positive change in fortune. The half-mile, high-banked Tennessee track normally features a lot of beating and banging, as well as blocking -- all of which tends to send a half dozen or so cars hurtling toward the walls.
It takes a lot of luck to get through with your nose clean. Yet, several drivers who haven't had a lot of luck this Nextel Cup season are heading into Sunday's Food City 500 hopeful.
"Luck isn't something we've had a lot of this year, but everyone is continuing to work hard and get after it," said Bobby Labonte, who on Friday qualified 39th. "That's all you can do. We can't focus on the negatives, we need to head into the weekend with a positive attitude and try to finish as best we can."
Why the renewed optimism? Returning to Bristol marks a return to old school problems such as staying out of wrecks, hitting spots to patiently make up ground on a one-groove racetrack and fighting to stay on the lead lap at a place where about half the field probably won't.
It's a nice break from the challenge many have faced this season. Many teams haven't hit upon the right setup to integrate offseason rules changes with racetracks that present aerodynamic problems, like the 1.5-mile speedways the Nextel Cup circuit has visited the past few weeks.
At Bristol, drivers have recently complained of a little aero push, but at a track where there's so much contact taking place the teams will go back to worrying about racing luck and being patient and hitting marks. This is something that drivers such as former champs Labonte and Matt Kenseth have proven they can do. That's one reason why optimism is running high.
"I'm looking forward to racing there this weekend," said Kenseth, who qualified 25th. "Bristol is so unique and comes with its own set of challenges. There's a lot of beating and banging and it is intense racing. It's about time we had some luck go our way this year, so if we can avoid trouble I think we can bring home a strong finish."
Many teams indeed are eager to go back to "old fashioned" challenges. You know, like trying to keep the car aimed straight while other rigs are slamming into you, and trying to slip through the smoke of a multi-car pileup. Drafting and aero pushing won't be as big a problem. In fact, the main difficulties in passing at Bristol stem from the fact it has only one truly fast groove.
Still, drivers have faced one-groove tracks before. It doesn't present a new issue that requires hours of time in a wind tunnel or pouring over computer read-outs in the engineering shop.
"You have to know when to push, and when not to push," said Jeff Gordon, who qualified fourth. "If you're out front in clean air, you want to maintain that position so you're going to push a little harder to keep it. Once you lose it, then you don't want to push as hard. That's when guys start to poke the nose of their car inside of you and you go into 'blocking' mode.'"
It's not easy to get through Bristol unscathed. It's not easy to figure out how to pass four fast cars when you're stuck in a line right behind them. And it's even tougher to fight off a bad day of qualifying and keep from quickly getting put down a lap when just laying out the starting field around the half-mile track puts the 43rd starting car about half-a-lap away from being lapped.
"You need to qualify well at Bristol, or it's really easy to go a lap down there," Mark Martin's crew chief Pay Tryson agreed.
Still, none of these problems are new. Drivers and teams have faced these issues even while running in lower series. Therefore, it's a welcome break for a lot of drivers, who sometimes are helpless while teams try to figure out how to make numbers translate into track position.
"It's more of a driver's race," said Kyle Petty, who qualified 37th. "You have to hit your spots and be patient. It's a lot more up to the driver in that way, which is different from the [intermediate-sized tracks]."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.