Bristol's new surface draws raves from drivers
Nextel Cup drivers, who typically are slow to adjust to change, overwhelmingly embraced the changes at Bristol Motor Speedway that included a new concrete surface.
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kurt Busch certainly knows his way around Bristol Motor Speedway, cruising to five victories since 2002.
None of that previous experience is expected to be much of a value on a repaved track that's a mystery heading into Saturday night's race.
"It's a brand new race track and you can't take anything for granted," Busch said Friday. "It's a first time for everybody. It's going to be an interesting weekend, to say the least."
Work began on the .533-mile bullring immediately after the March race here, as track officials smoothed out the surface with new concrete. A variable banking was added, and an additional three feet of track surface was put in the corners. The transition in and out of turns 2 and 4 was also smoothed.
The results were overwhelmingly embraced by the drivers, who typically are slow to adjust to change.
"The track's awesome," Tony Stewart said. "I don't think you could have asked them to do a better job with the race track. To be able to pour concrete and make it as smooth as they did, that's pretty remarkable."
Many drivers kept a close eye on Wednesday night's Truck series race, the first event here since the repaving. They were surprised to see multiple racing lines, a high groove, and side-by-side passing for the first time in recent memory.
"It looked to me like people are going to be able to hang on on the outside and maybe even make some passes on the outside," Carl Edwards said. "In the past, if you were running along in line and somebody moved you out of the way or you'd slip up, you would fall back. Now, it looks like there will be truly two or three grooves of racing."
This event hardly needed any help in producing excitement _ the Bristol night race is one of the toughest tickets in NASCAR, and has a stellar reputation for producing thrilling races _ and the new surface is expected to enhance it even more.
"I'm telling you, I'm driving around here thinking this is the first time I've ever been here," five-time Bristol winner Jeff Gordon said. "I didn't think you could make Bristol any cooler or more fun, but they have. They've basically made this track have more room to race on."
Kasey Kahne, mired in a miserable, winless season, starts from the pole in the Sharpie 500, while fellow Dodge driver Juan Pablo Montoya has the outside spot. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and David Ragan hold down the second row.
Matt Kenseth, the two-time defending race winner, starts 12th and was admittedly "crabby" from the 95-degree heat. As brutal as it was to sit inside a steaming hot race car for two long Friday practice sessions, Kenseth was looking forward to Saturday night's race.
"I think in general, everybody is going to see probably a better race," he said. "There's a lot more possibilities to run side-by-side. I caught a slower car in traffic and instead of sitting there and being behind him and keep trying to get under him, I just drove outside of him and went around him. We've never been able to do that before."
But look for many of the top drivers to lean toward the conservative side on Saturday night. Those already locked into the Chase for the championship might go hard for the win _ and the 10 bonus points that come with each victory. But those fighting for a berth must play it safe.
That includes Busch, who's holding down the 12th and final spot in standings. He has a 163-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sits in 13th, and is up 171 points over teammate Ryan Newman, who is in 14th. There's three races left before the 10-race title hunt begins.
"For us, we go about our job and just try to stay as smooth and as clean as we can at the next three weeks," Busch said. "If we are consistent, (Earnhardt) is going to have a hard time catching us. It is still all about consistency."
But Busch has won two of the past three races, building momentum that many believe is making him a true title contender. If the Chase started today, Busch would jump from 12th to fourth under the new seeding system.
But Busch wouldn't bite when asked if he was laying the groundwork for a second Nextel Cup title.
"I look at it as I'm a new guy on the block with the race track. There is no setup that I know yet that I feel comfortable with that is going to help me go to a top 10 finish," he said. "I can get bumped from behind trying to check up from a wreck on lap six and we're in the garage working on the car and the 160-point lead we have on 13th-place goes away.
"We're not locked in. Yeah, we've got two wins, we've been on a roll, but you can just pull the card out from underneath us real quick and we won't even be in it."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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