- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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It's wild. It's whacky. It's amazingly fast. Not to mention incredibly loud. In short, it's a typical Busch Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
And this time, there's even a new twist in the Food City 250, drivers were scheduled to spend Thursday practicing on a newly installed concrete surface that saw its first real test in Wednesday's Craftsman Truck Series race.
The banking is designed to create a second groove that, in theory, should lead to more side-by-side racing than has typically been evident at Bristol in recent years. The truck race seemed to prove that it worked, but the question remains as to whether the cars will have the same success the trucks did.
If they do, maybe there will be more clean passing rather than simply rooting and gouging the car in front out of the groove and into the wall. Then again, maybe not, as tempers have been known to flare on a track that bills itself as the worlds fastest half-mile.
"It's going to be very interesting to see what the new surface is like in race conditions," said Ryan Newman, who will be in Penske Racing's No. 12 Busch Series entry. "We came up here a couple of months ago to test the Busch car, but rain kept us from spending a lot of time here, so I don't think anyone really got a great feel for what the track is going to be like.
"I'm excited to get up there and be one of the first drivers to compete on the new surface. I don't know what it's going to be like with 43 cars on the track, but I think it will definitely be interesting."
In five Busch races at the track, Newman has an average finish of fifth, including a win in this race two years ago. He has never finished outside the top 10 in a Busch race at Bristol, but he'll hardly be the only favorite.
Carl Edwards, in the midst of a slump that has caused the points leader to relinquish the lead in car owners' points to the No. 29 team of Richard Childress Racing, won here in March and has dominated the Busch Series when it comes to concrete tracks with two wins at Nashville and one at Dover to his credit this season.
"I can't wait to get back on a concrete track and, to top it off, Bristol," Edwards said. "Under the lights at Bristol is awesome and exhilarating. We had a great win there [earlier this year]. We have struggled over the past three races and we feel Bristol is the track where we can turn things around."
I'm excited to get up there and be one of the first drivers to compete on the new surface. I don't know what it's going to be like with 43 cars on the track, but I think it will definitely be interesting.
Crew chief Pierre Kuettel is equally excited about the chances of pulling off another win. And given Edwards' dominance on concrete, the crew chief is undoubtedly grateful the track simply put down new concrete and not asphalt.
"It's one of the greatest experiences in NASCAR," Kuettel said of Bristol. "There is always a great crowd and racing at night puts on a spectacular show for the fans. We have had four wins this year on concrete and would love to get another. We tested on the new surface and Carl was strong. It's time to shake off the past couple weeks and finish strong."
Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth also will be a factor, not to mention Kevin Harvick, who has dominated Busch races at Bristol in the past. Harvick, though, won't be in the potent No. 21 Richard Childress Racing entry, and it'll be interesting to see whether his No. 33 Chevrolet fielded by Kevin Harvick Inc. will be as stout.
Kenseth has three Busch wins at Bristol and eight top-5s in 14 starts. Ever modest, even he can't help but admit he could add another win to his total come Friday.
"Bristol is one of my favorite tracks," Kenseth said. "You can't beat racing under the lights there. It's so tough to pass; you really have to have your car handling well. Things tend to happen quickly so you really have to be focused for 250 laps straight.
"Luckily we are bringing one of our favorite cars. This is the same car we won with last year at this race and finished second with in the spring. If everything goes smoothly on the track and on pit road, we should have a good run."
With four Busch wins and a Nextel Cup Series win at Bristol, it's no surprise Harvick considers it one of his favorite tracks. Although his expectations are high, he knows it's easy to get swept up in a wreck there, so he's not going to count on a victory.
Still, he expects to have fun simply racing at the track.
"I grew up on a half-mile, high-banked racetrack," said Harvick, a California native who raced extensively at Mesa Marin in Bakersfield. "I know Bristol is a lot more banked but it's kind of the same mind-set for me driving around the track.
"It's a very fast, high-banked concrete track. It's short-track beating and banging and it's a lot of fun. I seem to have a lot of success every time I go so I'm always excited to go back."
Jeff Burton, who will be in the Richard Childress Racing No. 29 Chevy that leads the owners' standings by 40 points, expects it be business as usual once the green flag drops.
"The Busch race seems to have as many cautions as the Cup race even though it is shorter," Burton said. "It doesn't seem like you get those long runs at Bristol in a Busch race. You have to have a different mind-set and set the car up differently, and track position means a great deal. It is a different ball game."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Bristol Motor Speedway has a new concrete surface. But make no mistake -- there'll be a whole lotta banging going on in Friday night's Busch race, writes Mark Ashenfelter.