Safety and excitement tend to be mutually exclusive concepts when it comes to racing. Unlike love and marriage, it just seems that when it comes to safety and excitement, you can’t have one with the other.
In today’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, that theory will be tested as track owners have lengthened the protective SAFER barriers in the exits of turns 2 and 4. Yes, to keep drivers safer, but yes, also, Bristol promoters say, to increase the excitement level for fans.
What the barriers do, basically, is narrow the track by about three feet. What promoters hope is that the tightened track will heighten the drama as drivers fight more ferociously for less real estate.
Drivers were asked about the concept and the reality of the situation over the weekend and here is what a select group had to say:
Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford: “You could tell off 4 it’s narrower. I think as long as we’re spending the money on SAFER barriers when you put all these people in here, we should just put them all the way around every track on the outside and inside. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about it and there wouldn’t be all those weird transitions.”
David Regan, No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford: “There’s not a big difference right now with just one car on the track, but when you restart the race in about 10th spot, and you’ve got everyone crowding you up, I think you’re gonna wish you had that extra three or four feet. With just one car on the track here for qualifying it’s not that bad, but it should be fun for the race…I really haven’t had to adjust my line much, but even in that qualifying lap I just ran out of room and I barely touched the right rear. If I would have had six more inches, I would have been fine.”
Tony Stewart, No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet: “Nothing. I didn’t even notice it to be honest. I didn’t even notice it at all. They paint them white every week so we can see them and where they’re at you know you can’t go any further than that so you just use as much track as you can. You can move it five feet and we probably wouldn’t know the difference.”
Mark Martin, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: “It will (have an effect). It will affect where you pick up the throttle. I think you’re going to have to roll a few feet further around the corner before you pick up the throttle or get all of it. It will make a slight difference. We did have a little excess room. About half of what they took we really didn’t need and really didn’t use, so that’s a good thing. We really only gave up about a foot-and-a-half.”
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: “It’s like anything else, we’ll eventually get used to it. But we already use every inch of the track…It’s going to be very important to get your car working well for the race, though, because with a narrower track it’s going to be harder to pass. If you want to see sparks fly, I think this might be the thing that does that.”—The factsWhat: Food City 500
Where: At Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tenn.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: Fox, noon ET
Radio: PRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: .533-mile oval
Banking in turns: Variable, from 26 to 30 degrees
Grandstand seating capacity: 160,000
Race distance: 500 laps/266.5 miles
Estimated pit window: 120-130 laps
2009 winner: Kyle Busch
2009 polesitter: Mark Martin
Today’s polesitter: Joey Logano
Points leaders: 1. Kevin Harvick, 644; 2. Matt Kenseth, 618; 3. Greg Biffle, 585; 4. Jimmie Johnson, 570; 5. Clint Bowyer, 558; 6. Jeff Burton, 538; 7. Mark Martin, 521; 8. Tony Stewart, 510; 9. Paul Menard, 505; 10. Kurt Busch, 502; 11. Jeff Gordon, 482; 12. Scott Speed, 482.
Trivia timeWhich driver holds the all-time record for laps led in Cup races at Bristol?—The tense sevenToday’s race is the fifth on the 2010 schedule. As such, it is the final race in which owner points from the 2009 season apply toward automatic entry into races. Beginning next week at Martinsville, drivers whose cars are not 35th or better in owner points will have to qualify for races on time.
Here are the seven drivers on either side of 35th in points entering today’s Food City 500:
32nd – David Gilliland (318 points); 33rd – Brad Keselowski (295); 34th – Travis Kvapil 286); 35th – Mike Bliss (276); 36th – Kevin Conway (276); 37th – David Stremme (252); 38th – Robby Gordon (249).
Bliss failed to qualify for today’s race so he will fall out of the top 35.—Family friendlyThere is no denying that Bristol is a family friendly facility. For drivers, that is.
The Busch family has won eight races there (five by Kurt, three by Kyle). The Allison family has won six (one each by Donnie and Davey and four by Bobby). The Jarretts have won twice (one each by Ned and Dale).—MilestonesJimmie Johnson will be going for his 50th career victory today.
Bobby Labonte will be going for his 200th top-10 finish.
Clint Bowyer will be starting his 150th Cup race.—Trivia answerCale Yarborough led 4,305 laps at Bristol. Those came in 29 starts.—Up nextNext week the Cup teams will race on a second-straight short track as the series moves to Martinsville Speedway for the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500.
It would seem to be a place which Hendrick drivers are anxious to get as Jeff Gordon has seven victories at Martinsville and Jimmie Johnson six. Rick Hendrick has 18 victories at Martinsville as an owner and Johnson won last year’s race.
Jim Pedleyis a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at