Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway wears a cloak of mystery.
No one is really sure what to expect when NASCAR teams roll into eastern Tennessee this week for Camping World Truck (Wednesday), Nationwide (Friday) and Sprint Cup (Saturday) races at the half-mile track.
After hearing fans’ complaints for the past five years and being embarrassed by declining attendance, track mogul Bruton Smith decided in the spring to renovate the track surface in hopes of spicing up the competition and returning some of Bristol’s former sparkle.
He brought in machines to “grind” the top groove of the surface, using the theory that such a change would discourage drivers from running in that lane and thus increase the jousting for spots lower on the track.
How that tactic will work remains to be seen, although Wednesday’s Camping World Truck race (scheduled to be broadcast by SPEED, beginning with NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Setup at 7:30 p.m.) will provide some significant hints.
“I just hope they didn’t screw up the race track,” said Ryan Newman. “The racing was different than what we had there in the past because of the tire, not because of the race track. I hope that the racing is good. I hope they didn’t take the racing away.
“The beating, banging and crashing is not the racing that I like. That’s what some of the fans enjoy, but that’s not the racing I like. I like being able to run side-by-side. The problem we had [was] the tire just didn’t allow us to be able to fall off, so the first five laps of the run were like the last five 120 later. You had what you had.
“Your car didn’t fall off, your balance didn’t change, and everybody was virtually the same speed. We passed and we raced side-by-side, but it made it difficult to see the guy coming from 10th on new tires to pass the guys that were in the top five. It just didn’t happen the way it used to. To me, the tires are the biggest issue when it comes to a place like that.”
Many drivers liked the track as it was. It was widened slightly in 2007 to promote more side-by-side racing.
Smith and other track officials underlined the point, however, that they didn’t consult drivers for this year’s redesign but instead listened to fans.
“I just hope that they didn’t screw it up,” new point leader Greg Biffle said. “It is a shot in the dark, if you will. You are just sitting back trying to make a plan, and you don’t know if it will work or not. It is that simple.
“Who knows if that is going to work? You don’t. We just have to wait and see when we get there. I think it is going to be exciting either way. I heard they ground the corner more down the straightaway so that when you come up off the corner, you will go across that patch coming on to the straightaway, which may be difficult to do from the bottom groove. They carried it around maybe further than it needed to be, but we will have to wait and see when we get there how the race track drives now. I hope it is good.”
Sprint Cup practice is scheduled at noon and 2:45 p.m. Friday. Qualifying is scheduled at 5 p.m. The race is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.