Unlike recent years, racing at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night will be a tougher task than usual for Sprint Cup Series teams.
The concrete surface at this 0.533-mile, high-banked oval underwent a modification since NASCAR was last there in March. The top groove of the surface was grinded with the intention of bringing back traditional racing at Bristol.
In 2007, the track was reconfigured with the addition of variable banking. It produced more side-by-side racing and therefore lowered the amount of beating and banging among competitors. Fan response to Bristol's new banking was not favorable since the number of cautions was significantly reduced.
This year's spring race at Bristol featured just five cautions. The only major incident during that event occurred in the early going for a seven-car crash in turn one, taking out several notable drivers such as Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne. Before its reconfiguration five years ago, Bristol had featured as many as 20 cautions.
So what are teams expecting when they return there this weekend?
"Who knows what will happen," said Edwards, who is a two-time winner of Bristol's night race. "Anytime you change a track like that there is no telling. It might make it a completely different race."
The changes at Bristol might be pleasing to race fans, but will it be nerve- wracking to drivers?
"I just hope that they didn't screw it up," said Greg Biffle, who is Edwards' teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "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."
Biffle claimed his second win of the season last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway and moved atop the point standings.
Two months ago, Goodyear held a tire test following the completion of Bristol's altered surface. Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and defending series champion Tony Stewart were those who participated in the one-day test.
"Guys who run up there aren't going to be able to do that because it's pretty slick up there," Stewart said. "There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves, and any time you've got less room to get around, it can get pretty interesting.
"I'm one of the guys who likes that high groove, so it's really going to change things up for me. It'll change things for everybody though, because when you take away room to race on a track this small with 43 cars, yeah, it's going to tighten things up."
With three races to go before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, as many as 10 drivers have an opportunity to punch their tickets into the playoffs at Bristol. They include: Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer, Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kahne.
Keselowski will attempt to win his third straight Sprint Cup race at Bristol. If Keselowski takes the checkered flag for the Cup event, he will join Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Kurt Busch as those drivers with three or more consecutive victories there. Waltrip won a record seven races in a row at Bristol from 1981-84.
"From day one, the first day I walked in there, I respected it, but I also wanted to win there," Keselowski said. "To be on the cusp of three wins in a row there is something that was, and still is, beyond my wildest dreams. But here we are, and we are going to do everything in our power to get it done this weekend."
Keselowski, Johnson and Stewart have the most victories this season with three each.
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Irwin Tools Night Race.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, August 25. Race: Irwin Tools Night Race. Site: Bristol Motor Speedway. Track: 0.533-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m.(ET). Laps: 500. Miles: 266.5. 2011 Winner: Brad Keselowski. Television: ABC. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.