The top groove in the turns of Bristol Motor Speedway seemed to be no driver’s land Friday.
As Sprint Cup and Nationwide drivers practiced for Friday night and Saturday night races at one of the world’s fastest half-mile tracks, the recently modified groove near the outside wall was largely ignored. Several Nationwide drivers who ventured into the area with their right-side tires briefly lost control of the cars’ rear ends.
Track owner Bruton Smith decided to grind the top groove to make it less appealing to drivers after the track’s grandstands were only about half full for the spring race here. The theory is that drivers will wrestle more aggressively for smaller space, but it remains to be seen how much – if any – the changes will impact Saturday night’s feature.
Drivers also are dealing with a new Goodyear left-side tire.
“I think everybody has got different opinions,” Matt Kenseth said Friday. “I thought the race in the spring was pretty entertaining. Everybody talks about the old Bristol and people knocking each other out of the way and fighting and all that stuff. Well, we raced these cars at Bristol before they reconfigured it, and there was hardly any passing.
“There wasn’t any of that stuff. It was different. Things change over time, and I thought the race in the spring was pretty good. … We tried to narrow the track up and take grooves away to take passing away, so I’m a little confused on the whole concept to start with. We’ll see how the racing is, but I think the racing is always exciting here.”
Chances are the top groove will come into play eventually, if only because having 43 cars on a relatively small track sometimes pushes traffic into difficult spots.
“I look forward to coming to Bristol every trip especially with the changes [and] looking forward to seeing what kind of race track we’ve got and what kind of things the changes might bring about that you can use to your advantage or that might suit your driving style, possibly,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Just kind of ready to get in the car, ready to practice, ready to work a little bit today and see what kind of car we’ve got. I look forward to a tough race tomorrow, that, hopefully, we will come out on top.”
Casey Mears tossed out a surprise at the track Friday, leading the first practice session with a speed of 122.209 miles per hour. As evidence of the need to experiment on the track during the two-hour practice session, the number of laps run by some drivers was quite high. Brad Keselowski, second to Mears in speed, ran 102 laps. Jeff Burton ran 117, Kyle Busch 109 and Sam Hornish Jr. 101.
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.