BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch has three races remaining to claim a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Under normal circumstances, his chances would be good headed into Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch, after all, has five Cup victories at Bristol.
But that was before track owner Bruton Smith decided grinding the race track would potentially lure fans back to the track after several years of declining attendance. Asked Friday what he thought of the changes, Busch offered a succinct assessment:
"Terrible," he said.
He was one of the few drivers with a strong opinion after two Friday practice sessions. Qualifying was washed out by rain, and Casey Mears and Brad Keselowski will start on the front row because the field was set by practice times. Keselowski has won the last two Cup races at the track.
Few drivers ventured into the top groove during practice, and insisted it's too early to tell how the race will develop.
Smith is hoping the race proves Bristol is once again one of the most exciting tracks in NASCAR. After yet another ho-hum Bristol race in March, Smith had the top lane ground down in an effort to eliminate the two-wide racing that fans believed ruined the product. Progressive banking was added to the track in 2007, and the bumping and banging that was a Bristol trademark disappeared.
The track had a streak of 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982 until 2010, and Smith believed tightening the track might bring the fans back.
Busch was one of the drivers who didn't bother to run at the top of the track on Friday. Why didn't he check it out?
"I don't have to," he replied, "I watched the Truck race."
Timothy Peters led all 204 laps — and the first 82 were under green — in Wednesday night's truck series race. Drivers kept an eye on that race, and voiced their frustrations with Smith's track on Twitter.
"Just as expected. Killing the top groove doesn't make the bottom groove any better," tweeted Martin Truex Jr.
Carl Edwards, who also needs a win to move into Chase contention, said he's reserving judgment on the track until after the race. He stayed out of the top groove in practice — a combination of habit and "I don't want to be the first guy to go up there if there's no grip" — and said nobody knows what it will be like during the race.
"They changed the track because everybody wanted it to be two or three grooves and then they changed it back," Edwards said. "I give them a lot of credit for doing the very best they can. This is one of the coolest race tracks in the world and I think they've done everything they can to make sure we have the best show that we can have and it will be an exciting race one way or another."
Matt Kenseth wasn't even sure the track needed to be changed. He surmised the push for changes snowballed, perhaps in part to the presence of social media.
"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," Kenseth said. "Things change over time and I thought the race in the spring was pretty good. Everybody is going to want something different. 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.
"I think all of the races are pretty good here. I haven't really seen a real bad one here. I think the racing is always entertaining."
Mears was another driver who had no idea what to expect Saturday night.
"Where they actually worked on the track, we haven't actually been all the way up there yet," Mears said. "I've seen some guys flirting with the edge of it, so it's really going to be hard to say. If it keeps guys from running up against the wall, I think it could make it a little bit more competitive just because when guys are running right up against the fence and it's really hard to pass guys down underneath."