The 2013 Winston Cup season plods along and enters Bristol, TN for the first of NASCAR's two annual Cup weekends at Bristol International Raceway - I know, the official name is Bristol Motor Speedway, and that doesn't matter - and NASCAR's Generation Six racecar debuts at the high banked bowl. This is the second weekend since Bristol's progressive banking was ground down to try and increase "action" - aka the crashes - and the last time out the racing produced another epidemic of crashes (13 yellows totalling 87 laps) and a helmet-throw by Tony Stewart on Matt Kenseth, yet curiously produced racing where cars still ran the high groove (notably Kasey Kahne).
The race is the fourth for the Gen-6 car after NASCAR made a point of saying that the Vegas 400 saw 31 lead changes official and otherwise. While that number is certainly a step up from Phoenix, it's just a start as far as vindicating NASCAR's efforts go. And Bristol really isn't a great venue to test how racy the Gen-6 really is because of all the crashes the joint usually produces.
Indeed, the one word to describe Bristol is Overrated. Debuting in 1961, Bristol saw some good racing in its first decade, notably the 1968 Southeastern 500 as several hard battles erupted for the lead between Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Leeroy Yarbrough, and Richard Petty. In 1969 the track was banked from 18 degrees to 36 for greater speeds; crashes escalated, then became less numerous (even seeing 1971's caution-free Volunteer 500) before wavering up and down over the 1970s and first half of the 1980s.
The crashes escalated in a big way in the late 1980s with four consecutive Southeastern 500s (1988-91) erupting to 64 cautions; the upshot of it all was that the racing was also the best the track had ever seen - there were an eye-popping 34 official lead changes in 1989 before a bizarre one-race pitstop and restart rule that doubled up the field produced a still-standing-short-track-record 41 lead changes in 1991. In between, 1990's Southeastern 500 saw numerous battles for the lead and a wild four-car finish.
Struggle to keep the asphalt surface in raceable shape led in 1992 to paving of the track with concrete; suddenly passing became absurdly difficult and the crashes, like the hits, just kept on coming - so much so that the track redid the corners in 2007 with progressive banking before switching back in 2012. The irony is the progressive banking actually made Bristol a competitive race, with memorable side by side battles for the lead in 2010 and 2012 and a noticeable reduction in yellows. 1
The track is hyped as producing the best racing, yet though it's certainly had some good races over the years it really isn't that much. It's the highest banking in the sport yet the actual racing generally has left something to be desired. It's also not the best test bed for the Gen-6 racecar given its small size and lack of racing room.
NASCAR's sensitivity to the Gen-6's struggles explains their hype of Vegas' 31 lead changes. Certainly we all want the sport to be more competitive, and 31 lead changes is a start - if we start seeing races other than the plate races where 50 lead changes is broken, that will be the truest sign the project is working.
For now, though, I'm expecting at least thirteen crashes at Bristol; I'll be surprised if there is as much passing as a Winston Cup race ought to have.
1 - Racing Reference Bristol Raceway page