Joe Gibbs Racing lit it up in Bristol's first NASCAR weekend and the win by Carl Edwards on Sunday following the surprise win by Erik Jones on Saturday further cements JGR's hold on the NASCAR world circa 2016. The April weekend at Bristol was the second short track race of the season and it saw enough eye-popping competition to warrant lengthy analysis.
Worth discussing right away is the odd dichotomy of the racing and the crowds for the Bristol track. Once advertised as the hardest ticket in racing, Bristol races stopped selling out several years ago and this April weekend the stands were striking in the sparseness of the crowds, even for the Southeastern 500 on Sunday. The loss of NASCAR luster has been a manifest truth for some years now and Bristol's decline in popularity has been all the more striking.
The quality of the racing there from 2010 onward has been a heated controversy in at least some fan and participant circles. Steve Billmyer, a longtime crewman who crewed for Harry Hyde's team in the 1980s, calls Bristol "a shell of its former self" because the racing in recent years has seen little to no grip on the bottom; "grinding down the high groove turned it into a one-groove track," he adds. And he isn't the only one from which such sentiment I've heard or read expressed.
I find the controversy somewhat odd because I remember Bristol's competitive heyday of the 1989 through 1991 seasons, as the Southeastern 500 for those three straight runnings combined to break 80 official lead changes and saw two dramatic finishes, none closer than Davey Allison's photo-finish win over Mark Martin amid the wreck of Sterling Marlin by Ricky Rudd just behind them. Rusty Wallace's 1989 victory came after a spectacular darkhorse victory bid by Greg Sacks, while Rusty's 1991 victory after making up two-lap deficits on two different occasions was easily the most competitive short track race in NASCAR history. The racing involved the highside being faster than the lowside as a race would go on and the lead would often change twice a lap due to an attacking car getting a nose ahead but being beaten to the stripe by the highside car. The high vs. low dichotomy was bitterly noted by Geoff Bodine after crashing out of the 1990 Southeastern 500 ("The bottom groove is gone, where we normally run.....we're racing under some ridiculous conditions").
The track was asphalt then and constant application of sealer, controversy over lack of grip and so forth led following Alan Kulwicki's 1992 Southeastern 500 victory to the use of concrete as a surface. The conversion to concrete, combined with the full phase-in of radial tires, changed Bristol racing. Now the track became a one-groove bullring where the bottom groove was the only area to race on. Though the record indicates the conversion to concrete didn't drastically change incidence of yellows for Bristol races (for instance the track hit twenty yellows in 1989 as asphalt, then did it again in 1997 and 2003) the change nonetheless did affect how drivers could race. For nearly two decades Bristol became a "bump and run" racetrack, illustrated in graphic fashion in the last-lap melee involving Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte in the 1999 Volunteer 500, as well as with several helmet-throwing incidents, notably Ward Burton in 2002 and Dale Jarrett in 1993.
This type of racing became a selling point for races there. "I miss the old bump-and-run days," says Lorenzo Haskins, "I miss the days of over a dozen cautions."
But with almost every race wrecking so many cars and so little passing there seemed need for change, and by 2010 the turns had been changed to a more progressive form of banking, the lower groove flatter than the higher groove. The 2010 Southeastern 500 won by Jimmie Johnson may have been the first race to truly illustrate the effect of the change. It has been really a return of Bristol's pre-concrete competitive self; the lead changed 29 times in that 2010 race, by far the most since 1991. Bristol has broken 20 lead changes four times from there through this April weekend.
The best illustration of the "back to the future" Bristol came in Saturday's Fitzgerald 300 Xfinity race; the most eye-popping non-Daytona/Talladega race since the immortal 2015 Charlotte Truck 200 and its Erik Jones-Kasey Kahne sidedraft battle for the win - with Jones' involvement in both the ultimate irony. Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson had the race almost all to themselves, and clumps of lapped cars turned their duel into a real battle as the lead changed back and forth between them.
Throughout the low line was all but unraceable, and this wound up becoming decisive on the final restart, as Kyle Busch gagged horribly, Larson jumped to the lead, but Erik Jones slithered up high and stole the race, Larson doomed with zero grip to use down low.
The Food City 500 had a tough act to follow and it didn't really reach that level of competition, simply because Saturday's race caught a lot of people by surprise. Sunday nonetheless saw some spirited battling up front and fifteen yellows. Takeaways from the Sunday affair -
It's strictly JGR vs. Hendrick in 2016 -JGR has now won four times to go against two Hendrick wins. True, we saw another spirited effort by Stewart-Haas, itself with a win so far, but that was pretty much it as far as any challenge for the win went.
The rookie race looks over - Chase Elliott quietly clawed to a fourth-place finish and suddenly Ryan Blaney looks like a rookie in a Penske satellite car more than a victory contender, though 11th was hardly a bad finish here.
Roush-Fenway showed noticeable improvement - All three Roush cars finished in the top sixteen; coming after some decent efforts so far it's not implausible right now to think some level of a turnaround is happening.
Some independents grab quality runs - Matt DiBenedetto and the BK Racing #83 shocked everyone with a spectacular sixth place coming after a strong effort by Landon Cassill, who led twenty laps in the Bob Jenkins Ford. And while Clint Bowyer is no darkhorse, the Harry Scott car is no powerhouse, so 8th for that combo warrants mention as well.
Not all touchdowns for Coach Gibbs - Matt Kenseth led 142 laps then wrecked out, and Kyle Busch also wrecked out. Such radical swings in fortune are par for the course for Busch, but Kenseth's poor season has been a head-scratcher.
Some more tire issues - The JGR teams were the highest profile of several cars that had right-front failures, and for the second time this year Goodyear addressed the issue during the racecast.
So it went at Bristol, with Richmond up next.