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Bristol: It was a hellava race!

Bristol: It was a hellava race!

One hot night, and 140,000 strong at Bristol Motor Speedway!



    By Mike Mulhern
    BRISTOL, Tenn.
    Bristol, yes!
    'Gladiator' racing again.
    Not sure just what happened or how or why, whether it was the new tires or the reground upper lane or just what, but the 'old' Bristol reemerged last night -- with plenty of dramatics, theatrics and outbursts, and hard, even vicious fender-rubbing, plus an eye-opening helmet-throw by an angry Tony Stewart at Matt Kenseth.
     Denny Hamlin wound up winning the stunningly intense Bristol 500. But it was the nature of the race that was the big story, an almost surreal race, with every bit of action and emotion for which this track is so renowned.
   "This is my biggest win," Hamlin said. "It's the Bristol night race. It's the most exciting race on the circuit. It's the race everybody talks about -- the Bristol night race.
   "Been a long time since I've been this competitive at Bristol. And the fans -- this is the biggest crowd I've seen here in years."
   Indeed, the crowd was easily 130,000 to 140,000.
   Even though no one came in knowing what to expect, fans or drivers or crews.
  Danica Patrick expresses her displeasure with Regan Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   What these fans got was, to be blunt, one of the best races in years at this legendary half-mile.
   And not until the final minutes was it clear who had the winning edge.
    This event had a little bit of everything that is the best about this sport. It was a three-hour highlights film about NASCAR racing that had both moments of high-humor and teasing drama.
    Even that doesn't really tell the whole story....
    This event follows a series of relatively hum-drum -- by Bristol standards -- races the past several years. And crowds at this 160,000-seat stadium had been dwindling...so much so that track owner Bruton Smith, after the March race here, came up with a curious marketing move of grinding down the upper lane of this three-groove, progressively banked track.
   Smith had hoped that grinding down that part of the track would make it unusable for racing, without as much banking.
   Drivers came into the race highly skeptical about the value of the grinding, some even denigrating the effort, a bit caustically in fact. And this even after tire testing here on the new layout in June, a lengthy practice day Friday and Friday night's Nationwide race.
   Ironically, as the race developed drivers and crews were surprised to find -- thanks to Kasey Kahne -- that the upper lane had been left so rough by the grinding that it took rubber and became very raceable. The grip it had overcame the lack of banking up there.
   On top of all that, qualifying was rained out, and the field set by practice speeds -- and some of the sport's biggest stars, like Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, wound up pitting on the backstretch, instead of in more preferred frontstretch pits.
    Goodyear brought a slightly softer left-side tire for the 500, but it was unclear pre-race if that would make much difference.
   In short, when the race began no one knew quite what to expect.
   It seemed like a one-groove track, with the middle line faster than the lower, and the upper groove still an unknown.
   And drivers ran around single file for some time, trying to figure things out.
   Once they did, though, wow!
   Then throw in several different pit and fuel and tire strategies, and the race became almost a free-for-all. How to keep track of who had fresher tires or who had more gas or who was planning what next was so confusing that crew chief Steve Letarte joked "it would take a slide rule and calculator to explain it all."

   Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb celebrate their third Sprint Cup tour win of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Among the highlights:
   Tony Stewart rallying from a lap down early to challenge Matt Kenseth for the lead 330 laps into the 500-lapper.
   And for two or three laps Stewart and Kenseth went at each other hard....and then both crashed while doing cross-overs.
   Stewart got the worst of it. When he crawled from his banged up car, he took off his helmet and carefully took aim at Kenseth's car as he rolled back around under the yellow, and Stewart launched a perfect throw at Kenseth. Rivals crews even marveled on the radio at Stewart's accuracy.
   And when he emerged from the infield hospital, Stewart vowed to wreck Kenseth "every chance I get."
    Kenseth himself apologized to his crew for getting so caught up in the battle of emotions with Stewart. Kenseth, who had a car good enough to win, finished 25th, just two spots ahead of Stewart.
   More highlights:
   Danica Patrick, running admirably, still on the lead lap and running 20th in her first Sprint Cup start here, tangled with Regan Smith and crashed. And she was very angry with Smith, complaining that he had been racing disagreeably all night.
   After crawling from her car, Patrick -- Stewart's teammate -- took off her helmet and walked to the edge of the track to confront Smith, still driving slowly under caution. And for a moment she appeared ready to throw her helmet at Smith, though she settled for just wagging her finger at him. The radio chatter from rival crews at that moment was hilarious -- with a series of crewmen yelling for her to throw the helmet too.
    It was that kind of night -- drama, theatrics and emotion.
    Perfectly delightful.

   Patrick, who also did a good job in Friday's Nationwide race, emerged from the infield hospital a bit cooler than Stewart:
   "From what I hear, this is why people love this track -- tempers flare.

   "It was just a bummer. We were going to get a solid top-20 finish on the lead lap. 
    "But Bristol is a place where you find out who is playing fair and who's not."
   "I can't believe that outer groove.....I say 'Grind the whole place,'" third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said, in obvious amazement at the way this three-hour race unfolded.
   "It reminds me of 'old school Bristol,' back in 1991 and 1992, before they put concrete down.
   "The pace was fast. I hit my rev limiter every single lap. And it was intense, because it was so tough to pass. You'd look at the guys lined up behind you and say 'Man, if I make this move, I'd better make it stick.'"
   Denny Hamlin celebrates (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   Hamlin called the action "interesting.  It was a different type of racing, for sure.  You had to be very aware of what was behind you before you even attempted to pass the guy in front of you.

    "You had to have at least a two‑car length gap behind you before you could actually work a guy to the low side, because if you got pinned down there for a couple laps, the guy behind you would fill the hole every time and you would end up going backwards.

    "So it was a constant freight train up high of cars.

    "We were one of the only cars that could really make ground on the bottom.  So the best car won, no doubt about it."

   However it was no easy feat for Hamlin, who had some major problems early.

   "We had no water in the car -- We were 300 degrees early on in the race, and all of the gauges pegged, and it was shooting water out like it's a superspeedway race. Evidently we had an electrical fan -- our radio fan -- go bad.

   "Then we hit the wall pretty good.  We hit, landed on pit road... and I told Darian(Grubb, his crew chief)  'The more stuff we hit, the faster it went.'

    "As soon as you think it's over, it's like 'Damn, we hit something'....and 'Oh man, this thing's awesome." 


  Jimmie Johnson somehow wound up second, and he called the race "intense. 

   "To start that deep in the field (37th), when they drop the green, you're half a lap behind. 

   "We had to get some track position somehow.  So we pitted a few times and tried to get some fuel in the car and set up a strategy for us later in the race.

   "We had a fast car, and it at times I think maybe a race‑winning car, certainly top‑three all night long.  It was just a matter of getting to the front and surviving.

   "I'm not sure what played into the fans watching, but inside the car, to complete a pass, you had to set someone up and make a banzai pass to slide up in front of them. 

    "Strategy‑wise, it was tough to know what was going on.  But Chad (Knaus, his crew chief) did a great job of putting us in position.

   "I would say the eye‑opening experience for me was 50 laps in -- Chad told me Kasey got up on to the ground surface and was making up a ton of time there. I started playing with it.  And then you could see every car flirting with it, and off we went.

   "That was the big moment in the race. 

    "From there you just had to be very, very smart and strategic about when you tried to pass the car in front of you.

   "And it was tough to be patient." 






Now, that was the sort of intensity that's been

Now, that was the sort of intensity that's been missing at Bristol since the 'chase' scenario happened. I suppose the racing 'purists' will be appalled at the beating and banging, saying it'e not 'real racing'. Well, I guess it's a good thing that all those fans that sold out that track for many years don't know what makes good racing, isn't it?

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