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Trevor Bayne, coming 'home'

  Knoxville's Trevor Bayne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   Kevin Harvick calls this the first 'full-contact' stock car event of the season…which, considering the general slam-bam nature to the NASCAR year so far, should say something.

   But Bristol, since it was redesigned a few years back has taken on a different tone. It used to be a one-groove track where a man had to root a rival up out of the spot he wanted. Now the track is wide enough it doesn't take as much rootin' and gougin'.
   In fact, as fast and smooth as this half-mile now is, Harvick says drivers work hard at keeping the bumpers clean.
   Shoot, doesn't that take all the fun out of this place?
   The season so far, though, has been somewhat unpredictable, except for Carl Edwards.
   Consider Joe Gibbs' guys, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. What's up there? How many engine issues have they had to deal with so far?
   Hamlin, who came within a hair of winning last year's championship, hasn't even been seen much the first few weeks of the season. He finally got a seventh at Las Vegas, though he had to start at the rear of the field. And despite some good runs lately here, Hamlin is still winless.
   One guy to watch in Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500 is Juan Pablo Montoya, who is off to a good start. "I actually enjoy racing at Bristol," Montoya says. "It's one of those tracks that can be intimidating at first; but I caught on to it pretty quickly.
    "You are on the wheel all the time. And it's a track that you want to be running up front; track position is key. When you get into the back of the pack, it's a nightmare."
   Another guy to watch this spring is Ryan Newman, also off to a good start.
    "Bristol is like a 'baby' superspeedway -- If something happens in front of you, it may not be your fault, but you can get caught up in somebody else's wreck in the blink of an eye," Newman says. "You have to really be on your toes; everything happens so fast you don't have time to think or blink.
    "I learned that in 2003 when I won the pole; I never anticipated I could put down a lap that fast. You just don't realize how quickly everything happens at Bristol.
     "Everything is completely out of your hands. One minute you could be running in the lead, and seconds later you could be wrecked in the corner and out of the race…no fault of your own."
   While Newman and teammate/owner Tony Stewart are solid right now, most of their Chevy rivals are struggling, Richard Childress' guys and Rick Hendrick's guys.
    Leading the Childress camp, newcomer Paul Menard; leading the Hendrick camp, well, maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    "Since they repaved it, you can drive just about anywhere you want, which makes racing a lot of fun," Menard says. "We probably won't have the wrecks you've seen in the past. I think the jury is out for what the fans will prefer, the old-style or new.
    "Actually the corners are wider than the straights. You can run three-wide in the corners.
    "But when you come out of the corner, it really narrows up. That's where you see all the action -- in the exit of the corners….especially if someone sticks their nose in."
    Earnhardt, who won here in 2004, says qualifying is important, because this pit road is tight and there are some odd pit road rules.
   On top of that, the new gas cans have presented some issues this season for pit crews.
   And what about Trevor Bayne?
   The surprise winner at Daytona hails from nearby Knoxville. This will be only his fifth Cup start.
   But he's been coming here for years.
   "To me it feels like home….so it's not that intimidating beast everybody else thinks of it," Bayne says.
   "It is still the coolest place we race. 
   "It's like a gladiator arena, or a bullfighting stadium, because it's crazy." 
    After winning Daytona, Phoenix and the two crashes were a downer. "But the 20th at Las Vegas was actually pretty good for us," Bayne says. "We ran top-15 for a while, and then I messed up coming to pit road and got us behind.
    "We're making progress.  You set Daytona aside and look at your steps -- We finished 17th at Texas in our first race (last fall). We crashed out of Phoenix. But then Vegas we finished 20th. So we're consistently a top-20 team."
   A goal here? Top-15 would be nice. "You're either going to get crashed, or you're going to do really well," Bayne says. "I've never had middle of the road."

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