Riding shotgun with Brett Bodine provides insight on navigating BMS

Dave Ongie • Mar 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The Sunday morning sun has barely risen above the horizon, but Brett Bodine already has the pace car whistling around Bristol Motor Speedway.

Plenty has changed since Bodine won a pair of Nationwide Series races here in the mid-1980s, most notably the new surface that was put down in 2007.

“This place is so much smoother now,” Bodine says as he sends the Ford barreling into turn one. “Shocks are still important, but nowhere near as important as they used to be.”

In the old days, a driver had to know his way around every bump on the track. In the early 80s, Junior Johnson was able to set up his No. 11 car to get over the big bump in turn two without losing a lick of speed. As a result, his driver Darrell Waltrip owned BMS for the early part of the decade.

About 20 years later, Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser figured out how to get their No. 17 Ford over the big bump that formed over the tunnel in turn three, helping Kenseth win back-to-back Sharpie 500s.

But as Bodine makes his Ford hug the wall as he motors down the back straightaway, he makes it clear that a smoother surface won’t translate into smoother sailing for the 43 drivers entered in today’s Food City 500.

“This is a concentration nightmare,” Bodine laughs as he exits turn two.“You’ve got to be focused all the time. You will lose focus and you will just start slowing down a little bit.”

Despite the changes, Bodine says that BMS is still a rhythm racetrack. You hit your marks in turn one and two, and a split-second later it’s time to hit your marks in turn three and four. Then you repeat that for the next 499 laps. Needless to say, any lapse in concentration is enough to get a driver out of his rhythm and into a state of frustration that can’t be produced anywhere else on the Sprint Cup circuit.

If you happen to be starting back in the pack, the sense of urgency is even more intense.

“You’ve got to drive aggressively here every lap,” Bodine says. “You never know when a long run is going to happen. Before you know it, your crew chief is telling you the leader is five seconds back, and you’re like, ‘What do you mean the leader is five seconds back?’ Then you start overdriving.”

Suddenly Bodine takes the high line into turn one, taking the car into turn two just inches away from the wall. This is the line Bodine rode to his two Nationwide wins at the track, and he expects to see it used in today’s race.

“Both races I won because I could pass and run a lot right up here,” he says. “For some reason the Cup cars tend to widen the groove out much more than the Nationwide cars do. I think you’ll see Cup cars running the high line immediately.”

While the bottom groove is still the shortest way around the track, the new variable banking allows drivers to get around the track at about the same speed while driving a higher line.

As Bodine heads into turn three, he moves the car back down into the low line to focus on another advantage of riding high in today’s race. Bodine explains that the rubber that has built up on the low groove over the last two days will get slick under the afternoon sun.

“As the rubber builds up, then there’s no traction there,” he explains. “To be honest with you, I think you’ll see the Cup cars riding right up against the wall. What it does is it makes the straightaway that much longer.”

Bodine crosses the start/finish line and starts to allow the car to wind down as it slides through turn one. He says that the drivers who will do well this afternoon will be the guys who can feel every subtle difference in the track and consistently hit their marks. While Bodine has done a great job teaching a crash-course in surviving BMS, experience, he says, is still the best teacher.

“When you do what racecar drivers do and run lap after lap of practice, you learn all the little differences,” he says. “You relate that to how you make your car handle and then have to translate that to where you drive.”

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