Waltrip won seven Cup races in a row at BMS in the early 1980s and finished his career with 12 trips to Victory Lane. But he makes no bones about the toll the track took on him each time he buckled in and underwent 500 laps of punishment that only Bristol is capable of dishing out.
“This is one of those places that you walk into and crawl out of,” Waltrip said. “Before we had the tunnel here, I have literally been carried out of the racetrack to get into the car and go to the airport.”
The struggle drivers face in Bristol has been well documented. The half-mile bullring is a complete test, challenging patience, endurance, skill and determination.
But the challenge BMS poses doesn’t end with the driver. It takes a complete effort by the entire race team to earn a trip to Victory Lane in Bristol, a lesson Andy Petree knows all too well.
Petree was a crew chief for Harry Gant and a car chief for Dale Earnhardt, helping Earnhardt win his final two Cup championships. While both Gant and Earnhardt could get around Bristol with the best of them, Petree’s trips to Victory Lane at BMS were few and far between.
“I had a long career, and I was lucky enough to win a lot of races with Harry and Dale both, but I only won one time at Bristol as a crew chief,” Petree said. “And we had good cars. Harry Gant was always so fast there, but there was always something that would keep us from winning. A win at Bristol really is memorable.”
The challenges crew chiefs and their crews face at Bristol are as numerous as they are daunting. There is the unique double pit road, the tight pit boxes and the pressure that comes with knowing that a mistake at the wrong time can put any driver into a hole he can’t dig out of, no matter how much talent he happens to have.
Then there is the noise. When BMS was expanded to its current capacity of 160,000, the sound of 43 cars was trapped inside the giant stadium, reverberating off the steel and concrete in a manner that makes communication almost impossible under green flag conditions.
Mike Ford is well-aware of what awaits his team in tomorrow night’s IRWIN Tools Night Race. Ford, a native of Morristown, is in his sixth season as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing.
During that time, Hamlin has led 282 laps and scored five top-10 finishes in Bristol, but has yet to score a victory. The near misses over the 11 Cup races Hamlin has run at BMS are littered with minor miscues and misfortunes magnified by an unforgiving race track.
While most of those calamities were out of Ford’s control, pit stops are one area where his crew has sway — for better or worse. As the race goes on, the pressure to be perfect in the pits only increases.
“You can rebound from a mistake early, middle of the race if it happens under caution,” Ford said. “But halfway point on in that race, you need to be working on your track position. You get some long green runs, but it always comes down to short runs at the end.”
Track position has always been important at Bristol, and that hasn’t changed despite the new multi-groove surface. There may be room to pass these days, but Ford said the new wavearound rule has negated any margin for error in the pits.
“Quite frankly, that rule there makes it a little more difficult to get a good finish at the end of the day because we’ve seen that there are more cars on the lead lap,” Ford said. “So track position becomes even more important for you as the day goes on.”
And that battle for track position has tightened each year. Petree sits in the ESPN booth each week and marvels as he sees each position in the race off pit road decided by mere tenths of a second.
“You wouldn’t believe how close those teams are,” Petree said. “You see them at the end of pit road all piled up. You lose one second in the pits, you could lose five, six or seven spots. There’s a lot of pressure on those crews.”
All of these factors come together to set the stage for a frantic atmosphere in the final 100 laps of every race run at BMS. There is desperation in the air as exhausted drivers and stressed out crews try to secure a good finish.
For the drivers who lose positions on pit road, frustration often boils over.
“Everybody’s rootin’ and gougin’, and then they’re all half-mad because they’re back there,” Petree said. “It compounds itself when you’re midpack or worse on these restarts.”
The only certainty this weekend is that nearly every driver will feel like crawling out of BMS by the time tomorrow’s race is over. Only one of those drivers will be crawling out with the trophy, however.
“At the end, that’s what makes it Bristol,” Petree said. “It’s just so unpredictable. That’s one of the things the fans love about it.”