BRISTOL, Tenn. — Bristol Motor Speedway was a perfect stranger in the eyes of the NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers when they rolled back into town for practice and qualifying Friday.
Thunder Valley was resurfaced after the spring race and, in advance of tonight’s Sharpie 500 (8 p.m., ESPN), everybody was gushing about the smooth ride and the potential for two-wide racing the new surface offers.
But, as good as the racetrack is, everybody seems to have a different idea of how to drive it. Even veterans with plenty of laps here are having a hard time getting a feel for the new and improved Bristol Motor Speedway.
“The old Bristol was so much different with the bumps and the way you drove it,” Carl Edwards said. “It’s kind of surreal to have the same shape — everything looks the same, it’s just real smooth.”
Edwards was part of a Roush Fenway Racing stable that figured things out in time for qualifying. He joined teammates Jamie McMurray, rookie David Ragan and Matt Kenseth in the top 12.
McMurray and Ragan led the Roush contingent, qualifying third and fourth, respectively.
Conditioned for years to get to the bottom at BMS and stay there, McMurray believes he has to turn the old approach on its ear as he prepares to race the new configuration.
“The outside is going to be the preferred groove,” he said. “It’s hard to make your brain comprehend that you can do that here. It’s going to be a different race.”
Kenseth, who will start 12th tonight, is attempting to win his third straight August night race at BMS.
“It’s extra special to win here,” he said. “This is probably the coolest environment for a race that we go to. It’s almost a college football game-type atmosphere.”
While Roush Fenway Racing seemed to have things figured out, the new surface also breathed some life into Kasey Kahne, who grabbed the pole for the Sharpie 500 in qualifying Friday afternoon then went out and won the Food City 250 Busch Series event.
Kahne posted a lap of 16.016 seconds to take the pole for the Nextel Cup race. Juan Pablo Montoya has the outside of the front row, putting two rookies in the top five when the green flag falls tonight.
The way Ragan sees it, the new surface evens the playing field for the young guys.
“Everybody’s a rookie here this weekend,” Ragan joked after his qualifying lap.
But as it turned out, there was plenty of truth to what the rookie said — some of the usual front-runners at BMS found themselves buried in the pack after qualifying. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 17th with Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart all starting behind him.
“I’m telling you, I’m driving around here thinking this is the first time I’ve ever been here,” Gordon said after qualifying 18th. “You used to stop in the middle of the corner, turn and go. Now it’s a little more of a momentum track.”
How the lessons learned in qualifying translate into tonight’s race remains to be seen. The track conditions will be quite a bit cooler at 8 tonight than they were during Friday’s afternoon qualifying session.
With Goodyear bringing in a harder tire than normal, it also remains to be seen how pit strategy is affected now that BMS is no longer a single-groove track.
Johnny Benson opted to delay his pit stop in Wednesday’s Craftsman Truck Series race until the midway point, giving up track position in favor of fresh tires. He restarted 17th and used the middle groove to work his way back to the front and claim the win.
But as Jimmie Johnson pointed out, the jury is still out if the yellow flag flies late in tonight’s race.
“I watched the truck race and Mark Martin stayed out on old tires and finished third,” Johnson said. “It could change (the strategy), but we’ll have to see.”
Even with all the side-by-side racing and smooth transitions, everyone would do well to remember that the same old BMS still rests under the new concrete.
“I think the racing will be a little cleaner than it used to be, people won’t have to push and shove quite as much,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “Hopefully we’ll see less wrecks and more racing — other than that, it’s Bristol.”