Chassis 643 sits on the main shop floor of Michael Waltrip Racing in Cornelius, N.C., as it undergoes preparations for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Dave Ongie photo.
Part 1 of 5
They call Bristol Motor Speedway a modern day Roman Colosseum, and it’s a fitting description.
Twice a year, NASCAR’s top drivers walk through the gates of the World’s Fastest Half-Mile and find themselves surrounded by a sea of faces assembled to witness pure, unadulterated carnage.
Most of the time, the masses get their wish. The half-mile bullring is not large enough to contain 43 high-performance machines running nose to tail at such a dizzying pace. Something’s always got to give.
From the moment the green flag falls, the time bomb is ticking. Each lap run is another lap closer to the inevitable. Sometimes trouble is triggered by a blown tire or a broken part. Other times the blame goes to an inexperienced rookie or an impatient veteran.
Either way, trouble is always lurking just around the next turn, and when it finally rears its ugly head, it strikes like a stone hitting the calm surface of a pond.
Suddenly two cars get together, their screeching tires sending a white plume of smoke up into the air.
Spotters chatter frantically into radios from the rooftops, but in some cases it’s already too late. The ripples are already spreading as a few cars barreling around the corner fighting for position slide into the two cars that caused the initial accident.
The ripples continue into the grandstands. From high above, the rising sea of humanity looks as choreographed as the wave, but this form of audience participation is born of excitement. This is what they came for, in some cases driving hundreds of miles and camping out on the hillsides surrounding the track for a week.
It’s rubbernecking at its finest as everyone peers through the smoke looking for car numbers and surveying the damage. Many are praying to see the 42, 18 or the 48 involved even as they hope against hope that the 88 made it through cleanly.
As the smoke clears, there is sheet metal everywhere. A car or two will likely fire up and roll behind the wall where a crew is waiting, armed with saws and baseball bats, primed to perform some emergency surgery in hopes of salvaging points on what is shaping up to be a lost day.
Others are not so lucky — their cars are put on the hook and towed away.
Moments later, the whole incident is in the process of being erased like writing off a chalkboard. Fans scramble to the tunnels that lead to the restrooms, and the drivers of the incapacitated cars climb into ambulances and head for the infield care center.
Meanwhile, the safety crew picks up the crumpled bumpers, plastic ductwork and other debris before dropping Speedy Dry to soak up the puddle of fluid flowing down the steep concrete banks.
After the jet driers follow with a few deliberate passes over the crash site, the green flag falls again and everyone in the grandstands settles in to see when trouble will strike again.
To the fans, the last wreck may as well be ancient history as the cars get back up to full speed. For the race teams collected in the accident, however, the repercussions are just beginning.
That’s because the fate of each car in this Sunday’s Food City 500 will directly affect the livelihoods of hundreds of people both at the track and back at a race shop somewhere in North Carolina.
A trip to victory lane this weekend will mean a celebratory lunch at the shop next week. A crash will mean overtime for the boys in the fabrication shop.
With so much at stake, it’s no wonder so many of these races over the years have started with a prayer and ended with a fist fight.
One of the biggest misconceptions in the era of the Car of Tomorrow is that all of the entries on the track are identical. It’s true that all 43 machines sport a wing (for now) and a splitter, and measure within thousandths of an inch of each other.
But each car arrives in Bristol have taken its own unique journey, and when the green flag falls Sunday, 43 different stories will unfold over the course of 500 laps.
What follows is just one of these stories, the story of the No. 56 Toyota, a Michael Waltrip Racing entry driven by Martin Truex Jr.
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