Kyle Busch climbs from his car after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race, Friday, March 15, 2013, in Bristol, Tenn. Busch will start from the pole position for Sunday's race. (AP Photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When officials at Bristol Motor Speedway decided to grind down the top groove in the corners of the iconic half-mile track last summer, they did so with the intention of making the high line an “out of bounds” area, forcing drivers into a tighter groove lower on the track.
But when the stars of the Sprint Cup Series showed up for the Irwin Tools Night Race last August, the line slowly but surely moved up the track until the cars were running inches from the outside wall. Not only was the area in bounds, it was the place to be if you wanted to run fast laps.
“We’ve seen that top groove be really the preferred groove the last few times we’ve been there, and when they ground it last year, we didn’t expect it to happen,” said Martin Truex Jr., who will start ninth in Sunday’s Food City 500. “But when the cars started getting up there and laying rubber down, it just continued to get higher and higher and higher until the only thing keeping us in the racetrack was the fence.”
So what will we see Sunday when the green flag falls? Will the high line rule once again, or will low be the way to go? After the curveball the teams were hit with last August, most everyone in the garage area expects to see the high groove come in again Sunday, but nobody was willing to bet the farm on it with so many variables.
The biggest change between this spring and last August, obviously, is the new Gen-6 car, which made its presence known during qualifying Friday when Kyle Busch broke a 10-year-old track record and 36 cars ran faster than Greg Biffle’s pole-winning lap last spring.
“I think it’s just the added downforce. You think of this place as a short track, but you’re going 130, 140 miles per hour into the corner, so downforce plays a big factor into that,” said Chad Johnston, Truex’s crew chief. “And we’re a hundred pounds lighter than we were last year, so the weight transfer is less. What we had for qualifying trim last year is what we have in race trim this year.”
Another factor is the weather, which can affect how the track rubbers in. Jason Ratliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth, who rolls off 12th on Sunday, said the cool, cloudy weather in the forecast could keep the top lane from coming in as strong as it did in the August heat seven months ago.
“If it stays cool, that really has a huge effect on how the rubber lays down,” Ratliff said. “If it’s cold, it won’t stick, and you end up pulling it up much quicker than you lay it down because the tires are much hotter than the racetrack.”
If that happens, the original plan of forcing the cars to race lower on the track could unfold like it was expected to in last August. But no matter where the cars end up running, passing will be a challenge.
While the dizzying speeds reached in qualifying grabbed the headlines, the fact that almost all the cars in the field are capable of turning similar lap times will have an enormous impact on how Sunday’s race unfolds. With the top 38 cars running within three-tenths of a second of each other during Saturday’s final practice, passing will be a challenge.
“If there’s anything the car has done, it’s made everybody a little bit closer,” Ratliff said. “That’s what makes it hard to pass. It’s not that we’ve got a bad aero package, it’s that if a guy is just as good as you are, you’re not going to be able to pass him.”
Ratliff and most everyone else believes Goodyear will be able to start using softer tire combinations down the road, and that will lead to an increase in passing as a result of greater tire fall-off. But until then, everyone expects track position to be extremely valuable as the race approaches its end.
Kenseth gambled by staying on old tires in order to remain up front in Las Vegas last week, and was rewarded with a win.
“People have worried more about keeping track position than getting new tires,” Kenseth said. “I think hopefully we’ll be able to make tires a little bit softer with more drop-off so new tires are more important and if you do get new tires, you can come from the back and pass more cars and hopefully get back to the front.
“I think that’s the goal, but we haven’t been able to do that because we have to get into the year and see if the tire wear has improved as much as they think it will.”
In all likelihood, late-race restarts will become an adventure and patience will be in short supply as drivers look to get all the positions they can before the field spreads back out.
Jimmie Johnson said he is well aware that fans are hoping for more fireworks today — whether the drivers like it or not.
“It’s so difficult to get the recipe right,” said Johnson, who starts ninth Sunday. “Last year’s race we were all fighting for one lane, which was on top instead of on the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet and it’s considered a good race.”