Denny Hamlin, who is on the pole for Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, looks on during qualifying Friday. (Jonathan McCoy photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — On Saturday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers completed their final two practice sessions for Sunday's Food City 500 in race cars, but they may as well have been in time machines.
With the tire compound Goodyear brought to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend littering the high groove with rubber marbles, there was only one option left — ride the low groove that the late Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte made famous back in the 1990s.
Carl Edwards was among the drivers of the opinion that the uncertainty surrounding today's race extends well beyond the dreary forecast.
"It might make this a true one-groove racetrack again, which maybe could be the best thing for the race," Edwards said. "If a guy can get under someone and put that guy in the second groove, right now his tires are going to fill up with rubber and he's going to the back.
"So we could be closer to the old Bristol if we still see this (rubber) build up, which, from a driver's perspective, could be frustrating if you get in the second lane.
"But I think from a race perspective," Edwards added, "it'll make it a really exciting race."
Since the half-mile track was reconfigured in 2007, many fans have pined for the days of the single groove along the bottom of Bristol's high concrete banks and the bump-and-run moves that came with it. When the decision was made to grind down the top groove of the track in 2012 prior to the Irwin Tools Night Race, it was done to force drivers to use the bottom lane of the track.
But when cars took to the track in August 2012, it quickly became apparent that the plan had backfired. BMS was a single-groove track, but that groove was right along the outside wall.
"They ground down the top, tried to ruin it, but they actually helped (the top) more than the bottom because they smoothed it out and once you get rubber laid down up there, it's actually faster than the bottom," Kyle Busch said on Friday. "You can pick up two-tenths (of a second) like that. They accomplished their goal of single file, they just did it at the wrong spectrum."
The dynamic changed quickly as the weekend unfolded, however, and the tires were the culprit. Instead of laying down rubber and making the top groove faster, the tires shed rubber marbles that accumulated in what had become the fastest way around the track since the grinding process in 2012.
"It definitely is marbling up way more than we've seen any Goodyear tire marble up in the last few years," said Ryan Newman. "It is the Loudon left-side tire, which is not anything at all like a concrete tire that we've run here in the past."
The tires could change late-race strategy. Track position recently has been the way to go, with most teams opting to stay out on old tires during late-race cautions instead of dropping back in the pack in exchange for some fresh rubber.
But given the rate at which the lap times were falling off in practice as the tires wore down, conventional wisdom could change.
"From what I've seen in some testing data and here in the practice session, (the tire) does seem like it's going to give up more," Newman said.
But even though the practice sessions indicated that Old Bristol could very well be back today, Newman said there is always the possibility that the top groove could emerge as the Food City 500 wears on.
That leaves the drivers unsure of just where they'll be racing — up against the fence or down near the apron.
If the drivers are racing up top, expect to see plenty of daring passes.
"If you can get off a corner better than somebody or you can get a run underneath them enough, I think the pass you will probably see for the win here is more of just try to carry so much speed you slide up in front of them," Matt Kenseth said. "You hope you clear them and they don't cross over and pass you back.
"You try to beat somebody more so than like it was before when we were on the bottom and tried to move them up so you can pass."
Of course, if the bottom groove turns out to be the way to go, everyone knows what to expect: the bump-and-run that has been responsible for so much drama at BMS over the years.
No matter what, drivers expect the new points system to increase the probability of contact in the final laps. With a victory virtually locking up a Chase berth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes the motivation to win will win out over the desire for a clean conscience.
"You don't want to throw trash in your neighbor's yard just for the hell of it," Earnhardt said. "But if you give me a good reason, I just might do it. If you move a guy out of the way, you can blame the system and move on."comments powered by Disqus