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Long: Bristol could signal new era of short track racing

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BRISTOL, Tennessee — Drivers walked out of Bristol Motor Speedway after Monday’s Cup race smiling.

No fisticuffs. No frowns. No frustrations.

Bristol isn’t back to what it once was — a single-groove, shove-your-mother-out-of-the-way track — and may never be, but its two-lane racing left many drivers as wide-eyed as children.

The question now is did fans enjoy what they saw?

Short track racing has always had its charm with a history of beating and banging followed by driver confrontations. It was here where Jimmie Johnson, of all people, stepped out of his wrecked car and flipped the bird at Robby Gordon. This also was the track where Jeff Gordon once shoved Matt Kenseth after a race.

It’s moments like those why some people call for more short tracks in the series and a few still clamor for the return of North Wilkesboro. Of course, that will never happen.

Never. Forget about it. Stop talking about it. Move on.

Instead, is the new chapter of short track racing being set now? Might it be two-wide racing?

A different tire allowed drivers to run on the outside — the outside! — at Martinsville and pass on what has always been a one-groove track that required more fender than finesse.

Now comes Monday’s race, the second with the PJ1 VHT compound applied to the lower groove to add grip. The intent is to make the bottom groove the preferred line and force everyone there to create that bumping and banging to pass. It succeeded early before drivers began venturing up the track and worked in the top groove.

So instead of Martin Truex Jr. bumping Johnson out of the lead as they dueled with about 50 laps to go, they ran side-by-side. Johnson ran high and Truex ran low.

“It was a fun race track,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said after leading 116 laps but finishing eighth because of a late speeding penalty on pit road. “It was a blast.’’

Johnson also called the racing “fun” after earning his 82nd career Cup win.

“It is so fun to just duel it out,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “To be at a track where aero isn’t as important, you can get in there close to people, lean on them, push on them, really race hard. It was a total blast.’’

It wasn’t just those running at the front all race who had a good time.

Ty Dillon, who finished 15th, felt the same way.

“I don’t know what the fans thought, but I think all the of drivers liked to be able to have that top and bottom, where if you’re car is good on the bottom, you can pass there, and if it’s good up top, you can make moves up there,’’ he told NBC Sports. “I enjoy this type of racing.’’

One thing drivers hate is being stuck behind a slower car. That’s what leads to contact and this is a contact sport — at least that’s what NASCAR Chairman Brian France has said. For many fans, that’s what they want to see on a short track.

Still, it was hard not to be thrilled with the racing in the final 100 laps where drivers ran multiple lanes challenging for the lead or spots near the front.

“I think you’re going to have bad-ass racing at Bristol no matter what you do,’’ Joey Logano told NBC Sports as he smiled. “This is the coolest place we ever come to. It’s fun. It’s grueling. It’s tough on the drivers. I think it puts on a great race for that reason. I don’t know what you do to other tracks.’’

Former driver Tony Stewart has an idea.

“Martinsville needs to be paying attention,’’ he told NBC Sports. “This (traction compound) will work at Martinsville as well. This is proof of it. It will work. The whole thing is getting the equation right. You do too much, you make that groove faster than the other one. It’s a battle back and forth of how to keep the lanes even.’’

If a tire helps create a second groove at Martinsville and a compound does the same thing at Bristol, is there more that can be done for other tracks, including Richmond, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Dover, among others?

Possibly.

Next month, the All-Star Race will have two tire compounds. The additional compound will be a softer tire that provides more speed but wears quicker.

If this test works well, a softer compound tire could be used in future races, providing what competitors hope is a back-and-forth movement on the track, creating action for fans.

“I don’t think we would have ever ended up with an option tire if the (driver and team) councils and RTA and all this collaboration didn’t start two years ago,’’ Johnson said. “In a couple years, I don’t know exactly the timeline, in a few more years, we’re all building trust and faith in one other in understanding how this stuff plays out, we’re going to hit on some stuff that’s going to work really well, between maybe stuff that’s on the track or maybe option tires. 

“We’re getting close to creating the right racing environment.’’

Is the “right racing environment’’ side-by-side? It certainly looks like it could be headed in that direction.

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Jimmie Johnson: ‘I honestly welcome the challenge’ of playoff format

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No matter the playoff format that’s been thrown at Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team has bested them, earning seven Cup championships.

This is the first year that the elimination format has included the stage format in races and Johnson said on NBCSN’s “Countdown to Green” that “I honestly welcome the challenge” of it.

The challenge for Johnson Sunday at Kansas Speedway is to stay on the positive side of the cutoff line. He sits in the final transfer spot, seven points above Kyle Busch. Four drivers will be eliminated from contention following the race (3 p.m. ET on NBCN).

“I’m in a position where I have to win, I think, going forward,” Johnson said. “I’m going to regret not being at the front at the start of races to collect those first stage points or the second stage as often as we should have. I honestly welcome the challenge.”

Added Johnson: “This might not be our best year with this format, but give us a little time and we’ll sort it out.”

Watch the above video for the full interview, including Johnson talking about meting the family of a fan who was killed in a car accident.

 

Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in must-win scenario at Kansas

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Going into Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are likely to be among the four drivers eliminated from playoff contention.

Stenhouse is 22 points back from the final transfer spot and McMurray is 29 points back.

Both drivers talked with NASCAR America before the race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) about being in a must-win scenario to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Watch the above video for the interviews.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. His first oval win since Kansas Speedway a year ago validates the team’s 1.5-mile speed in the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Mark it down, he wins and advances to the next round to continue his quest for a second title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. keeps his foot on the throat of the competition and gets his sixth win of the year at a 1.5-mile track.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson is starting 13th but expect him to get to the top five within the first 20-30 laps. He needs a strong run to give him momentum heading into the Round of 8 and he gets it Sunday.

Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – James “Jim” Watson, a fabricator for Furniture Row Racing, died Saturday night after suffering a heart attack, the team stated Sunday morning. Watson was 55.

A native of Greenfield, Wisconsin, Watson had been a member of Furniture Row Racing since February. He worked for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-15 and spent last season with HScott Motorsports. He was a long-time racer, competing in dirt late models and asphalt super late models throughout Southeast Wisconsin.

Watson was with the team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

He is survived by wife Laurie and daughter Brittany.

“On behalf of Furniture Row Racing we extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family,” said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”