CHARLOTTE — Since Bristol Motor Speedway removed the progressive banking from the top of its corners four years ago, the racing on the 0.533-mile oval significantly has changed.
It returned the track to a mostly single-groove layout, which pleased many fans who were upset when a 2007 reconfiguration of progressive banking allowed for multiple lanes of racing.
But the preferred line now is at the top of the concrete banking instead of hugging the apron at the bottom as it was pre-2007. In the days of yore at Bristol, gaining a spot was as simple as a faster car knocking a slower one aside (and shooting it up the banking to complete a clean pass) – much to the delight of 160,000 fans.
That can’t be done nearly as easy with the leading car and fastest path around the track so close to the wall.
“It’s certainly way harder to pass,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday during an event to unveil a new sponsor, CARSTAR, on his No. 88 Chevrolet. “Even lapped cars can really just hold you up. You have to really depend on these guys that are lapped to give those spots to you, let you allow you to pass them. They don’t have to, (and) they could hold you up for a long time.
“Certainly when you’re trying to race a guy for position who’s got decent speed, it can be almost impossible to get around him because that top groove is so much harder to get around. That guy running that top line, that bottom doesn’t have the grip. You can’t get off the corner.”
Earnhardt has a suggestion for addressing it, noting that the track once sealed the asphalt on the apron, which had a benefit when the bottom groove was the preferred line.
“The yellow line for the bottom of the track wasn’t on the apron,” Earnhardt said. “It was about a foot and a half up on the banking, so there was this black sealer on top of the concrete, and you would hook the left front on that, and that really helped you run the bottom.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver would like to see the track apply the sealer on the bottom again in hopes of creating more passing zones.
“That little bit of tacky sealer on the bottom of the track was only about a foot wide, but it was a major improvement in grip,” he said. “That would help the front grip, and that bottom groove would be more competitive. If they wanted to try something like that, it wouldn’t hurt anything. Nobody is running down there as it is, it’s not like they’re going to screw anything up.”
Though Bristol is among Earnhardt’s favorite tracks (he tweeted Friday morning about his childhood love for it), the tiny oval on the Tennessee-Virginia border hasn’t been kind lately.
Entering Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol, his last top five there was eight years ago, and his lone win was in the August 2004 race.
Some of his struggles might be attributable to his 21.0 average starting position – worst on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“I think I qualify terrible everywhere, but I’m sure the numbers at Bristol aren’t exponentially worse than other racetracks,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “It just happens to be the worst. I don’t look at that track and go it’s not one of my best tracks. I look at it and get excited to go there.
“I feel like I’m really one of the top five, top 10 guys at the short tracks if not better. … I’ve got a lot of confidence when we go there, but we haven’t really had the great runs we expect out of the team that we seem to have at other racetracks. We’re not going there consistently running in the top five. We definitely shouldn’t finish outside the top 10 barring any real issues.”