Call it the best mistake of Smith’s life.
Since 1961, the track known as “Thunder Valley” has been famous for no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled stock car racing; the modern-day equivalent of Christians vs. Lions. Fans loved it, filling the seats to capacity, season after season, and making Bristol the eighth-largest sporting venue in the world. One of the toughest “gets” in professional sports, Bristol’s 160,000 tickets became the subject of divorce decrees and wills.
At least, that is, until 2007, when Smith decided a face lift was in order.
The bombastic owner/promoter hired a platoon of engineers to turn the venerable, 36-degree oval into a new, concrete bullring, complete with modern, variable-degree banking. While the rebuild was an artistic success, producing long stretches of side-by-side racing for the first time in the track’s history, fan reaction was mixed, at best. Raised on a steady diet of volatility, carnage and mayhem, longtime patrons rebelled against the new, more genteel Bristol.
It was like buying tickets to the Roller Derby, then sitting through a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.
|The carnage was back at Bristol|
Ticket sales plummeted, forcing Smith to announce that he would rework Thunder Valley once again, grinding down the track’s uppermost groove in an effort to force a return to the good old days when, in order to pass a man, you first had to move him.
It didn’t work, at least not entirely.
Drivers began Saturday night’s IRWIN Tools Night Race as expected, racing solely in the track’s bottom two grooves. But as the event progressed, they gradually expanded the racing lane upward. By the time the race reached its halfway point, Smith’s off-limits high lane had inexplicably become the fast way around, creating an unintended amalgam of both the old Bristol, and the new.
Drivers could still pass, as evidenced by a robust 22 lead changes among 13 different drivers. It wasn’t easy, however, and 13 caution periods slowed Saturday’s race; the most for a Bristol 500-miler since the rebuild. Tempers flared – just like in the old days – with former series champions Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth wiping each other out while racing for the lead on lap 333. Stewart climbed from his steaming, wrecked racer and hurled his helmet at Kenseth’s passing car, striking it flush between the headlights with a high, hard one that brought the faithful to their feet with the kind of lusty roar that had not been heard at Thunder Valley since 2007.
|Danica was not happy with Regan Smith (78)|
Stewart resurrected the long-dormant Bristol vow of revenge shortly after, pledging to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year.” Later, Danica Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatened to strangle driver Regan Smith, after contact with his No. 78 Chevrolet sent Patrick into the wall and ended her night just 66 laps from the finish.
It was everything we loved best about Bristol. And more.
For the first time in memory, pit strategy played a role at BMS, keeping the race’s final outcome in doubt until the late going. Not until Denny Hamlin surged past a fading Carl Edwards to take the lead with 39 laps remaining did the verdict become clear, and after claiming his third checkered flag of the season, Hamlin gave Bristol Motor Speedway’s newest incarnation high marks.
“It’s a different kind of racing,” said Hamlin, confirming that the bottom of the track was “not the fastest way around. It was the same (as the old days),” he said. “We were all running in line, waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around. That’s what you had to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to do today.
“I don’t think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol, either,” said Hamlin. “You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”
Multi-time Bristol winner Jeff Gordon went a step further, encouraging Smith to “grind the whole place. That was awesome,” he said. “It reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”
Things may not have worked out quite the way Smith had envisioned Saturday night, but the end result is beyond dispute. Fans enjoyed great racing, with enough mayhem to satisfy those for whom the Bolshoi Ballet will never do.
All hail the newest Bristol Motor Speedway.
Photos: Tyler Barrick, John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR