5 Questions Before ... Jeff Byrd 500

Nerves, nerves, nerves … All the pent-up excitement after an off-weekend has lead to antsy competitors and fans heading into this weekend’s event at Bristol Motor Speedway. So far this season we’ve been to a 2.5-mile track (Daytona International Speedway), a 1-mile track (Phoenix International Raceway), and a 1.5-mile track (Las Vegas Motor Speedway). Now we head to the “World’s Fastest Half Mile” for some good old fashioned short track racing!

Here are some questions on my mind heading into the race weekend …

Who loses their temper first? … It’s Bristol, baby, which means all your emotions and especially your temper should be left at the front gate.

However, not all drivers follow that concept and instead end up in either on on-track war of sheet metal and middle fingers or a post-race scuffle on pit road. Either way, it makes the highlight reels and gets people excited. Some of the more recent incidents at the track involve Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, and not just in the Sprint Cup Series, either.

Last season, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were racing for the fifth position in the final laps of Scotts Turf Builder 300 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, when Harvick dumped Logano on the final lap to take the position. Logano would end up finishing 14th. Harvick all but admitted intentionally moving Logano out of the way, saying after the race, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Though there were no cameras, Logano apparently confronted Harvick following the race. From my understanding, it was rather heated. Let’s not also forget that later that season, Logano would make what was arguably the best quote of the year after Harvick wrecked him yet again on the final lap in the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 presented by Target at Pocono Raceway, this time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: “His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do, so it’s probably not his fault.”

Who wouldn’t love a repeat of that—with Logano, Harvick or any other driver? Boys, have at it!

What will the attendance mean this weekend? … This week Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman and CEO Bruton Smith and BMS president and general manager Jerry Caldwell said they were not expecting this weekend’s NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races to sellout. Up until last season, BMS had sold out 55 consecutive races but failed to sell out in the Food City 500 in the spring of 2010. NASCAR estimated the crowd to be around 138,000.

Through three races in 2011, both ratings and attendance have been very strong and many have expressed concern that the early season off-week might kill that momentum. However, Caldwell and Smith showed optimism that there would still be a significant crowd this weekend and much interest is still being shown toward this weekend’s races in Bristol.

To be honest, I feel everyone is overreacting a bit. Sure, everyone wants to see the numbers continue to rise in 2011, and there’s no reason to think they won’t. After all, BMS has some of the best racing in motorsports and is being advertised as such, the racing has already been great thus far in 2011, and there are some fantastic storylines to follow! Ever heard that in order to increase demand, you must decrease the quantity? Maybe this off-week will help NASCAR more than hurt it.

Which is better: Old Bristol or New Bristol? … In 2007, Bristol Motor Speedway repaved the racetrack, changing it from a one-grooved track where the bump-and-run was the only way to move around another driver to a multi-groove racetrack where a competitor needs to search around for the right line in order to make a pass.

Sometimes the answer to which surface is better depends on whether or not you are old school or new school. It seems as though many longtime fans prefer the old surface and the rough-and-tumble demeanor of the track while those who actually adjust to change (unheard of!) seem to like the multi-groove racing.

Regardless, it’s still one of the toughest little racetracks out there, testing a driver’s endurance, patience and skill behind the wheel. Personally, I prefer a racetrack where drivers can race side-by-side and still make a pass, but to each their own. It’s not like the bump-and-run ever went away in the first place and I can imagine we’ll see it several times in both races this weekend. Seems to me that it’s the best of both worlds!

What is the proper racing etiquette? … There has been a lot of talk this weekend about the “unwritten rules” of the sport, such as how aggressive to race and how early and what is expected of newcomers in the sport, to name a few. Every driver has their own set of unwritten rules that they expect other drivers to adhere to and no two drivers are the same. The different mindsets usually leads to quite a few ruffled feathers, and tracks like Bristol bring about some of the worst offenders.

Personally, I find it somewhat ridiculous. Now I’m not a racecar driver, but shouldn’t the “proper” etiquette be to race balls to the wall and not give a rat’s behind what the other drivers think?

I’m sure every driver on the track could tell me why that strategy doesn’t work, and I’ve heard many reasons already. In fact, if you look at the championship contenders year in and year out, they are usually the drivers that know how to pace themselves in the race rather than using their stuff up early and fading toward the end. It’s more about survival rather than domination, living off the racing mantra, “In order to finish first, you must first finish.”

That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though, right?

Will we have yet another pleasant surprise? … So far this year we’ve had three different winners with three compelling storylines: The virtually unknown 20-year-old Trevor Bayne making history in the Daytona 500 as the youngest winner; Jeff Gordon returning to Victory Lane for the first time in 66 races; and Carl Edwards pulling off the victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, adding to his momentum from last season and further fueling the Ford Racing resurgence. All three drivers are very popular in NASCAR Nation and considered some of the most likable guys in the garage.

Along with some fresh faces in Victory Lane, we’ve also seen a lack of competitiveness from last year’s championship contenders: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson is currently 12th in points and has finishes of 27th, 3rd and 16th in the first three races. However, Johnson is notorious for his slow starts to the season, so there should be no cause for concern among Johnson fans. Hamlin has had finishes of 21st, 11th and 7th and is currently 8th in points, while Harvick is way back 20th in points with finishes of 42nd, 4th and 17th.

After declining TV ratings and lackluster attendance in 2010, what this sport really needs is a clean slate. Fresh faces in Victory Lane and some heated rivalries would really help in keeping with this upward trend so far in the season … and what better place for that than Bristol?

Bonus questions: Who will be the first driver to call Kyle Busch a “you know what”? … Can we get Jimmie Johnson off of Twitter long enough to drive this weekend? … Did you notice I didn’t mention Danica Patrick or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in this column?
5 Questions Before ... Jeff Byrd 500 5 Questions Before ... Jeff Byrd 500 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, March 17, 2011 Rating: 5