Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Motor Mouth: The Masters of Bristol



John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR


It’s always intrigued me how some drivers can excel at certain race tracks and pile up the wins, turning that stretch of asphalt or concrete into their own personal playground. We’ve seen this phenomena in recent years with Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway and Charlotte, Denny Hamlin at Pocono, Greg Biffle at Homestead and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega.

That brings us to the concrete jungle of Bristol and its new master, Kyle Busch. Busch’s first win at the track in spring 2007, the first race after its fan-dividing repave and the debut of the Car of Tomorrow, marked a changing of the guard in more ways than one. Sunday’s win in the Jeff Byrd 500 was Busch’s fourth victory in the last five races at the 0.533-mile short track, as well as his fifth straight win across NASCAR’s top three series there in back-to-back sweeps.

As Bristol Motor Speedway turns 50 this year, Busch is the latest driver to dominate the temperamental track. Here’s how Busch stacks up to next to his fellow kings of Thunder Valley:
  • Darrell Waltrip leads all Cup drivers with 12 wins at Bristol, when the track had one groove and the only way to pass your competition was to move them out of the way. “Jaws” knew how to hunt down his competition.
  • While many fans are sick of seeing Busch rule the concrete, he has yet to match Waltrip’s streak of seven straight Cup wins at Bristol. Yes, you read that right – from March 1981 to April 1984, Waltrip had a standing reservation in victory lane. I’d say Waltrip’s achievement would stand unmatched, except at the age of 25, Busch has time to whittle away at yet another record.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Cale Yarborough are tied for second-most wins with nine each. Yarborough swept both events in 1974 and won four straight from 1976 to 1977. Earnhardt swept in 1985 and 1987. Wallace’s wins were mostly spread out, but he did win back-to-back races in 2000.
  • Cale Yarborough is the only driver to lead every lap of a Cup race at Bristol, a feat he achieved in the 1974 Southeastern 500.
  • Busch’s victory in the Jeff Byrd 500 ties him with his brother Kurt and Jeff Gordon for most wins of all active drivers, with five each.
  • Keeping it in the family: The torch at Bristol seems to have been passed to Kyle from his brother. Kurt won three races in a row from March 2003 to March 2004. His last win came in March 2006, before the track was reconfigured later that year and before Kyle’s first win on the new surface in 2007.
  • While Kyle has the win leaving Bristol, it’s Kurt who has the points lead. With his seventh-place finish, Kurt is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in every race so far this season, giving him a one-point lead over Carl Edwards in the standings.

NASCAR DODGES TIRE DEBACLE

Thanks to some quick thinking by NASCAR and Goodyear officials, the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol did not become a replay of the 2008 Brickyard 400. In case you’ve blocked it out, that was the race where the tires fell off so much, one of the sport’s most prestigious events was turned into a series of 30-lap sprints.

Tire wear had never been much of an issue at Bristol before, but it became one Friday as the track failed to rubber up during practice. The right-side tire, which Goodyear had developed after teams requested more grip following the fall race, was all too quickly breaking down into a powder. After just 30 laps or so, the right sides were wearing down to the cord.

The tire issue had the potential to undo the momentum sustained in the first three races of the season. But Goodyear and NASCAR had a backup plan. Goodyear would ship in 1,300 new right-side tires for Sunday’s race from the supply used at Auto Club Speedway and Kansas last year. The tires featured the compound used at Bristol last August, which might leave the track a little slicker than some teams preferred, but were expected to last about 135 laps, more than four times as long as they were holding up during practice. However, teams had only one set of tires to practice on Saturday, which left a lot of uncertainty going into Sunday’s race.

The last-minute plan from NASCAR and Goodyear worked. Some teams initially experienced handling issues following the change, and there were a few individual tire incidents (Robby Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex). But tire wear never became a factor in the Jeff Byrd 500. The 2008 Brickyard 400 stayed where it belongs – in 2008.


CARL VS. KYLE … TO BE CONTINUED?

Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
Sunday’s race at Bristol was rare because we didn’t see the tempers often displayed by drivers in its close quarters. Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon came the closest – Gordon called out Keselowski for door-slamming him as Keselowski tried to race his way back onto the lead lap – but even that was a far cry from the “You get in my way, I’ll wreck you” mentality that used to be the norm at the short track.

But what we did see is a brewing rivalry between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. The two famously traded paint at Bristol in August 2008, when Edwards beat back Busch for the win. Then there’s that matter from Phoenix, when Busch wrecked Edwards’ pole-winning car.

Despite their history, neither sought retaliation at Bristol, where Edwards had to settle for second behind Busch. Edwards said he had an opportunity to bump Busch for the win after the last restart, and regretted not taking it. But Edwards said Busch wasn’t out of the clear for the Phoenix crash.

“If I'd have known that was the only shot I was going to have, I might have raced a little harder,” Edwards said after the race. I should have. It was a little early. I told him after Phoenix I still owe him one. But I'll save it up.”

Busch apologized publicly and to Edwards after Phoenix, and was surprised Edwards felt he owed him.
Carl says what Carl says. I don't know,” Busch said. “Apparently I have one coming. When and where it comes I do not know.”

If these two drivers continue to contend for the win like they’ve been doing, there will be plenty of opportunities for Edwards to seek payback on Busch. Just when and where will not only keep Busch guessing, but NASCAR fans as well.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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