Wild weekend for NASCAR

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:08 PM ET

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Ask any driver on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and, to a man, he will tell you that Bristol Motor Speedway is like a first kiss, both terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

The little .533-mile banked oval that straddles the Virginia and Tennessee state lines is a star among stars in stock car racing.

There is a kind of a tough love racing at Bristol that isn’t found anywhere else.

You can tell as soon as drivers start to talk about what happens here that Sunday’s Jeff Byrd 500 — named in honour of the long time track CEO who died last season after a battle with cancer — will be special.

Kyle Busch, who has won four times at Bristol since 2007, including sweeping both the Spring and Fall races in 2009, gets positively gregarious when he tries to describe what racing is like at the venue they call Thunder Valley.

“You go down the straightaway and you slam it into the corners and you mash the gas and you kind of sling right back out of the corners,” the 25-year-old Busch said. “It’s a lot of fun to do that. It’s kind of an art. Some guys are really good at it, and some find a knack that makes them really good at it and make it seem easy.”

He said that what helps give it that added excitement is that 160,000 fans are right on top of the action, with the grandstands built into the natural amphitheatre of the track geography.

“Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the best racetracks on the circuit,” Busch said. “All the fans love it because of the excitement, the run-ins, and the close-quarter action with all the cars being packed on top of one another at a half-mile racetrack with us 43 lunatics running around in a tight circle. With the fans, the atmosphere there always makes for a good time.”

And it’s just not the youngsters like Busch who have a special relationship with Bristol.

Thirty-nine-year-old Jeff Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, also has four wins at Bristol to go with five poles, 14 top-fives and 20 top-10’s in 36 starts at the Tennessee track.

“Bristol Motor Speedway?” Gordon answered when asked his opinion of the short oval. “It’s the ultimate.”

Sunday’s race also marks the 50th season of stock car racing at Bristol.

“To me, it’s not just about 50 years of racing,” Gordon said. “It’s about putting on a great event and having some of the best racing we’ve ever had for such a long period of time.”

Gordon likes to tell the story of when he first got to NASCAR and was racing in the then Busch Grand National Series. He said as fun as it was to race it was just as much fun to watch the Cup guys race.

“I’d go up in the spotters’ stand and watch Ernie Irvan, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison out there battling during the night Cup races,” Gordon said, “What a cool experience that was.”

Gordon’s last win at Bristol, however, was back in 2002 and he’d like to update that statistic this weekend.

“I learn as a driver each time I race here,” he said. “After talking with (new crew chief) Alan Gustafson and the team about Bristol, I’m hoping we can make more gains this weekend and contend for the win.”

Tony Stewart, himself a two-time Sprint Cup champion, knows better than most that winning at Bristol is not something that comes easy.

Stewart has been on the receiving end of Bristol’s brand of tough love lots with only one Sprint Cup win to show for 24 attempts.

“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way,” he said. “If you have one hiccup, it’s hard to recover from it.

“We’ve only won one race there, and we’ve kind of been all over the board. It’s been feast or famine. It’s, like, if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it’s hard to recover from it.

“It makes for a very long day. We’ve had more long days than good days.”

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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