Bristol on the wrong track?

Five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson inspects the track prior to practice for tonight's IRWIN...

Five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson inspects the track prior to practice for tonight's IRWIN Tools 500 at the reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway. (Getty)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:31 PM ET

It was former NHL general manager turned talk show host Doug MacLean who, when asked about fan opinions in pro sports, suggested that “if you think like the fans, soon you will be sitting with them.”

Is it possible that by taking race fans advice and changing the banking at Bristol Motor Speedway that track owner Bruton Smith made such a mistake?

Smith, who has watched as attendance has dropped from 160,000 to about 100,000 at his Tennessee half-mile oval over the past two seasons, went to fans for their input on making Saturday night’s Irwin Tools 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race more exciting.

The fans answer was to change the track’s banking enough to make it harder to pass.

The theory being that the harder it is to pass at Bristol the more Cup drivers will bump and run causing all kinds of ill feelings and subsequent temper tantrums.

In other words more crashing and banging.

Cup drivers, on the other hand, loved the progressive banking that allowed them to race side-by-side the whole race long.

“Everybody talks about the “old” Bristol and people knocking each other out of the way and fighting and all that stuff,” Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Ford said Friday. “Well, we raced these cars at Bristol before they reconfigured it and there was hardly any passing.

“Things change over time and I thought the race in the spring was pretty good. But everybody is going to want something different.”

Kenseth, who is currently second in the championship points parade, said that fans who think the racing at Bristol has gotten boring, maybe just haven’t been paying attention.

He said in the spring Cup race at Bristol this season— where he finished second and battled door to door with winner Brad Keselowski — was plenty exciting for him.

“After that last stop we ran side-by-side for 10 or 15 laps and rubbed on each other for a little bit and he ended up getting the lead and getting the win,” Kenseth said. “We’ll see how the racing is, but I think the racing is always exciting here.

“It’s a really cool facility and venue no matter what the track is like in the middle of it, honestly — with the night race here and putting all those people in there. The racing is always close and there’s always a lot of action.”

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 Toyota watched the Camping World Truck Series on Wednesday at Bristol and in a tweet said that the changes to the track wasn’t going to improve the racing.

“Just as expected. Killing the top groove doesn’t make the bottom groove any better,” Truex wrote.

In that Truck race there were only six cautions and winner Timothy Peters led every lap. Not exactly the kind of bump and run racing that Smith — or the fans he consulted — expected.

It could be much different, however, when the big horsepower Cup cars get on the track Saturday.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen,” five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson said. “There’s been a strong attempt to take (the top groove) away from us to where we’ll fight for the bottom. We’ll kind of see where it goes from there.”

In an interview with ESPN.com Smith said he will be watching closely to see how the changes he made affects the racing and he is even open to changing it back if necessary.

“We will do anything we feel we have to do,” Smith said. “Right now, it’s an unknown.”

But he was quick to point out that an expected crowd of 130,000 Saturday night is nothing to sneeze at in a still sluggish U.S. economy

“Ticket sales are very, very good. We’re projecting now we’ll have 130,000 paid,” he said. “That’s like two Super Bowls. I don’t think we need to stand up and complain about that. But, you give us a good economy again and we’ll be back up at 160,000.”

FINISH LINES

Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle will clinch a Chase berth with a finish of 28th with no laps led, 29th with at least one lap led and 30th with the most laps led at Bristol ... For everybody else the magic number is 97. Any driver 97 points ahead of 11th place after Saturday’s race will officially clinch a top-10 spot.

 

 

 

GO TIME FOR HINCH

With a championship bid still in sight, the pressure is on James Hinchcliffe to at least deliver a podium finish Sunday in the IZOD IndyCar GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Hinchcliffe sits in fifth spot in the season title chase with 316 points, 63 points back of leader Will Power.

So the 25-year-old native of Oakville realistically also needs Power to have an off day at the 12-turn California road course.

Hinchcliffe, however, is optimistic his No. 77 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet team can get the job done inspite of a less than stellar test at the track a week ago.

“The test certainly didn’t go super smooth for us, but one of the Team Go Daddy strengths this year has been fighting through tough situations,” he said. “And with only three races left, we need to fight.”

IndyCar bosses changed the track layout slightly — the hairpin, and Turns 9 and 11 have been modified — since that test but Hinchcliffe said it is something everybody will have to deal with.

“The new layout is interesting,” he said. “It might create some more passing, but likely due to drivers making mistakes based on what we saw at the test.

“There are some tough corners because at the end of the day, Indy cars aren’t built to drive around 30 mile-per-hour hairpins.”

The race distance has also been increased from 75 to 86 laps.

 


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