Battle at Bristol? Short track causes tempers to flare

By Jared Turner

Think the first seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of 2015 have been wild and unpredictable?

Buckle up. You probably haven’t seen anything yet.

The next track on the schedule, Bristol Motor Speedway, is notorious for bump-ups, short tempers, fights and, yes, wrecks.

Want to settle a score? Bristol’s steep 33-degree banks, lightening-fast speeds (at least for a short track) and narrow racing groove make the treacherous .533-mile high-banked layout a good place to do it.

Unlike many tracks where roughing up a driver in the final laps is widely frowned upon, such tactics are not only lawful at Bristol – they’re expected.

Remember 1999 when the late Dale Earnhardt infamously “rattled the cage” of Terry Labonte by wrecking his fellow veteran in Turn 2 on the final lap? Earnhardt won the race, but was greeted in Victory Lane by a chorus of boos normally reserved for other drivers.

Or how about 1995 when it was again Earnhardt and Labonte battling for the win at Thunder Valley, only for Earnhardt to spin Labonte coming across the finish line on the final lap? On that night, Labonte held on to win – but his car was damaged severely in the last-lap contact.

Then there was 2006 when Jeff Gordon, angry about a late-race bump from Matt Kenseth, promptly jumped out of his car and shoved Kenseth on pit road after the race had ended.

Of course, you could also talk about the night Rusty Wallace threw a water bottle at Earnhardt. Or the numerous times drivers have hurled helmets at one another.

These are the stories that make the legend of The World’s Fastest Half Mile, a track that tests drivers’ patience but one that is almost universally esteemed, nevertheless.

“I love Bristol Motor Speedway because Bristol is Bristol,” said Ryan Newman. “There really isn’t anything like it. I think it’s really fun now that we get to run up against the wall and getting to do slide jobs. There is just so much good racing there.”

Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion and five-time winner in Thunder Valley, says the fastest way around Bristol has moved around as the track has undergone two major reconfiguration projects.

“The groove at Bristol has changed the last few years,” he said. “It used to be right around the bottom, then it moved to the middle and now it’s at the top of the track. I think it makes for some of the most spectacular racing that we have on the circuit. That’s what makes Bristol so special.”

Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart has picked up just one Bristol victory in 30 starts at the Tennessee short track. He knows as well as anyone – and better than most folks of his accomplishments – just how tough it is to keep all four fenders on a car for 500 laps around the Tennessee oval.

“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way,” said Stewart, who won the August 2001 night race. “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 for us. 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.”

AJ Allmendinger can certainly empathize with Stewart’s plight. His best finish in 13 Bristol starts is 12th.

“It is just a tough place,” Allmendinger said. “You fight for 500 laps around there. You can do everything right and still have something go wrong. It’s tough, but enjoyable.”