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Will New Format Bring Banging Back To Bristol?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 16 2014

Today's Sprint Cup race at Bristol could be just like old times. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

BRISTOL, Tenn. – NASCAR’s new format for making the Chase has created a “Winner’s Club” and it’s the desire to gain entrance into the select group that could cause Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway to resemble the tough half-mile track’s sheet metal banging affairs of old.

A victory guarantees admittance to the Chase field that was expanded to 16 drivers this year. If there aren’t 16 different winners in the first 26 races, then one’s position in the point standings becomes critical. However, it’s the premium now placed on winning that could create some interesting situations at Bristol.

“When it comes down to it, if you’ve got a guy running second within reach of the leader and he needs a win, he’s going to do a little bit more than he probably would have done last year, probably be a little more aggressive and rightfully so,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “You don’t want to go throw your trash in your neighbor’s yard just for the hell of it, but if you give me a good reason, I might do it.”

Earnhardt Jr. said the mentality about using a car’s bumper to move someone out of the way had changed over the years and it wasn’t as prevalent as it was in the sport’s first 50 years. However, NASCAR’s new system might resurrect it.

“This new system, definitely, you need to win,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So if you need to move somebody to win the guy that gets moved has to see it coming and understand that in the same situation he may have done the same thing. At the short tracks where you can get within reach of each other, you’re definitely going to maybe be more aggressive in them situations for sure.”

Earnhardt Jr. said neither he nor the fans like to see one driver park another.

“You can move a guy out of the way, get the position and make the pass without just ruining his day and throwing away everything him and his team worked for,” Earnhardt Jr. continued. “That’s how you try to accomplish it.”

Ryan Newman said a driver who uses his car to beat on a fellow competitor should expect the treatment to be reciprocated. When asked if he was running second on the final lap, would he be tempted to rough up the leader in turn one, Newman replied, “No. I’ll wait until turn three.”

“I don’t have any plans to be any more violent, so to speak, than I have in the past,” Newman continued. “I don’t know how you can read into that, but, ultimately, we have to manage our race car.”

Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson agreed with Newman that “you race people how you are raced and vice versa.” He noted there usually was not much contact between himself and other cars.

“I feel like there might be less casual contact, but we see more heated moments when something does happen,” Johnson said. “I think there are less bump-and-runs and there is more aggravation and frustration and something big happens and then we have a wrestling match on pit road after.”

Since Bristol was reconfigured the bump-and-run virtually disappeared because the preferred groove was no longer on the bottom; instead, it was at the top of the concrete track. However, with the marbling that has occurred during practice that maneuver could return according to Carl Edwards.

“It might make this a true one-groove race track again, which maybe could be the best thing for the race,” Edwards said. “If a guy can get under someone and put that guy in the second groove, right now his tires are gonna fill up with rubber and he’s going to the back. So it could be closer to the old Bristol if we still see this build-up, which, from a driver’s perspective could be really frustrating if you get in the second lane, but I think from a race perspective it’ll make it a really exciting race.”

Each of the first three races has produced a different winner – Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. And Earnhardt Jr. admitted he wished Keselowski hadn’t earned admittance to the Winner’s Club so early in the season.

“Brad … is probably the last guy you want in the club because they gamble regardless of the system,” Earnhardt Jr. explained. “Some of the things they did in the Chase to win the championship that year were big gambles and they were gutsy to do it. They will take risks and stay out on old tires and Brad will drive his guts out.

“I think as more people are lumped into that winner’s box you are definitely going to see it will be good … to see guys out there on so many different strategies and it will provide more passing because you will have guys on old tires, guys come in and get two tires, new tires or whatever. You are going to be at tracks where you will see there will be a difference in performance between vehicles because of the strategies and, therefore, will probably be closer racing and more action.”

Keselowski chuckled when told of Earnhardt Jr.’s remarks about him.

“I’m sure some more will join that winner’s club pretty soon and it’s a good place to be because it’s stress-free when you know that you can take those chances and if it doesn’t work out, the worst thing that happens is you park a few spots further down on the grid for practice next week. That’s a really good feeling,” Keselowski said.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 16 2014
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