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Race Day: Night Moves The Right Moves In NASCAR

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 22 2009
The night race at Bristol produces an atmosphere which is unique in all of sports. Daytona is important, Bristol is fun.

The night race at Bristol produces an atmosphere which is unique in all of sports. Daytona is important, Bristol is fun.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

If you look hard enough, you will find a few pockets of NASCAR fans out there who love the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. But the vast majority of NASCAR fans really, really love it.

The sparks, the noise, the scene, the emotions, the lights, the bumping, the history, the crowds, the proximity to the Chase, the speed, the pits, the absurdity of the concept of putting 43 heavy 800 horsepower stock cars on a half-mile high banked track.

Lots of reasons to get excited about the night race at Bristol.

On the inside of the track, support for racing at Bristol tends to fall off a quite bit.

Except, it seems, among the real racers. The racers who would be just as at home sitting in the grandstands at Bristol than driving in front of them.

Racers like the racer’s racer, Tony Stewart.

Stewart answered some questions about Bristol the other day and it went like this:

Question: Your thoughts about racing here under the lights Saturday night?
Stewart: “I’m excited about it. This is one of my favorite races of the year. It’s always been the fans favorite too. That’s what makes this place so special and makes it fun for us as drivers. Saturday night short-track races is what we all love. We’re not going to change anything, we’re not going to try a different approach, we’re not going to do anything trick and fancy, we’re going to do everything we’ve been doing. Just looking forward to trying to win the race tomorrow.”

Question: How can a driver as consistent as you have been be so inconsistent at you are at Bristol?
Stewart: “This is one of those places that you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup in a day it’s hard to recover from it. We’ve only won one race here and you’re right we’ve kind of been all over the board here. We’ve been feast or famine so it’s one of those tracks to us. It’s like if you have one problem in the first half of the day it’s hard to recover from it. That’s why we spent the majority of the time in race trim. We only did two qualifying runs and trying to make sure we do get this car consistent for this weekend.”

Question: They say track position is important at the bigger tracks. Is it important here as well?
Stewart: “Yeah, what you’ve got to keep in mind is every time the competition gets closer it makes it harder and harder to start further back and pass those cars. If you’re a half second faster than the 20 cars in front of you you’re probably going to be able to work your way through. If you’re half of a tenth of a second it’s a lot harder to make up those spots. So with the sport and the competition level going up every week and getting closer it does make it harder. It makes it to where that track position becomes more important. The thing about Bristol is you still have to have a good handling race car at the end of the day. You can get good track position but if you don’t have a good car you’re not going to be able to hold on to it.”

Question: Why do you think 160,000 people are swarm to Bristol for the night race every year?
Stewart: “Get off your chair and go outside and look. That’s an easy answer. That’s one you can answer yourself. You’ve just got to look at this place. There’s nowhere else you can go in the country and see a race track and facility like this where you can pack that many people around such a small race track. I mean this is an awesome site whether there’s a person in the grandstands or not. It’s just an awesome facility. For 160,000 people to be this close to the action like they are that’s an answer that speaks for itself.”

Primed to clinch

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) are the only two drivers who can clinch a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup after the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Any driver with a 391-point lead over 13th place after the race clinches a spot in the 10-race championship battle. Second-place Gordon currently leads 13th by 437 points, Johnson leads by 418. In other words, Gordon can lose 46 points and Johnson can lose 27 points to 13th place and still clinch.

If the Hendrick Motorsports teammates do clinch Chase berths this weekend, they would join standings leader Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), whose 17th-place finish at Michigan made him the first driver to clinch a spot in the 2009 Chase. The three are the only active drivers with multiple championships, boasting nine NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, total.

While Gordon and Johnson would certainly enjoy clinching their Chase berths, you can bet that both teams will be focused on their own results, not on where they compare to 13th place.

Using those guidelines, Gordon can clinch his spot by finishing sixth or better without leading a lap, seventh leading at least one lap or eighth leading the most laps, regardless of what any other driver does.

Johnson needs to finish second or better, third leading a lap or fourth leading the most laps, to clinch.

Sold out again

While the race is always unpredictable, one thing you can always count on at Bristol Motor Speedway is a full house.

Track President and General Manager Jeff Byrd announced the track’s 55th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series sellout on Aug. 11.

The streak began Aug. 28, 1982 when Darrell Waltrip edged Bobby Allison by less than a second before an estimated crowd of 30,000. The track now holds 160,000 fans.

The crowd will try to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the “World’s Largest Group Karoake” attempt. The track, which has pulled off similar stunts in the past, will ask fans to sing Garth Brooks’ 1990 hit “Friends In Low Places” before the race.

Bonus round

Only three races remain before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which means only 30 potential Chase bonus points are left to be had.

The top seed in the Chase is still up for grabs. Mark Martin, the current leader with 40 potential bonus points, is tip-toeing the cut-off line, 12 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers.

That leaves Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Stewart, who clinched a Chase berth at Michigan, has three wins for 30 bonus points. Johnson also has 30 points, and has a solid shot at clinching at Bristol.

Grand Entrance

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will make a more personal entrance prior to Saturday night’s Sharpie 500.

Each member of the starting lineup will greet the crowd by introducing themselves, accompanied by a song of their choosing.

Four-time series runner-up Mark Martin (No. 5 Pop-Tarts/CARQUEST Chevrolet) will make his 1,000th career national-series start Saturday.

Martin’s song choice for his introduction? “For Those About To Rock,” by AC/DC.

Another AC/DC tune – “Thunderstruck” – is a popular choice. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Sugar-Free/National Guard Chevrolet), David Ragan (No. 6 UPS Ford) and three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) all have chosen “Thunderstruck” as their intro theme.

Jamie McMurray (No. 26 IRWIN VISE-GRIP Ford) also chose an AC/DC ditty – “Shook Me All Night Long.”

Ryan Newman’s (No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet) choice of “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy” by Big and Rich took some consideration.

“It really wasn’t my first choice,” Newman said, “but I won’t tell you what that song was. I’ve always liked country music, and this song is pretty cool to me because my buddy “Two-Foot Fred” is in the video and is part of the whole deal. I wouldn’t say it’s my theme song, but it is fun.”

Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) offers fans a peek into a racer’s world with “Life On The Run” by Dierks Bentley, whom he counts as a good friend.

“That’s what we do,” Kahne said. “Life on the run. We just love to race, and to race, we have to travel, and Dierks is one of my favorites.”

Standings leader Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) is paying homage to his friend Kid Rock with “Bawitdaba”. David Stremme (No. 12 Penske Dodge) chose the same tune.

Among the musical gamut:

“C.C. Rider” by Elvis Presley – Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet);

“Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones – Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet);

“Land Down Under” by Men At Work – Marcos Ambrose (No. 47 Clorox/Kingsford/Bush’s Best Baked Beans Toyota);

“Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N Roses – Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet);

“Amazing” by Kanye West – Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota).

Fast Facts

The Race: Sharpie 500

The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile concrete oval)

The Date: Saturday, Aug. 22

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 500 laps/266.5 miles

TV: ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite

2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

2008 Polesitter: Carl Edwards

Tonight’s Polesitter: Mark Martin

Up Next

Atlanta Motor Speedway

Teams have one final weekend off to work on their cars before hitting Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Pep Boys Auto 500 on Sept. 6. The race was moved from it’s previous October date to Labor Day weekend during the off-season. The race will be the 25th of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, making it the penultimate event before the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Carl Edwards held off polesitter Jimmie Johnson in last year’s race to extend his championship hopes another week.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 22 2009