TONY STEWART Just Another Brick in the Wall KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 17, 2010) -- Hugely successful upon its release in November 1979, Pink Floyd's The Wall was the best-selling album of 1980 in the United States and it's among the ...
Just Another Brick in the Wall
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 17, 2010) -- Hugely successful upon its release in November 1979, Pink Floyd's The Wall was the best-selling album of 1980 in the United States and it's among the top-five best-selling albums of all-time in the U.S.
Hugely successful since it opened in 1961, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway has become the best-selling track in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And just as The Wall firmly established Pink Floyd in the public lexicon, the wall at Bristol has firmly established the .533-mile bullring as one of the toughest tracks in NASCAR.
As the series gets ready for Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol, the track's walls will again be a subject of discussion. That's because track officials added 160 feet of SAFER Barrier at the exits of turns two and four in an effort to increase driver safety. But the changes also will create a different transition at the exit of the turns and, while no one knows exactly how this will affect the racing, what is known is that there will be less room for error than ever before.
But for 43 of the world's greatest drivers, that's not a problem, right? Umm... the last Sprint Cup race at Bristol saw 11 caution periods for a total of 76 laps, and the track's high-water mark of 167 laps run under caution was back on July 25, 1965 in the Volunteer 500.
The assembled talent isn't what's in question. It's more the physics, for 43 cars lapping the half-mile oval in 15 seconds at speeds over 100 mph inevitably leads to problems -- specifically, a lack of real estate.
As any good realtor will tell you, real estate is about location, location, location. And when it comes to navigating Bristol's high banks, which vary from 26 to 30 degrees, location means a lot, which is why less room for a driver to catch his sideways racecar as he careens off the corner will be high on the minds of the drivers and the roughly 160,000 people in attendance.
Tony Stewart mastered the Bristol Stomp in August 2001 when he successfully navigated his way from 18th to first after 500 hard-fought laps in the track's signature night race. It's his only win at Bristol, and in his 21 other Sprint Cup starts at the East Tennessee facility, Stewart has found more famine than feast, which is especially ironic since most of his famine has come in the Food City 500.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing has a pole, a win, five top-fives, seven top-10s and a total of 1,352 laps led in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Bristol. He should have more, but the bullring has shown its horns to Stewart more than once, leaving the man they call "Smoke" emitting as much steam as his battered racecar.
But that's just the nature of Bristol. You're either really happy or really mad. Middle ground is as hard to find at Bristol as it is in Congress. Yet, just like in Washington, people keep coming back to Bristol to duke it out over what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Sunday's Food City 500 marks the track's 99th Sprint Cup race, and it's Stewart who expects to be at the head of the table when the checkered flag drops and the trophy is served.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Do you have any concerns about less racetrack being available at Bristol because the SAFER Barriers have been extended off the corners?
"The wall is where it is. They paint them so we can see them. After all these years of doing this, it doesn't matter where they put it. We have to stay a fraction of an inch off of it and use every bit up to it. I'm sure it's going to make a difference, there is no doubt about it. We all use every bit of room we can get there, anyway. It will make the exits of the corners a little tighter, but I think the racing will still be good there because of it."
Even though you have an up-and-down track record at Bristol, do you like racing there?
"Yeah, I love it. Ever since they repaved the place and added to two true grooves, it's made it racier. We have true side-by-side racing, now. Drivers can make their way through the pack without having to wreck each other while they're doing it. Before, guys got wrecked who weren't even involved in what was going on, a lot of times, because you'd go to get stopped and somebody behind you wouldn't get slowed down enough, and you'd get picked up and turned around and your day was ruined. Now, you've got a lot more cars finishing the race. You've got a lot more cars finishing on the lead lap. And it's more exciting because of that. The drivers can pass, now. It's not just sit there and follow the leader and when you finally run out of patience, you nudge the guy out of the way. You still can do that, but at least you can nudge a guy without wrecking him. I think, from the competitor's standpoint, we like that a lot more knowing that if somebody has to check up in front of you and you get into the back of him, you're not necessarily going to wreck him because of it."
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
"Bristol is one of those places where you've got to have everything kind of go your way. 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 day, it's hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We've had more long days than good days."
How important is track position at a place like Bristol, where everything happens so quickly?
"It's really important. What you've got to keep in mind is that every time the competition gets closer, it makes it harder and harder to start further back and pass 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 (faster), it's a lot harder to make up those spots. With the sport and the competition level going up every week, passing is harder. That's why track position is so important. The thing about Bristol is that, at the end of the day, you still have to have a good-handling racecar. You can get good track position but, if you don't have a good car, you're not going to be able to hold onto it."
On that note, how important is to have a good qualifying effort at Bristol?
"It's no different than anywhere else because track position is important everywhere we go. Obviously, Bristol is action-packed and everybody gets in a hurry and there are a lot of cautions. So, it is a little more important this week than some of the other tracks we go to about qualifying because you want to get a good starting position, but more so a good pit spot. These boxes can be tricky during the race, and it's easy to get stuck in your pit box and lose eight or 10 spots if you get boxed in. If you can get a good qualifying run and get a good pit selection, it helps you through the whole day. No matter whether your car is good or bad, you're going to gain spots."