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'Crazy' Bristol has drivers on edge

8/22/2014 - NASCAR

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The Bristol of old may be back Saturday night, says the Jeff Gordon of old, who is definitely back.

There's only one groove going into the notorious Irwin Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), as of yore. But this time it's up top, right at the wall, very new territory to drivers.

"It's really hard to pass up there," said Gordon, who'll start on the front row alongside pole-sitter Kevin Harvick.

"In order to pass up there, you're either going to have to slide-job the guy, or run into the guy -- or girl," Gordon continued after earning his third straight front-row start, barely missing his third straight pole.

"You're going to have to be super aggressive on restarts, and I think it's going to create some sparks and some tempers flaring and plenty of action. But you've got to be real careful in that outside line.

"I love running up there because it reminds me of a slick dirt track with a big cushion. You just drive it really straight, just put it on the edge, and when you're there it's just great grip, and when you jump over it, you're in the fence."

Harvick, after popping a track-record lap of 131.362 mph that nipped Gordon's 131.290, at first disagreed with Gordon and then talked himself into pretty much agreeing.

"I don't think so," Harvick said at first of the possible return of sparks and tempers to the levels that made this race the wildest in NASCAR before Bristol Motor Speedway was repaved and widened in 2007 to facilitate passing -- to the disdain of fans.

But then Harvick added to Gordon's forecast.

"The problem with the high groove is that running into the back of somebody puts yourself in jeopardy," Harvick said, "when you have to go underneath them after they bounce off the wall."

Hmmm. "I hope it does" return the mystique of Bristol, Harvick said. "That would be great.

"But a bulldozer would probably bring it back to how it needs to be with how it used to be," Harvick said of the old one-groove track.

A combination of grinding the concrete surface two years ago with tire dust and debris up top have created the mandatory high groove.

"The difference from the bottom to the top is three-tenths of a second, so you're going to have to be on top of the race track," Harvick said.

"Tricky conditions," Gordon said. "Very tricky conditions. When you're running up top and putting the car on the edge of that rubber and all the little tire debris and dust that's on the outside, you don't want to jump over it. We saw it happen with a couple of guys, and I think the track really fooled a lot of guys."

The prime example was rookie Kyle Larson, who was fastest in practice at 131.083 but then spun early in qualifying. Even with his sprint car roots, Larson jumped the "cushion" Gordon described, and hit the wall with both the front and back of his car.

The top 13 drivers in Friday's qualifying all broke the track record of 129.991.

"Man, it's screamin' fast," said Carl Edwards, who qualified third at 131.209. "Just a crazy, crazy racetrack."

Gordon, asked if his revitalization is ongoing at age 43, with three wins including one last week at Michigan, said, "I don't know about all the revitalization and all that stuff. I just know that I've got a great team and we're clicking so well together, and the results are showing.

"It builds a lot of confidence in your program when you go to Watkins Glen, sit on the pole and run up front [before a mechanical failure], you go to Michigan, sit on the pole and win, you come here and sit on the front row.

"That's three about as [different] tracks as you could get. It just shows you how good our team is right now."

So Jeff Gordon, who hasn't won here since 2002, is clearly back. And the Bristol of old promises to be right behind him.