High drama on Bristol's high banks
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Insinuations of cheating. Friends with differences. Teammates with differences. Wild-card pressures. Expectations of whether track changes will bring back beating and banging. Expectations of how Danica Patrick will perform in her first Sprint Cup race here.
Drama, drama, drama.
If Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is a snoozefest like some have been since the track was reconfigured in 2007, owner Bruton Smith should blow it up and start over.
First, the insinuations of cheating. They began this past weekend at Michigan when Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski said the Hendrick Motorsports cars were pushing gray areas in the rear housing that other teams couldn't for fear of the "big penalty."
NASCAR made it clear Friday that what HMS and other organizations have done is legal "today," leaving tomorrow open for debate.
Keselowski, who has won the past two Bristol races and loves to play mind games as much as anybody, backpedaled from his position a bit after finding himself on the Twitter defensive. He made it clear he "didn't appreciate how those words were twisted into calling out specific teams."
That brings us to drama No. 2, friends with differences. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski are good friends. Keselowski once drove for Earnhardt's Nationwide team and lives on property adjacent to NASCAR's most popular driver.
But when Keselowski started calling out Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt took offense.
"I don't like any drama with Brad," Earnhardt said. "I don't particularly like the things he says lately about the company I drive for, so I take offense to the claims and accusations. It's just natural for me to do that.
"Brad is a really good guy. He has a pretty good heart, and he's really a great race car driver. I wish he would concentrate on that. He likes to talk a lot, but his true skills shine on the racetrack, not behind a microphone."
We'll see where this one goes, but the theme of Keselowski talking too much is shared by HMS' Jimmie Johnson.
"He likes to talk a lot," Johnson said. "He says a lot of different things. I don't know what his strategy is."
Drama No. 3: teammates with differences. Jeff Gordon didn't seem to know what Earnhardt's strategy was this past week when Earnhardt forced a four-wide situation that angered the four-time champion to the point that he lashed out verbally.
It was at Bristol in the spring that Earnhardt got close enough to Gordon that his exhaust pipe flattened Gordon's left rear tire and caused him to spin out. Gordon finished 35th with a car capable of winning. If Gordon had 30 of those points, he would have temporary ownership of the second wild-card spot and might not have reacted so vocally at Michigan.
Don't look for this drama to continue, though. Both drivers say that it is over and that they have put the issue behind them. It was business as usual in their Tuesday team meeting.
"I couldn't sense an issue anywhere," Johnson said. "When we put our helmets on to go to work, we sometimes take our brains out. You get the red mist in the helmet and things ignite you, and there's plenty said on the radio that drivers regret saying.
"When you hear them played back the next day, you're like, 'Man, why did I go off like that?' So I assume there are levels of that in there."
There also are levels of frustration from Gordon that he is no longer in the driver's seat for the second wild-card spot. That's part of drama No. 4, which might have more to do with increased intensity and tempers flaring than anything on Saturday. Some of the sport's biggest names -- Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards -- are fighting for the second wild-card spot with Kasey Kahne in control of the first with two wins.
Gordon, Busch and Edwards have a combined 12 wins at Bristol, with Gordon and Busch claiming five each. Bristol isn't their final hope to make the Chase, but it's a good one. And they know it.
That sort of pressure makes drivers do and say things they normally wouldn't.
The pressure isn't just on wild-card candidates. As we saw with Johnson leaving Michigan without talking to reporters when his engine blew six laps from the finish, the pressure to win and enter the Chase with momentum forces the most level-headed drivers to do things out of the ordinary.
"There were so many levels of frustration that came through that weekend," Johnson said. "Bonus points; we went through two engines that weekend; I lost the championship points lead, which is really important to me -- all that came to a head, and there wasn't much else to say."
Drama No. 5: There's an uncertainty among the competitors on what the racing will be like because the top groove supposedly was eliminated by grinding. Will it create tighter quarters that will bring back the bump and run Bristol once was famous for? Or will the presence of two grooves allow side-by-side racing that infuriated a majority of fans who, according to surveys, want the traditional havoc? If Wednesday's Camping World Truck Series race is an indication, there will be two- and three-wide racing.
"I subscribe to the theory that the racing at Bristol has never been better than what it currently is," Keselowski said. "It's hard for me to say that without everyone saying, 'Of course, you run well here,' but I really do feel that way.
"The track doesn't have to be one groove to run into each other. It can be multiple grooves and we'll find a way to run into each other. It's not the lack of a one-groove track that's kept us from running into each other."
He's right. Drivers take care of their equipment better than ever, understanding they won't have the opportunity to win or make up points without a car that is fully intact.
But the early returns still aren't great for Bristol.
"It's terrible," Busch said.
Keselowski said he believes Bristol is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, calling it a "man's racetrack."
"Bristol has a large intimidation factor that isn't rivaled by many other places," he said. "You have to man up from a mental state and put that behind you."
That brings us to drama No. 6. If this is a man's track, how will Patrick do in her Cup debut?
Keselowski wouldn't let himself get pulled into that debate. He is already on record, telling me last year, "Essentially, she has opened a Pandora's box for all female racers. If she doesn't succeed, no female will get the chance for years to come."
Drama, drama, drama.
If this race falls short of expectations, Smith definitely should blow up the track and start over.
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