Denny Hamlin wins Bristol slugfest
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The grinding process that Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith ordered in April to return Bristol Motor Speedway to the way it was prior to the 2007 reconfiguration didn't work.
The high groove that was supposed to be eliminated became even more important.
The lower groove -- the one that helped make this half-mile track the toughest ticket in NASCAR because it forced drivers to move each other out of the way to pass -- was slow.
But through a strange twist of backward luck, Smith got the desired effect he wanted.
Bristol is back.
In a big way.
If you thought Saturday night's Sprint Cup race won by Denny Hamlin lacked the excitement of the old Bristol, if you thought it lacked the intensity that caused drivers to lose their tempers and fans to call it the best show in the sport, then you weren't paying attention.
Hamlin's winning move on Lap 461 of the 500-lap event epitomized the night. He dove low going into the turn and came up ahead of Carl Edwards, who had so much momentum he slammed into the back of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car.
The only difference from days of old was Hamlin held his position and pulled away for the win instead of spinning out.
"It's just a different kind of racing,'' Hamlin said after what he described as the biggest win of his career. "There is nothing [Bruton Smith] is going to do that is going to make us run the bottom if it's not the fastest way around the track.
"But it's the same thing. We're all running in a line and just waiting for a guy to screw up. That's what you had with the old Bristol.''
The difference is the line was at the top and not the bottom, which made the slide move necessary instead of the bump-and-run.
So is the old Bristol really back?
"I don't think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn't see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol,'' said Hamlin, now tied with Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Brad Keselowski with the most wins at three. "I'd say yes.''
That yes is seconded.
It just didn't work out the way Smith planned.
"Track position is everything,'' Jeff Burton said after being collected in Ryan Newman's wreck on Lap 191. "There is no bottom lane and you can only run the top. We went from a one-groove racetrack on the bottom to a one-groove racetrack on the top.''
Ditto, said Keselowski, who crashed on Lap 272 after a nudge from Bobby Labonte to end his string of consecutive Bristol wins.
"I know the goal was to make a one-groove racetrack so there'd be more action,'' he said. "But it had an inverse affect to where not everybody is running up against the wall, and the pace of the field, combined with hard tires, has made the track just even more of an aerodynamic-fest.''
It also made it a temper-fest, which was a huge part of the allure of the old Bristol. Tempers never were more heated than when Stewart tossed his helmet into the hood of Matt Kenseth's car after the two wrecked on Lap 334.
"I checked up twice to not run over him [Kenseth] and I learned my lesson there,'' Stewart said. "I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year ... every chance I've got."
Asked if he got the helmet back, Stewart added, "I don't give a crap. The hell with the helmet.''
That's old Bristol kind of trash talk.
Kenseth didn't think he did anything wrong, and if Stewart wants to run through him every chance he gets, "that's fine.''
"Look, Tony is probably the greatest driver in the garage,'' he said. "I don't really have anything bad to say about Tony.''
Sure looked like the old Bristol.
There almost were two helmet tosses, but Danica Patrick chose to point a finger at Regan Smith after Smith ended her night on Lap 436.
"This is Bristol and this is why people love this track is because you see a lot of that and you see tempers flare,'' Patrick said.
There were 13 cautions compared to five in the spring race in which fans were so vocal with displeasure about the side-by-side snooze-fest that Smith felt he had to do something drastic.
His solution in lieu of returning the track to exactly the way it was before progressive banking was added in 2007 was to grind the top groove to the point it was so slick drivers wouldn't dare go there.
But as tire rubber filled in where the track was ground the upper level developed more grip than the rest of the track. Second-place finisher Johnson noticed it around Lap 50 and used it in his march from the rear to the front.
Slowly but surely, everybody used it.
And action-packed Bristol was back.
"I guess that's what they were trying to accomplish, make it harder to pass so we'd have to bump people out of the way,'' said Jeff Gordon, who finished third.
With that came intensity. Fans in the stands could feel it. Drivers could feel it.
"It was fast and it was intense,'' Gordon said.
And it brought in an entirely different kind of strategy. Drivers had to make sure they were two car lengths ahead of the car behind them before attempting a pass because the trailing car could close the gap and leave them hung out.
Drivers also had to make sure they were clear on the slide move or they risked taking themselves out.
"I don't know what the fans thought about the race,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after locking himself into the Chase with a 12th-place finish. ''I really enjoyed it, though.''
What wasn't to enjoy?
The only person luckier than Bruton Smith was Hamlin. He had a run-in on pit road with Landon Cassill, hit the wall another time, had a fan issue that caused his car to spew out almost all its water twice, and he still had the fastest car.
"I told [crew chief] Darian [Grubb] the more stuff we hit the faster it went,'' Hamlin said with a huge smile.
Drama and slam-bang excitement.
If that's what fans were missing, they got it on this chamber of commerce night.
It wasn't what Smith intended, but it worked.