Drivers still love Bristol

Maybe Sprint Cup needed that week off to go from Las Vegas to Bristol, two tracks and two places that couldn't possibly be more different.

From the Bellagio and scantily clad showgirls to the Ramada Inn and sweet Southern church girls, distance isn't the only thing separating these two locales.

It's also true of the race tracks, a fast and spacious 1.5-mile oval below the open skies of Nevada to a tiny half-mile bullring surrounded by a giant bowl of humanity in northeast Tennessee.

Yes, things have changed in the off week. But for many fans, Bristol today isn't quite as much fun as it was a few years ago.

Since the repaving in 2007, Bristol is a kinder and gentler place than it was before. The bumping and banging that fans loved about the place doesn't happen as much.

"Bristol is a lot different than it used to be," Kevin Harvick said. "You are going to have a lot of green-flag runs. It's a much easier race track to drive on now."

Bristol changed after the repave. The track is smoother, a little wider in the corners and more banked at the top than the bottom with the switch to progressive banking.

It's not the same, but different doesn't make it bad. Bristol remains one of the best shows in NASCAR.

"It's still a fun place to race," Harvick said. "When you get there, you see if it's high or low as far as the groove goes and you have a lot of options as a driver. But you have to take care of your car a lot more than you used to so you are able to keep up."

Before the repave, a driver could win the race with a car that looked ready for the scrap heap as long as all four wheels still moved forward. But Harvick's point is that now at Bristol you need more speed in the car, and it's harder to do that with a bashed-up machine.

Cautions are fewer now. The Cup races have averaged 9.1 cautions in the seven races since the repave. Bristol Cup races averaged 14.6 cautions in the five races before the repaving was done.

However, that isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. NASCAR has used the new car design -- the so-called Car of Tomorrow -- since Bristol was repaved.

"It's a cool place to go, but a tough place to set your car up now, especially since they changed [the track]," said A.J. Allmendinger, who comes to Bristol ranked ninth in the standings. "So having the off week was good because you really need a week to prepare for it and get in the mindset for it. It's a crazy place."

Not as crazy as it used to be, but still a place much different than anywhere else.

Losing in the first round may not sound so hot, but Kurt Busch made an impressive showing in his NHRA Pro Stock debut this past weekend at Gainesville, Fla.

After a rough first day -- he failed to make a decent qualifying pass in his first two attempts -- Busch got in the 16-car show on Saturday. He qualified 12th with an elapsed time of 6.532 seconds at 211.46 mph in his Dodge.

Busch made a strong run in his opening-round matchup with Erica Enders on Sunday, but lost by about a half-car length. Busch ran a 6.541 elapsed time at 211.59 mph, but had a slightly slower reaction time than Enders, who posted a similar elapsed time at 6.538 seconds.

Busch plans to try it again in Denver on July 22-24, another off weekend for Sprint Cup.

Danica Patrick has shown real progress in the first three Nationwide Series races this season, but she tackles a strange beast this weekend at Bristol.

A top-20 with most of the sheet metal still intact would be a respectable showing for her first race on the difficult short track.

Patrick has never raced on an oval track this small, in these cars or an Indy car. The closest comparison would be Richmond, where she raced five times in the IndyCar Series with an average finish of 10th and a best finish of sixth.

But Richmond's relatively flat .75-mile oval is drastically different than the high-banked .533-mile oval of Bristol, and racing with 20 Indy cars is much different than 43 stock cars in a confined space.

This is Patrick's last Nationwide race until June 4 at Chicagoland Speedway, one week after the Indy 500.

Here are a few unusual stats to start the season:

• Cup regulars are 6-0 in Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races, which means the winners haven't scored a point.

• Three of those six races had Kyle Busch or Kyle Busch equipment in Victory Lane. Busch also won three of the past four Cup races at Bristol and the last Nationwide race there. And he won the past three Truck races at Bristol.

• The points leaders in all three NASCAR series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide and CWTS -- haven't won a race.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.