Bristol's new surface draws raves from drivers

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kurt Busch certainly knows his way around
Bristol Motor Speedway, cruising to five victories since 2002.

None of that previous experience is expected to be much of a
value on a repaved track that's a mystery heading into Saturday
night's race.

"It's a brand new race track and you can't take anything for
granted," Busch said Friday. "It's a first time for everybody.
It's going to be an interesting weekend, to say the least."

Work began on the .533-mile bullring immediately after the March
race here, as track officials smoothed out the surface with new
concrete. A variable banking was added, and an additional three
feet of track surface was put in the corners. The transition in and
out of turns 2 and 4 was also smoothed.

The results were overwhelmingly embraced by the drivers, who typically are slow to adjust to change.

"The track's awesome," Tony Stewart said. "I don't think you
could have asked them to do a better job with the race track. To be
able to pour concrete and make it as smooth as they did, that's
pretty remarkable."

Many drivers kept a close eye on Wednesday night's Truck series
race, the first event here since the repaving. They were surprised
to see multiple racing lines, a high groove, and side-by-side
passing for the first time in recent memory.

"It looked to me like people are going to be able to hang on on
the outside and maybe even make some passes on the outside," Carl
Edwards said. "In the past, if you were running along in line and
somebody moved you out of the way or you'd slip up, you would fall
back. Now, it looks like there will be truly two or three grooves
of racing."

This event hardly needed any help in producing excitement _ the
Bristol night race is one of the toughest tickets in NASCAR, and
has a stellar reputation for producing thrilling races _ and the
new surface is expected to enhance it even more.

"I'm telling you, I'm driving around here thinking this is the
first time I've ever been here," five-time Bristol winner Jeff
Gordon said. "I didn't think you could make Bristol any cooler or
more fun, but they have. They've basically made this track have
more room to race on."

Kasey Kahne, mired in a miserable, winless season, starts from
the pole in the Sharpie 500, while fellow Dodge driver Juan Pablo
Montoya has the outside spot. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Jamie
McMurray and David Ragan hold down the second row.

Matt Kenseth, the two-time defending race winner, starts 12th
and was admittedly "crabby" from the 95-degree heat. As brutal as
it was to sit inside a steaming hot race car for two long Friday
practice sessions, Kenseth was looking forward to Saturday night's

"I think in general, everybody is going to see probably a
better race," he said. "There's a lot more possibilities to run
side-by-side. I caught a slower car in traffic and instead of
sitting there and being behind him and keep trying to get under
him, I just drove outside of him and went around him. We've never
been able to do that before."

But look for many of the top drivers to lean toward the
conservative side on Saturday night. Those already locked into the
Chase for the championship might go hard for the win _ and the 10
bonus points that come with each victory. But those fighting for a
berth must play it safe.

That includes Busch, who's holding down the 12th and final spot
in standings. He has a 163-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who
sits in 13th, and is up 171 points over teammate Ryan Newman, who
is in 14th. There's three races left before the 10-race title hunt

"For us, we go about our job and just try to stay as smooth and
as clean as we can at the next three weeks," Busch said. "If we
are consistent, (Earnhardt) is going to have a hard time catching
us. It is still all about consistency."

But Busch has won two of the past three races, building momentum
that many believe is making him a true title contender. If the
Chase started today, Busch would jump from 12th to fourth under the
new seeding system.

But Busch wouldn't bite when asked if he was laying the
groundwork for a second Nextel Cup title.

"I look at it as I'm a new guy on the block with the race
track. There is no setup that I know yet that I feel comfortable
with that is going to help me go to a top 10 finish," he said. "I
can get bumped from behind trying to check up from a wreck on lap
six and we're in the garage working on the car and the 160-point
lead we have on 13th-place goes away.

"We're not locked in. Yeah, we've got two wins, we've been on a
roll, but you can just pull the card out from underneath us real
quick and we won't even be in it."