Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Bristol Kings, Baby

It’s Bristol, baby!

NASCAR rolls into Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for the first of two trips to the half-mile bullring in the Tennessee hills. After a couple of years on a temporary dirt surface, the race returns to the track’s high-banked concrete edition for the 124th time this spring. 

The NASCAR Cup Series has raced at Bristol since 1961, and over that time, several drivers have made names for themselves as masters of the track. The winningest driver of all time at Bristol is Darrell Waltrip with 12 victories. Among active drivers, Kyle Busch rules the roost with eight.

Bristol is a great example of why comparing drivers straight-up across time is, at best, an exercise in frustration. Not only have the cars changed across the years, but so has the track. Waltrip’s success came on asphalt, Busch’s on concrete, but those aren’t the only ways the track has changed over the years.

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Bristol’s first iteration was as an asphalt oval with 27 degrees of banking in the corners. Its first eight seasons used this surface, before a 1969 repave switched to a slightly higher banking in hopes of raising speeds. The track was repaved several times over the years before switching to concrete for the 1993 season, as the Tennessee winters proved to make the asphalt difficult to maintain. Then in 2007, it was reconfigured to the current setup, with graduated banking from 24-28 degrees. NASCAR ran three dirt races at Bristol from 2021-23.

While Waltrip is the undisputed Bristol king, who ruled the roost on the track’s different variations? That’s worth looking at, because it reveals some trends and illustrates the need to look beyond the numbers when looking at the sport’s past.

1961-69 Race I: Fred Lorenzen & David Pearson

Both Fred Lorenzen and David Pearson had three wins on Bristol’s O.G. surface. Pearson won two more on the track after the mid-’69 repave. For both drivers, a look at their Bristol races over that period reveals the nature of the sport at the time — attrition played a major role in deciding races. The cars had to hold up to the beating.

And even for the best of their era, they didn’t always do that.

It was feast or famine for Lorenzen and Pearson. All of Lorenzen’s wins came before the 1969 changes; he only raced at the track once afterward. In all of his Bristol starts, Lorenzen either finished in the top two or didn’t finish at all. A couple of his six pre-repave DNFs were for crashes because, well, Bristol, but the rest were due to mechanical failures. 

Pearson’s 15 starts on the original Bristol tell a similar story. Pearson failed to finish 10 of them, but only once due to a crash. Other reasons ranged from lug bolts to the water pump to the timing chain. 

It was as much about survival as it was about speed. That has changed drastically; in recent years, DNFs not related to a crash or damage from contact are fairly rare.

1969 Race II-1992 Race I: Darrell Waltrip

Bristol 2.0 coincided almost perfectly with Waltrip’s career. All but one of his 12 wins came on that asphalt surface, including a seven-race string from 1981 to the spring of 1984, when no other driver recorded a win at the track.

The tide was turning toward more durable cars as well. In 52 races at Bristol, Waltrip failed to finish just five, with only two coming from crashes. Even more remarkable was that from 1973 to 1995, Waltrip recorded just two Bristol DNFs, both due to engine failure. Waltrip’s Bristol numbers speak to his absolute skill there.

Other drivers to put up their best numbers on that asphalt configuration include Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt. All nine of Yarborough’s Bristol wins and seven of Earnhardt’s nine came on that version.

Concrete Part I 1992 Race II-2007: Rusty Wallace

Rusty Wallace already had three Bristol wins when the track transitioned to concrete, but it was afterward that he found his best groove, winning six more times, the most of any driver on that surface. During that same stretch of races, Wallace failed to finish just once, due to a crash with Michael Waltrip in the 2003 night race. 

The days of the car having to survive were gone, but success still went to the drivers who could avoid trouble. Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon each logged five wins on the original concrete surface.

Concrete 2008-present: Kyle Busch

The current concrete surface, with its graduated banking, is more of a finesse track than the single-groove version. That’s played right into Kyle Busch’s hands, and seven of his nine wins have come since those changes were implemented. Of course, he only had three years on the previous surface, so it’s hard to say he wouldn’t have repeated the performance if it hadn’t changed.

Dirt: Tyler Reddick

Nope, Tyler Reddick didn’t win in the three Cup races on Bristol’s temporary dirt surface. But with three different winners (Joey Logano, Busch and Christopher Bell) and only three races, average finish paints a better picture. And Reddick’s average is a stellar 3.7. With two runner-up finishes and one seventh place, Reddick is the only driver to have run all three races and still boast a top-10 average.

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Attrition was also a bigger concern in the dirt races than on the concrete surface. Lack of experience led to some incidents, and track conditions did in a few engines.

All of Bristol’s configurations have been fan favorites, known for tight racing, likened to fighter jets in a fishbowl (If memory serves, it might actually have been a toilet bowl, but you get the gist). And no matter how you slice it, Waltrip comes out as the best of the best when it comes to conquering the confines.

But there’s a lot at play when breaking it all down. Pre-modern-era Bristol means a different points system and certainly different cars than later drivers had to contend with. Cars have become more durable, putting the races in the drivers’ hands even more. And the big Bristol picture is more than Waltrip and Busch. 

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Kevin in SoCal

“All of Bristol’s configurations have been fan favorites”

Are you sure? I remember quite a lot of complaining from the fans about Bristol being ruined by the current graduated surface. I prefer side-by-side racing over bump-and-run racing, but not everyone does.

wildcatsfan2016

nope, I disagree. All of Bristol’s configurations have NOT been fan favorites. I realize the old configuration made passing difficult BUT IMO yes I am one of those who enjoyed the bump & run racing. Not a fan of the graduated banking. Made this track just like any other. Then let’s see, the let’s fill it with dirt was another failed experiment IMO. If they wanted to run cars on dirt, go to a true dirt track & run dirt cars!

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