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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Should Embrace Bristol’s Old-School Risk, Reward

Some drivers called it “fun.”

Others (oh, hey, Ryan Blaney) hated it.

But no matter what they had to say about the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 17), it was in their hands.

See also
Up to Speed: There Is No Substitute for Experience at Bristol

It’s been a while since you could say that about a race: it was in the hands of the drivers and their crews.

It wasn’t about the package.

Not once did the words “clean air” enter into the conversation. There were multiple racing lines. Passing? Plenty. Inside, outside, drivers could not only catch but pass the driver in front of them. There was a record number of lead changes on a short track and just one round of green flag pit stops to play into that number. It was everything race fans have asked for.

You wanted old-school short track racing? You got old-school short track racing on Sunday.

Tire management was the name of the game.

In a perfect world, drivers might have gotten maybe 15 more laps out of a set of tires, but tire strategy should not be that big of a deal. For decades, tire management was the name of the game in NASCAR’s top series. At racetracks across the country every Saturday night, it still is. 

Simply put, Denny Hamlin’s team set up his car the best for the tires Goodyear brought, and Hamlin drove it perfectly when it mattered. Martin Truex Jr. was almost as good but burned his tires off trying to catch Hamlin as they worked through traffic in the closing laps, lapping car after car after car until just five remained on the lead lap at the checkers.

Yep, half of the top 10 got lapped.

Old school.

In the “back in the day” that everyone loves to talk about, a handful of cars on the lead lap at the end was the norm. As we saw on Sunday, that didn’t hurt the racing any.

What Sunday was was a race of survival. A lot of race fans don’t remember a time when a driver had to manage everything – his tires, his engine, his transmission – just to finish. When Bristol master Darrell Waltrip won his first race at the infamous bullring, he was the only one left on the lead lap at the end… and 10 of the 29 drivers in the race didn’t finish. Four of them crashed out, and the rest had engine failures, a broken axle, rear end (probably gear) issues. 

And it wasn’t just inexperienced or underfunded drivers falling victim. It was Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty who didn’t see the checkers that day.
So you wanted old school? You got it.

No, we don’t need tires that wear out in 30 laps every week, but tires should never last a full fuel run and if Fred Flintstone would have bolted them onto his ride, they don’t belong on a racecar. 

Cars shouldn’t be as bulletproof as they’ve become. They should protect the driver, obviously, but things should break. Engines should be pushed to their absolute limits. Race results should list any number of mechanical shortcomings for the unlucky ones. That’s what old-school racing is.

Sunday’s race was fantastic because drivers were racing from start to finish. But it came down to the ones who got the most out of their cars without mistakes and mechanical problems.

That’s the direction NASCAR should embrace, particularly at the short tracks but really, everywhere. Give teams the opportunity to overcome obstacles like tire management and fuel mileage, but also give them the opportunity to fail.

Imagine if teams had options. Imagine if they could work with suspensions to make the cars handle better – at the risk of a shock failure. Imagine if they could choose a gear ratio that would produce more speed – but knew it could cause an engine or transmission failure.

Those are the risks taken at tracks everywhere, every week. They should still be a part of racing at the top levels. They’re why racing is good.

Sunday gave fans a glimpse of what racing was. No aero, drivers able to pass, the necessity of managing the equipment and letting the race come to you.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Denny Hamlin's Bristol Masterclass

But there were complaints from fans – and if they were loud enough, Goodyear will bring a rock-hard tire to Bristol and clean air would matter more than the driver and things would go back to the status quo and then they’d complain about that too.

We wanted old-school racing, and we got it.

Nothing should change. If anything, NASCAR should be figuring out how to make it like that everywhere. Let the teams figure out how to manage their tires and the racetrack. Let the drivers push their equipment to the ends and sometimes over it.

By the next race, they’ll figure out how to make the tire tires last longer but will still have to manage wear and drive the car better than the next guy rather than relying on aerodynamics or clean air or any of the things that help them win most weeks.

Sunday was just racing, and some teams, some drivers, did it better than everyone else. Along the way, we were treated to the best race in years. It was as close to perfect as it gets.

It was old-school.

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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DoninAjax

Bristol should be about survival and missing wrecks. It should not be about running out of tires half way through Brian’s product.

Kevin in SoCal

“things would go back to the status quo and then they’d complain about that too.”

100% truth. If anyone other than Hamlin had won, the complaints would not be as great. This race was almost perfect, putting it back in the hands of the drivers like the fans say they want.

wildcatsfan2016

Wow, go back to the days when it WASN’T a “kit” car? What a concept. I agree with you. Allowing those changes made racing more interesting because well, the teams could guess wrong.

Tires falling apart however should not be part of the racing equation. Managing tires and managing fuel mileage yes. Multiple teams with tires being destroyed – no!

Ben

Tires should indeed wear down like the older racing days yes. However, the tires shouldn’t be disintegrating and blowing up 30 to 40 laps in the run. For a track like bristol, at 500 laps, the tires should have at least an 80 to 100 lap lifespan before the risk of failure skyrockets through the roof

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