Race Weekend Central

Stat Sheet: What in the World Just Happened at Bristol?

With a Next Gen car that has produced lackluster short track racing since its inception two years ago, the emotions entering Sunday’s (March 17) Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway were bleak.

The prior event at Phoenix Raceway did not live up to the hype of the new short track aero package and the NASCAR Cup Series was headed to Bristol for what appeared to be another lackadaisical affair, even with the fanfare of the return to concrete in the spring after three years on dirt.

That is until the fans, teams, drivers and NASCAR itself realized that the right-side tires were worn out after 40 green-flag laps, and the teams only had nine sets for 500 laps. Goodyear brought the same tires from the fall, but it was a combination of cold weather (60 degrees) and the resin that NASCAR applied to the track – instead of the usual PJ1 traction compound – that led to the extreme tire wear.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: A Wild, Tire-Wear-Filled Afternoon at Bristol

The race looked like a disaster as the tire problems reared their head at the beginning, and yet, the drivers and teams turned a curveball of the race into something absolutely incredible by the time the checkered flag waved on lap 500.

In a race reminiscent of yesteryear, the drivers had to preserve their tires and protect their equipment. Unlike most Cup races nowadays where drivers were on the gas and using their equipment at 100% from start to finish, slow and steady won Sunday’s race. And it proved to be a battle of experience, as the three oldest drivers in the field (Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski) did the best job of preserving their tires and came home first, second and third, respectively.

The pace of the field slowed down as drivers nursed their cars around on worn or corded tires. However, the tire wear led to an abundance of passing and comers-and-goers in the race. Some drivers slowed down, while others sped toward the front of the field, only to be blown away by cars that slowed down if the driver had burned up his stuff. And, most importantly, no drivers complained about dirty air, aero pushes or brick walls of momentum during the day.

The result? Fifty-four lead changes, a Cup record for not only Bristol but for all short tracks in the Cup Series’ 75-year history of racing on them.

The previous record for lead changes at Bristol was 40, set in April 1991. But that race has an asterisk of sorts, as it was the sixth race of the 1991 Cup season that started with new pit road procedures after Bill Elliott’s rear tire changer Mike Rich was killed in a pit road collision at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the 1990 season finale.

The pit rules were put in place for 1991 Speedweeks and … I’m just going to let Ned Jarrett explain the rules for you.

No changing tires under caution, stickers to determine which cars can pit on what lap under green … yeah. NASCAR changed the rules in April to allow pitting for tires under caution for Bristol but with the same sticker and odd/even rules under the yellow flag. That race had 19 caution for 133 laps and 16 of the 40 lead changes occurred under caution; that certainly played a part in inflating the total.

Then again, so did the tire wear on Sunday, and not all of the 54 lead swaps happened under green either.

The third-most lead changes at Bristol came in April 1989 with 34, and those are the only three to crack 30. Fourth place was 29 lead changes, which occurred at the track in March 2010.

The record for lead changes at Richmond Raceway is 25 — which was set in February 1991 and equaled in March 1996. The record for Martinsville Speedway is 33, set in April 2014. North Wilkesboro had a high of 28 back in October 1995, while the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway only set a mark of 16 in May 1976.

Sunday didn’t just break the record for lead changes at a short track in the modern era; it left it in the dust.

Another statistical oddity that came from Sunday was the fact that only five cars finished on the lead lap, a feat that was last achieved almost two decades ago at Dover Motor Speedway in June 2004.

There were a good 25-33 cars on the lead lap for most of the day, as a spin or wreck seemed to happen around the time the tires gave out, which bunched the field back up. The race ended on a 121-lap green flag run to the finish, however, and no caution was brought out for any slow cars or incidents as the 35 cars left in the race limped to pit road under green for the home stretch.

That green flag showed who had it and who didn’t in terms of saving their tires, and the lead duo of Hamlin and Truex continued to put cars one-lap, two-laps or three-laps down as the laps ticked down. Truex finished just over a second behind Hamlin in second, while Keselowski finished eight seconds back in third. Fourth-place Alex Bowman finished 14 seconds behind, while fifth-place Kyle Larson wasn’t far away from getting lapped himself.

See also
Fire on Mondays: Tire Problems Were Best Thing to Happen to NASCAR

Sunday had the fewest lead lap cars in the Next Gen era by far, as the previous low was 10 at Daytona International Speedway in August 2022 and Bristol last fall. In the 2023 Cup season, only three races saw fewer than 17 cars finish on the lead lap.

It was the first Cup race since Richmond in September 2021 to end with cars getting lapped inside the top 10, and five lead-lap cars marked the lowest total at Bristol since April 1994, which had three. Since that Dover race in ’04, there had been seven Cup races at four different tracks to only have six cars on the lead lap, but five had never been matched until Sunday.

Dover in ’04 and the seven races with six cars on the lead lap were either heavy in attrition, had cars trapped laps down via untimely cautions in green-flag pit stops, had a finish come down to fuel mileage or had a final green-flag run that lasted almost half or more than half the race distance.

Only the final 24.2% of Sunday’s race was run under green and the five lead lap cars showed just how lopsided the speeds were between the drivers that conserve their tires and those that couldn’t.

And yet, with five lead lap cars in all, the battle for the win came down to the final lap, and the race had a record number of lead changes in what was a barnburner of an afternoon that pushed the drivers, teams, tires and equipment to the absolute limit.

The Bristol race in September and the upcoming short tracks of Richmond and Martinsville won’t have a tire that wears as fast as it did on Sunday if it even wears at all. So, as we all try to process what happened — for better or worse — let’s marvel that the circumstances provided a Bristol race that was one unlike any other.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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“There’s lies, damn lies and statistics.” Quote from…look it up!

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