Race Weekend Central

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

Once the checkered flag fell at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 17) evening, everyone wanted to know how Denny Hamlin had conquered The Last Great Coliseum.

Bristol dished up a highly entertaining and unpredictable race where tire management was of the utmost importance.

After a chaotic first half of the race, Hamlin and his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing emerged as the cars to beat. But during the decisive closing laps, only Martin Truex Jr. was within striking distance of the No. 11.

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

How did Hamlin and Truex build such an advantage over the rest of the field?

“It’s what I grew up doing here in the short tracks of the whole Mid-Atlantic,” Hamlin said. “South Boston, Martinsville, all those tracks, it’s just what I grew up doing. So, once it became a tire management race, I really liked our chances. But, obviously, the veteran in Martin, he knew how to do it as well.”

Truex indeed gave Hamlin all that he could handle.

The two drivers fought their way through heavy traffic as they diced for the lead in the final laps. Truex did get around Hamlin on lap 483 and held the top spot for one frantic circuit until the No. 11 got around the No. 19 for the final time. Still, knowing how to conserve tires was a crucial factor in Truex scoring his best Bristol finish since 2011.

“I guess this tire management thing fit into my wheelhouse here at Bristol,” Truex said. “The difference was just coming out of the pits so far behind Denny. I had to use (my tires) up more than him on the last run. And then, the last four, five laps of the race, my right rear was cored.”

Significantly, Hamlin and Truex outlasted their younger teammates, Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell, when the victory was on the line. Gibbs is searching for his first NASCAR Cup Series win and it looked like he was about to earn it on Sunday, leading 137 laps and often appearing to have the fastest car. But the No. 54’s tires fell off hard with about 50 laps to go, and Gibbs lost valuable time to Hamlin and Truex that he never made up. The 21-year-old in his second full-time season will have to try again another week.

Contrast Gibbs’ age and experience level with that of Truex and Hamlin. They were the two oldest drivers in the field on Sunday and have 34 starts each at Bristol, second only to Kyle Busch’s 35 among active drivers. In fact, Truex and Hamlin were two of the four drivers in the race in their 40s. Fellow 40-something A.J. Allmendinger, running part-time in the Cup Series this year, struggled to a 23rd-place result. But Brad Keselowski, who celebrated his 40th birthday last month, brought his No. 6 Ford home in third.

“It was interesting, like a little short track race,” Keselowski said post-race. “You go to any of these local short tracks and that’s how they have to race. You have to take care of your stuff. It’s refreshing, it’s different. I like that, that it takes something different every week, that’s what makes Cup (Series racing) so hard. You go in every week and some weeks you drive ‘em til you burn ‘em down, and this week you gotta take care of ‘em.”

Keselowski’s comments are a great explanation of why this race was so compelling.

Like Hamlin, Keselowski talks about the importance of tire management and how Sunday’s race was reminiscent of a local short track race. But where he is particularly insightful is in discussing how refreshing and different it was for the Cup Series. Virtually every driver in the field at Bristol has had the experience of competing on regional short tracks. What made the difference on Sunday was how the drivers applied those tire-saving skills to a modern Cup Series race.

Knowing how to conserve equipment has become a lost art at the highest levels of NASCAR. It often feels like the sanctioning body, especially in recent years, has focused on forcing drivers to go as hard as they can all the time. With stage points on the line and the field closer than ever, it is usually in a driver’s best interest to do so. Drivers still cannot push themselves past the point of control, but the circumstances of a modern Cup Series race, combined with the durability of the Next Gen car, usually favor aggression over patience.

However, Sunday’s race felt like a throwback to a bygone era, especially at Bristol.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Tire Wear is Talk of the Town at Bristol

The race did not feature the type of wrecks and hot tempers that made Thunder Valley famous, but it was entertaining because it forced the drivers to manage their equipment to stay in contention. Nobody was ever certain, especially early in the race, which line to take or how hard to push their tires. The penalty for guessing incorrectly was a dramatic falloff, one that the veterans knew best how to avoid. As Keselowski suggested, it was refreshing for the drivers and the fans.

“With the situation we had, I feel like our Ally 48 team did a great job at kind of maximizing everything and making the right calls, and right adjustments throughout the day,” said fourth-place finisher Alex Bowman. “Knowing how to manage tires, that was something I was really good at when I first went stock car racing, in the East Series and ARCA and stuff, you don’t have a lot of sets of tires. So, that was something I excelled at, and I feel like I was able to apply that today.”

Hopefully, the Cup Series will produce another race like this when it returns to Bristol later this year for the night race. NASCAR and Goodyear will probably want to see a tire that rubbers in the racetrack, rather than creating marbles, for the next go-around.

But this race should prove that dramatic tire falloff can be a great thing for Cup Series racing. All you need are drivers who have the experience to manage it, and those are the drivers who rose to the challenge at Bristol on Sunday.      

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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