The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol race

Five thoughts from Monday’s rescheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway:

1. What a race!

Bristol was one of those races that was so enjoyable to watch, I was disappointed when it ended.

That’s it? Only 500 laps? How about 600?

Seriously though, I could have watched that racing all day. It was just SO much fun to see the drivers going all out, with close-quarters racing and two equal grooves (yes, even though the bottom wasn’t the dominant lane).

I found myself smiling through many of the battles for position (which seemed constant) — and even while watching the leaders navigate lapped traffic.

It didn’t matter there was no late caution or restart to spice things up (the last 32 laps were green), nor did it matter there was a typical winner (Jimmie Johnson, again?). Bristol was just highly entertaining all day long, with the VHT-aided bottom groove just good enough to even things up with the top lane. As it turned out, that made for perfect racing conditions.

“Honestly, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Kyle Larson said.

The sticky VHT slowly wearing off through the course of the race made it so that the track was constantly changing, and Bristol and NASCAR deserve a lot of credit for making it work.

Jimmie Johnson explained it this way: When there’s anything that’s consistent in NASCAR, the garage will figure it out. Everyone is too smart. But when the surface underwent a constant evolution like it did on Monday, Johnson said no one could exactly nail the setup.

“The track intentionally tried to create the need to be on the bottom,” Johnson said. “… This race, without a doubt, would have been single-file around the top without the VHT on the bottom,” Johnson said.

There was only one bad thing about the race: It was held Monday, when many fans were at work or school and couldn’t watch. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

How unfortunate that so many people missed one of the best races in recent years.

2. Larson Legend

I made a beeline for Larson’s car after the race, because watching him was half the fun of Monday’s race. He got out of his car and we made eye contact, and he looked sort of puzzled because I was grinning.

It took a second for me to remember he finished sixth on a day where he could have won, and probably wasn’t thrilled about the result. But I don’t really care where he finishes; I just know he put on quite a show — and usually does.

This seems so premature to say about a driver with two career wins, but Larson is really going to be an all-timer in this sport. I don’t know if his dry wit will ever translate into superstardom outside NASCAR (he might be too reserved to be the Jeff Gordon type who can guest-host a morning talk show), but he’ll be a legend within it by the time he’s done.

Larson’s driving style makes races more interesting to watch, and that’s not something you can say about many drivers. No matter what his career stats say by the time he’s done, he’ll be remembered as one of the greats of this generation.

3. Ol’ Jimmie does it again

Seven-Time, already the best driver in NASCAR history, just keeps adding to his career tally.

He now has 82 wins, which is one short of Cale Yarborough and two shy of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It seems very possible that by the end of the season, the only drivers ahead of him on the all-time list will be Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon — and he may be alone in championships by the end of November.

It will be extra special for Johnson to tie Yarborough whenever he does, because Yarborough was the only NASCAR driver he knew while growing up. Johnson recalled walking into a Hardee’s as a kid and thinking he was in Yarborough’s race shop.

However, I fully recognize it’s not so great for everyone else living in the Jimmie Era — not just fans of other drivers, but the other drivers themselves.

“The damn 48,” Clint Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? Hasn’t he had enough?”

He certainly has, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop winning.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in trouble

If the playoffs started today, Earnhardt would miss the cut by 50 points. It’s not even close right now, and Earnhardt — with the exception of his top-five at Texas — just isn’t running that well.

That’s not news to him or his fans, of course. But if this keeps up, he’s going to be in the type of territory where he needs to win — and that changes how a team goes about a race, particularly with strategy.

It’s been a fairly miserable start for Earnhardt, who is 24th in the standings — behind rookies Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon. He’s five spots behind Aric Almirola in the points.

I honestly don’t think Earnhardt has lost anything despite missing half the season last year, but he hasn’t had good luck (three DNFs due to crashes) and the car hasn’t been all that great in the other races. Bristol wasn’t going to be a memorable race for him even before his oil cooler broke.

He described his car as being too tight and said other drivers were “beating me really bad back to the gas” out of the corners.

“That ain’t no way to run anywhere, really,” he said.

5. Roush Fenway keeps plugging along

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hot start has been well-documented. Kyle Larson is the points leader and Jamie McMurray is tied for sixth in the standings.

But it’s not just Ganassi that is out-running some of the bigger teams this season.

Roush Fenway Racing is much improved, and both drivers finished in the top 11 on Monday (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 11th). In addition, Bayne is 12th in the standings and Stenhouse is 16th (although would currently be on the outside of the playoffs because Kurt Busch has a win and is 18th).

If they keep collecting top-15 finishes, that will be enough to keep them in playoff contention all summer. And right now, they’ve combined for 11 top-15s after having a combined 24 all of last year — this after just eight races.

Are they going to win? Probably not anytime soon. But they’re both ahead of six drivers in the standings from Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, so that’s an accomplishment after the last couple years.

Old Bristol shows a hint of returning, but drivers resist

With the reemergence of the fast bottom groove at Bristol Motor Speedway, some of the younger drivers don’t seem to be having a very good time.

“Well…. Bristol used to be fun..” Kyle Larson tweeted Friday night.

“Wonder when we will get to Bristol again,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tweeted later.

No offense to those guys, but I hope their version of Bristol never returns. After all, they’re talking about New Bristol — and New Bristol, in case you haven’t noticed, hasn’t exactly been the big hit with fans that Old Bristol was.

Old Bristol was the high-banked, one-groove track where cars had to knock each other out of the way to make a pass on the bottom. It once sold out 55 straight Cup races and the Night Race was the hottest ticket in all of sports because fans knew there was going to be guaranteed action.

New Bristol is the multi-groove track that has witnessed a precipitous decline in attendance starting two years after the track was redone with progressive banking. Drivers can race at New Bristol because they have options, which is good for them but boring for everyone else.

Fans don’t come here to get pumped about a side-by-side battle! They just don’t. NASCAR fans can see racing at every other track on any other week. If you want real racing, go to a 1.5-mile track; there’s plenty of them.

But Bristol became famous for tempers and wrecks and bent-up sheet metal — and fans who travel from hundreds of miles away to rural Tennessee want to see that again, damn it!

The bottom groove was the key to that formula. So the sticky VHT in the low lane — or the “grip strip,” as FOX calls it — is a friend to Bristol race fans.

Let’s hope it lasts. As I write this during final practice, Larson is doing his best to work in the top lane with rubber and show that it’s fast enough for other drivers to follow him. Their hope is enough rubber can be laid down in the top lane to negate the effect of the VHT.

Nooooo! I like Larson — he’s wickedly funny, bluntly honest and out-of-this-world talented — but I hope his top-lane efforts fail this weekend. To be clear, I’m not rooting against him personally — just rooting against a race where the high line is viable.

I want to see a one-groove, bottom-lane race as bad as I want to win the lottery (OK, maybe not that bad, but close).

If the VHT doesn’t make drivers stick to the bottom, I suggest putting spike strips on the top.

UPDATE: The VHT was no match for Larson working in the top lane in the Xfinity race, so forget everything I just said.

Fan Profile: Bob Vick

These 12 Questions-style fan profiles are one of the rewards offered as a tier on my Patreon page. You can catch up on the other profiles so far this season here.

Name: Bob Vick
Location: Morristown, Tenn.
Twitter name: @oxybob
Age: 55

1. How long have you been a NASCAR fan?

 Since 1970.

2. How many races have you attended?

Around 200, if you include all three series.

3. Who is your No. 1 favorite driver?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

4. What made you a fan of his?

I started following him when the family was racing at Myrtle Beach.

5. Who is your most disliked driver?

Kurt Busch.

6. Why don’t you like him?

His past actions, but I pretty much like all the drivers.

7. What is your favorite track?

Bristol Motor Speedway.

8. What is one thing you would change if you were in charge of NASCAR?

I’d add a road course to the playoffs.

9. What is one thing you would keep the same if you were in charge of NASCAR?

The championship weekend with four drivers that can win in each series. I was there last year, and it was great fun!

10. How often do you yell at the TV during a race?

Not regularly, but it does happen. Actually, it happens more often when the Tennessee Volunteers are playing!

11. Do you have any advice for other fans?

At the track, scanners are mandatory. A headset with an intercom is great for talking to the people with you at places like Bristol.

Also, I use Twitter during the event. Good follows for me so far include Jeff Gluck, Claire B. Lang, Bob Pockrass, DeLana Harvick, Jim Utter, Steve Letarte, nascarcasm, The Orange Cone and my favorite teams.

12. What else do you want the NASCAR world to know about you?

I am a very passionate fan and have been for a long time. I love seeing our sport grow and evolve. Bristol is my closest and favorite track. I really also enjoy how the tracks are doing things such as concerts and other events to add value to the race experience.

Bob Vick of Morristown, Tenn., at his favorite track — Bristol Motor Speedway. (Courtesy of Bob Vick)