Like most NASCAR drivers, AJ Allmendinger will never forget the first time he went to Bristol Motor Speedway.
Allmendinger couldn’t believe he was supposed to race on the half-mile, high-banked oval shaped like a cereal bowl. When he finally pulled onto the track in front of 160,000 revved up fans, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his racing career.
“It is a crazy place,” Allmendinger said as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol for the Jeff Byrd 500 this weekend. “I remember the first time I went there in 2007 when there was a test there, I was walking out to the edge of the race track and I asked where the race track was and they pointed down under my feet. I was like, ‘No, that isn’t a race track, that is a big bullring.’
“Going there for the first time was really cool. I remember that it was insane just trying to get onto the race track and get up to speed. It is a fun place and a place that in the last few races we haven’t ran well at, but it is always one of my favorite places to go to. I always look forward to going there and they pack the place with so many fans. It is a cool race in general.”
Cool and exciting is the way most drivers describe the Bristol experience, one of the most unique and popular on the NASCAR circuit.
Until they are in embroiled in a midrace, fender-rubbing battle that makes their blood boil. Or get caught up in one of the many crashes that typically mar the 500-lap races there.
“It has always been a tough track, and I don’t care how many years go by, it is always going to be a tough track,” says Tony Stewart, who has a win at Bristol and finished second in the spring race there last year.
“Anytime you get on that small of a race track, it is a challenge to not get yourself in trouble, to be fast, but not get yourself in trouble. You can have one mishap that really messes up the rest of your day.”
Gone are the days, however, when drivers had to use their bumpers to pass, leading to crash after crash and caution after caution. Since the concrete track was resurfaced a few years ago, drivers have been able to race two-wide around the 0.533-mile track, creating more long, green-flag runs and fewer wrecks.
“Bristol is a lot different than it used to be. Lots of room,” says Kevin Harvick, who has a win but has been in his share of skirmishes at Bristol. “You are going to have a lot of green-flag runs.
“[It’s a] much easier race track to drive on than it used to be. You have to take care of your car a lot more than you used to need to so you are able to keep up. It is a fun place to race. When you get there, you will see if it is high or low as far as the groove goes and you have a lot of options as a driver.”
Jimmie Johnson won the spring race at Bristol last year, his first win on the tough short track, while Kyle Busch won the fall race. Another favorite will be Carl Edwards, who is coming off a win at Las Vegas and has two wins at Bristol.
“Yeah, Bristol has already been on my mind a little bit,” Edwards said after his Las Vegas win. “That's going to be a wild race, it always is. But I believe for the reasons we were good at Phoenix, I think we'll be pretty good at Bristol. But you never really know.
“We'll just go there … we've won two races there, so we've had good runs, but we've had terrible days there, too. I think everyone goes to Bristol and just hopes they have a good points day and has a chance to win.”
For Edwards and others, having an off week before one of the most anticipated events of the season was a good thing.
“You really need a week to prepare for that place and get in the mindset for it,” Allmendinger said.
“It is kind of nice to win races when you've got a week off so you can kind of enjoy it a little more, so that's good,” Edwards said. “[But] I don't know if Bristol cancels that out because you stress about that one a little more.”