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In The Pits: What makes a great race?
The answer: “I don’t know, but Tony Stewart threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth.”
The fact that Denny Hamlin’s victory last August was obscured by Stewart’s burst of anger proved once again that drama almost always overshadows the actual racing. Especially at Bristol, where fans have come to expect a temper tantrum or two during every visit to the tight Tennessee bullring.
There is no need to guess what the lasting image will be of Sunday’s race. It won’t be Kasey Kahne celebrating his first trip to Bristol’s winner’s circle or his late battle with Brad Keselowski to pick up the victory.
The confrontation led to a pair of tersely worded interviews, with Logano revealing he thought Hamlin was “probably the worst teammate I’ve ever had.” The whole thing lingered long after the race in an amusing Twitter exchange between the two.
That’s the stuff fans feast on anymore, and while the grade-school sniping may be a bit much for some, they sure don’t mind when the racing draws out that drama.
It’s part of the problem that plagued Bristol after a repave in 2007 essentially ruined the racing here in the eyes of the fan. Strangely, the repave created multiple grooves that drivers universally praised.
But happy drivers don’t use their bumpers to move a car out of the way. Happy drivers don’t run down pit road to yell at a rival. And happy drivers most definitely don’t throw their helmets at moving cars.
So after 55 consecutive sellouts, Bristol suddenly wasn’t the toughest ticket in NASCAR. The crowd got smaller and smaller, track owner Bruton Smith couldn’t take it anymore, and he demanded changes last summer.
The result _ the grinding of the high line around the 0.533-mile track _ made for a better race last August. After all, Stewart did get mad enough to throw that helmet.
It also started a conversation about the fine line the industry walks in trying to find a balance between good racing for the drivers and entertaining the fans. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson touched on the dilemma two days before Sunday’s race.
“For the longest time we didn’t think the racing was all that good from a competitor’s standpoint,” Johnson said. “But, we had a sold-out event here with a long waiting list. They change it, drivers are happy, the track is very racy, but you can’t sell out the spring race. Last year’s race, we were all fighting for one lane which was at the top instead of the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet and it’s considered a good race. So, I’m not sure racing and entertainment kind of go in the same piece.”
In the case of Bristol, Smith can’t seem to do anything right.
He made changes to the track, got a better race in August, and attendance didn’t seem to be much better Sunday than it was a year ago. Granted, Thunder Valley has high motel prices and a weather forecast suggesting rain might have kept fans at home.
By John R. Bolton
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