Why Bristol Motor Speedway Is the Most Difficult Track in NASCAR

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race is run in Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/Andrew Coppley, CIA Bristol Motor Speedway, Pool)
Andrew Coppley/Associated Press

Darlington Raceway is "The Track Too Tough to Tame," while Daytona International Speedway is known as host of the "Great American Race."

Dover International Speedway is "The Monster Mile," while New Hampshire International Speedway is "The Magic Mile."

But none of the nearly two dozen race tracks that play host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series can quite compare to or is more difficult than the site of Sunday's Food City 500, Bristol Motor Speedway.

Known as "The World's Fastest Half-Mile," BMS is actually just a hair over that at .533 of a mile. Its high banks, which ride as high as 30 degrees up, are only part of the challenge the place presents.

With seating for 160,000 people, BMS—which was originally built in 1961 for an incredulously low price of just $600,000—enters its 53rd year of hosting two annual Sprint Cup events every season.

Granted, the banking is hard enough, but racing at Bristol is like driving on a combination of a skateboard park and a shopping mall parking lot.

The turns are tight, but that's only part of it. Trying to go three-wide on the narrow racing surface is extremely difficult.

If a driver tries to stick the nose of his car into a three-wide pack and forces it into a four-wide affair, he'll quickly wind up into Bristol's notorious hard walls—and likely take a good chunk of the field behind him as well.

Much like racing at Martinsville Speedway, which is slightly shorter and over a decade older than BMS, tires and brakes take a beating at this weekend's host venue.

What's more, trying to figure out fuel mileage is as or more important at Bristol than pretty much any other track on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Over the years, it's likely that more races have been lost than won in Bristol's 106-race history by crew chiefs willing to take a gamble that their driver and car has enough gas to make it to the finish line.

Racing at Bristol is also a combination of an acquired taste and an art form. If you've got it, you've got it. If you don't, you don't.

Among those who have got it at Bristol are drivers like Kurt Busch (five wins), Jeff Gordon (five wins), Kyle Busch (five wins), Matt Kenseth (three wins) and Brad Keselowski (two wins). Their records show very clearly that they've mastered BMS' nuances better than other active Cup drivers.

Then there's guys like Tony Stewart. Even though he's a three-time Sprint Cup champion, Bristol has been Smoke's second-worst performing track over his 15-year Sprint Cup career, with just one win there—way back in summer 2001.

And let's not forget six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson. Even though JJ has 66 career Cup wins in his career, just one has come at Bristol.

Because of its unique shape, Bristol isn't like most other tracks, even fellow short tracks such as Martinsville and three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway.

At those places, if you get out in front and are able to get clean air, it helps your cause immensely.

Not Bristol.

If you get out in front, even at the start of the race like pole-sitter Denny Hamlin and outside pole-sitter Brad Keselowski will likely do Sunday, any clean air advantage you initially have will be gone fairly quickly.

There have been past races at Bristol where the early leaders can come upon cars ready to be lapped in as little as 10 or 20 laps.

Another thing that makes BMS so difficult is not only the preponderance for wrecks—oftentimes big multicar demolition derbies much like you see at bigger tracks like Talladega and Daytona—but also the lack of room to dodge someone else's wreck mess.

At 'Dega, Daytona, California, Michigan and other big tracks, drivers have a lot more room to maneuver around crashes.

They don't have that luxury at super-tight and super-close Bristol. You can be going along, having a great run, potentially even leading the race one minute, and be heading home early the next because you have little avoidance room.

And even if you manage to avoid a wreck, because you likely have slowed down so quickly to dodge what's happened in front or around you, you're still not out of harm's way because you quickly go from dodger to a sitting target to be run into from behind.

Bottom line, it's hard to refute that Bristol is the sport's most difficult track and one that plays host to two of the most difficult races each year.

Even if many drivers' career records at BMS are less than stellar, it is a fun race track nonetheless.

While most Cup drivers claim they love to race there, the inherent difficulty, coupled with the love-hate relationship many of them have with the rough and tough little bullring, often means that they can't wait to leave, too.


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