The high, tight banks of the Bristol Motor Speedway have always been a favorite to drivers and fans alike since the track opened its doors for its 1961 inaugural event.
With fans that fill 160,000 seats as high as the sky to surround the half-mile track, there’s no escaping. The racers are on top of each other and the fans are on top of the action, and anything can happen.
From traffic jams that turn into wrecks, to bump and runs, and post race altercations, Bristol is one tough race.
The Food City 500 next Sunday will be no different, and it has nothing to do with the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski drama from the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta.
Bristol will mark the final race of the 2010 season that uses last year’s car owner points for qualifying. What that means is that all the drivers that have been locked into every race thus far, including Bristol, might not be when it comes to trying to get a starting position at Martinsville next weekend.
On one side there will be drivers that are happy to head to Martinsville, like Scott Speed, who has had to qualify his way into every race this season and now sits inside the top 12 in points. He won’t have to qualify on speed at Martinsville by a long-shot.
On the other hand, though, some big-name drivers might have to do just that depending on how the Bristol Motor Speedway treats them.
Ryan Newman enters the bullring 29th in owners' points, and if the bad luck he’s had the first four races follows him to Tennessee, he could be in an awful spot heading to race No. 6. The good news for Newman is that he typically runs well at Bristol, and last season he had two top-10 finishes.
His Stewart-Haas team will be ready to fight for another one. The same can’t be said for Roger Penske's duo.
While Kurt Busch is coming off a win at Atlanta and is heading to a track where he’s won five times, his teammates, Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr., head to a track that could knock them out of the top 35.
Keselowski will be seeing Bristol for the first time in a Sprint Cup Series car, while Hornish Jr. is heading to a track at which he’s never finished better than 29th.
They respectively sit at 31st and 33rd in points, and even though Keselowski has a Nationwide Series win at Bristol, a Cup race in a Cup Series car will be a different animal.
On the bubble next weekend will be Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 car, driven by Mike Bliss. After he was ousted from the Nationwide Series by James Finch, Bliss joined Tommy Baldwin racing for 2010 with Wave Energy sponsorship.
It’s been a wave of a ride for the team in terms of results, which is why these drivers find themselves in the position they currently occupy.
"I like Bristol a lot, and it is a fun track to drive," Bliss said. "Of course, it will be nerve-racking trying to get into the race Friday. It's nice to be right there at the edge of the top 35 and the goal this weekend will be leave Bristol still in the top 35. Our focus...will be doing whatever is needed to stay in the top 35."
Said Baldwin: "Bristol has always been one of my favorite race weekends. I love the energy and excitement from the fans and a lot of us grew up with this type of short-track racing.
"We are excited to be in our current points position and battling for the top 35. We know we have run a lot better than where we are in the standings so I feel confident. The goal is to get into the race and focus on finishing better than the group we need to beat to remain in the top 35."
Behind Bliss are drivers that are hoping he has a bad race in Bristol in order to jump ahead of him in points. The Robert Yates car for rookie Kevin Conway sits 37th in points, Conway will join Keselowski in experiencing his first Cup race at Bristol.
And the third driver on that list will be Boris Said. Normally a road racing specialist, Said has branched out the last few years and has started to run more oval races. Entering 2010 Said’s Bill Jenkin’s team bought the car owner points from Roush Fenway Racing and the No. 26 car, which locked Said into the first five races.
But right now he sits outside the top 35 in points, and a bad run at a track that he’s never tackled before would mean that the money they spent was all for nothing. Because of that, Said's team decided this week that he will not race the 26 car and that David Stremme will instead be behind the wheel, hoping for the best.
That's a feeling that Robby Gordon must be dealing with right now. Gordon, a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver since 2002, is now his own team owner. Gordon has been locked into the races thus far, but in those races anything and everything that could happen has, and it has resulted in the team sitting 38th in points.
"Our Sprint Cup program has had a really tough start in 2010," Gordon said. "We simply haven't had any luck."
Heading to Bristol could be both a blessing and a curse for the California native.
Gordon isn’t a slouch behind the wheel and can be one of the most aggressive drivers on the circuit; going to a short track could come in handy for Gordon, who will need to get rough and take every position he can to get the much needed points he needs.
But the curse comes in the sense that Gordon finished 21st and 32nd at the track last year.
His best career finish is a 12th; however, that came in 2004.
Gordon will be one of the many drivers with the urgency to go hard, or he’ll be going home in Martinsville, as the action hits the bullring. And yet many will be watching the stars that could win the race: Kyle and Kurt Busch, defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and many more.
Other eyes will be on the Edwards/Keselowski feud. If it carries into Bristol it will hold many implications for the young Penske driver.
Bristol is always a must-watch race—the tiny track has played host to some exciting moments over the years. On March 22 it’ll be more of the same, as a race within a race takes a backseat to the battle for the next victory lane celebration.
It’ll be front and center in Martinsville, though, as the top 35 drivers and those looking from the outside in experience what real heartburn feels like, and I guarantee you it won’t have anything to do with that hot dog for lunch.