In the past decade, the nature of Bristol Motor Speedway has changed dramatically. Through multiple changes to the track’s banking, racing at the speedway has gone from a single-file bump-’em-and-dump-’em affair on the inside groove to a more dynamic style. Ultimately, the difference between finishing well and finishing poorly at Bristol has become which line you end up in: In recent years, the outside groove has become the preferred line on starts and restarts due to the momentum it provides on corner exit.
Last year, both races at Bristol Motor Speedway had a shared element: Surprises at the front of the field both during the course of the event and at race’s end. A combination of the dominance of one groove over another making passing difficult and the track’s emphasis on driver skill over equipment allowed multiple drivers not known for running up front to score excellent finishes.
The big story at the end of last year’s Spring race was Matt DiBenedetto, who took advantage of being lined up in the outside lane on multiple restarts late in the event to work his way up into the Top 10 and score a sixth-place finish – The best of his career and the best finish in team history for BK Racing, DiBenedetto’s team at the time. DiBenedetto, however, was not the only driver to turn heads that day. Landon Cassill, driving for Front Row Motorsports, was also poised to have a career day. Cassill led 20 laps in the event, and ran in or near the Top 10 for most of the race before late-race circumstances relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.
When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned to the track in late August, the surprise finishes from the Spring proved not to be a fluke. This time, it was a pair of Ford drivers who ended up at the front when the checkered flag flew. Despite the struggles of Roush Fenway Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had his best run of the 2016 season, tying his career-best finish with a second-place effort. Meanwhile, Front Row Motorsports’ Chris Buescher followed up a win at Pocono that was determined by strategy and inclement weather with a fifth-place finish – One that ultimately secured his berth in the playoffs.
Considering last year’s trend at Bristol and the parity that has marked the start of the season – 10 different teams are currently eligible for the playoffs – The performance of some mid-level teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday is worth monitoring. With the added element of stage racing providing the opportunity for alternate strategies, drivers not commonly seen towards the front could very well parlay Bristol’s nature into stage points – Or even a stage win.
A distinction traditionally reserved for superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, Bristol Motor Speedway could very well become a new “opportunity” track for drivers and teams not among the usual suspects. If another surprise pops up in the Top 10 at the end of 500 miles, it will continue what is sure to be received as a happy trend.