Long: Bristol race was unlike anything seen in years at historic track

BRISTOL, Tenn. — A plume of white smoke rose from the right front wheel well of Chase Elliott’s car — a mini version of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful — after a Sunday afternoon drive that tested and tormented teams and tires at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Elliott calmly walked away from his vehicle after an eighth-place finish — his first top 10 of the season —and said of the racing: “I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

“It was more in our hands than probably ever has been. I don’t know if you want that every week, but it was really fun and refreshing. It was kind of cool that you could kill your tires if you weren’t smart about it. You could make them last … I thought that was really neat.

“I just hope we don’t overreact.”

Sunday’s race at Bristol was unlike anything seen at this track in years. If ever.

Tires wore at such a rate that NASCAR issued teams an extra set. The lead changed hands a track-record 54 times — often due to the leader managing tires and not wanting to run as fast as someone else. Lap times typically in the 16-second range swelled to about 18 seconds on occasion. Cars ran two by two as if they were at Daytona or Talladega.

No one expected this entering the weekend. Even after teams saw excessive tire wear in practice and qualifying Saturday, most figured that the track would take on rubber and not wear tires as dramatically.

That never happened for reasons NASCAR and Goodyear were unsure of Sunday.

“There’s nothing that stands out why the resin vs. PJ(1) did what they did,” said John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer, of the different traction compounds.

PJ1 had been used previously at Bristol but NASCAR switched to resin this year along with having the wet weather tires available at Bristol. NASCAR tested PJ1 with the wet weather tires in February and found that PJ1 became slick when wet — “It was almost like oil on the track, the cars would get no traction,” Probst said.

So the switch to resin was made. Resin has been used at other tracks in the past without such issues.

“We’ll, obviously, look at everything,” Probst said. “We’ll work with Goodyear and we’ll work with the teams. We work a lot with the drivers, frankly. They’ve been asking for more tire wear for a while now.”

Sunday’s race came amid a renewed plea from drivers for more horsepower to enhance the racing, particularly at short tracks after the package that debuted last week at Phoenix didn’t make much a significant difference in what fans saw.

“We didn’t need any more horsepower today,” Denny Hamlin said after his 52nd career Cup victory and second in a row at this track.

Hamlin also shared Elliott’s hope for everyone to “don’t overreact” after the race.

He admitted this victory meant more of what it took to win.

“I know I had such a huge role in the result,” Hamlin said. “If the car was not good, I wasn’t going to win. But I feel like I played a huge factor in the result.

“It’s really a proud one for me. Certainly one of the more proud ones I’ve had in my career, no question.”

Not everyone was thrilled. Reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney was sure the tire that was used Sunday was different than last fall at this track — Goodyear stated it was the same compound.

“I bet it was entertaining to watch, but it was wild,” Blaney said after finishing 16th.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Hamlin, could enjoy the challenge the race presented afterward.

“In my opinion, the sport needs to learn from this,” he said. “Again, I’ve been saying for a while from my little microphone when anyone asks is that we got to stop talking badly about Goodyear in these situations. This is not bad. Goodyear can make a million-mile tire that I have on my car when I get to the airport and drive home. It’s fantastic. I never have any trouble with it.

“This is supposed to be a sport. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to force these guys to make decisions in the car. Do I go now? Do I not? The crew chiefs to make decisions on how they treat the tire, what their setup is, how long do you want to run this stint. You can’t just run the fuel tank out and the tire not blow. It might blow on you.

“That last green flag stop when we called him in, I can’t tell you how stressful it was. If NASCAR throws a caution when I’m on pit road, I’m in a lot of trouble. He knows it. But he’s telling me, Hey, this tire is about to blow out.”

It didn’t. Hamlin won. NASCAR got a memorable race at track that has searched for those indelible moments that will live for years. Sunday’s race didn’t deliver a driver tossing his helmet at another car or two drivers arguing, but it did give drivers and fans something to talk about.

“It was like racing at a really old, wore-out short track growing up,” Elliott said. “… I think there’s probably a little better balance somewhere there, but I had a good time.”

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