Hot/Not: I Love New Bristol, but NASCAR Needs Old Bristol

I'm a convert. I really I am.

Passing is easy at Bristol these days. Too easy.
Getty Images for NASCAR

I like the new Bristol Motor Speedway. I think the racing is pretty good. I like the multiple grooves. I like the passing. I like the flow of green flag racing, and how it separates the good cars from the bad. I like, save for a bonehead move by Kasey Kahne, how Bristol doesn't claw contenders out of the race in needless wrecks.

Actually - take that back - I love the new Bristol.

But Bristol has to change.

You think I'm contradictory? Fine. You think I'm stupid? Sure. That's nothing new. Am I hypocritical? There's a good chance, especially if you think people have to take a stance one way or another without any middle ground.

But I can deal with that. And I can deal with one of NASCAR's best pure racing facilities - since, oh, fall 2007 or so - needing a dramatic reversal of design.

Why? Because I like NASCAR. And NASCAR without Old Bristol - the pre-2007 Bristol - isn't the NASCAR millions of new people (like me) fell in love with during the 1990s. Nowadays, there are too many cookie-cutter speedways and too many multiple groove stadiums of speed that all produce nearly the same product: a few cautions, some pretty close racing and casual, non-memorable winners.

Quick: Tell me who won Texas in April of last season. What about Dover last fall? And the fall 2010 Bristol winner was?

Unless you were there, or your driver won, those races probably aren't coming quickly to mind. Sure, they were entertaining enough at the time, but they aren't drawing new people in. And if Bristol's vast grandstands that were basically two seats for each person Sunday are any sign, they're starting to be repellant for the in-house crowd.

Remember Old Bristol? I'd bet you do.

Old Bristol was where, in 1996, Jeff Gordon dumped Rusty Wallace on the last corner of the last lap to win the spring race. In that fall's night race Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte exiting turn four, but Labonte still won despite crashing across the start/finish line. It's where, in 1998, Earnhardt heard ear drum-bursting boos after he again wrecked Labonte - though this time in turn two to ensure his victory. Elliott Sadler punched an ambulance. Bobby Labonte threw his helmet. And Gordon ended his 30-race win drought there - the longest of his career to that point - in 2001 after moving Wallace again in the closing laps.

And those are just a few.

And after each event, each new chapter in the lore of Thunder Valley, they kept building on. They added seats that were sold months and sometimes years in advance. The legend of the track waiting list joined the ranks of the NFL's Lambeau Field. Simply, you weren't getting your own tickets to the Bristol night race unless you received them in a will.

The people drove. They camped. They sat in traffic. They paid for expensive tickets - especially newcomers who had to buy them on the secondary market.

And now, they aren't doing that.

Has the national economy done New Bristol any favors? Certainly not. Nor has Bristol's location and surrounding local economy. When Bristol was Old Bristol, it didn't matter that the largest nearby major metropolitan area was Knoxville (population: 630,000). It didn't matter that the Tri-Cities area in BMS's vicinity couldn't support enough hotel rooms to meet demand.

Yes, gasoline at $4/gallon causes a problem. And yes, a lot more people are unemployed or underemployed in NASCAR's heartiest demographics than used to be. But Bristol, of all places, should feel the least of those problems. Bristol is special. At least it should be.

But with the track surface starting deteriorate due to age and weather, track officials decided to fix something that really wasn't broken. Instead of Bristol's high banks being a consistent angle, it became variable in hopes of creating multiple grooves of racing.

It worked flawlessly. In the races immediately before and after the new concrete was poured at BMS in 2007, the total number of passes recorded during green flag conditions by NASCAR's loop data system jumped from 991 to 2,147. Like never before, drivers were able to move around the track. They could race just as fast in the middle and high grooves as down low. They could race side-by-side.

That's great news for about every track on the NASCAR schedule. Every track except Bristol.

Now, the drama of crashes, the high emotions and the general feeling of everyone being ticked off at everyone else after 500 laps on NASCAR's most famous half-mile is gone. What sold the tickets, what built the waiting lists - gone.

Say what you will about NASCAR fans. Many media and former drivers have taken time this week to disparage people who don't like New Bristol as false race fans. It's a dumb way to look at things, considering those race fans - false or not - line or have lined their pockets. Insulting a customer base has never been good business.

But fortunately, the one person who can make Bristol better - or, rather, make it Old Bristol again - has taken the perfect stance. After completing some polling of race fans that attend and watch Bristol, Bruton Smith has dedicated up to $1 million to solving Bristol's issues. Smith, the owner of BMS parent company Speedway Motorsports, Inc., knows that Bristol as is won't cut it for his business. There's too much money to be made - and lost - if people aren't buying the New Bristol product.

What he'll decide is unclear. Based on Smith's $1 million estimate, it won't be an entire resurfacing. Instead, it'll probably be a mixture of options potentially including corner alterations, changes to the exterior walls to change track area, or new tire compounds from Goodyear that promote more wear and less longevity.

The goal will be to make Bristol more treacherous, and more of a wildcard. More like Old Bristol.

And that's the right thing to do.

HOT: Brian Vickers was nothing short of impressive Sunday, as was the rest of Michael Waltrip Racing with their three top-5 finishes.

NOT: I'm already tired of Michael Waltrip in the Fox Sports booth. The conflict of him owning a team that is regularly talked about in an analytic context by both him and the rest of the telecast is too much to handle. How do we know when he's not just selling his team to potential sponsors? We don't. And we never will.

HOT: Don't let MWR's success overshadow Penske Racing's solid outing. Brad Keselowski's win has to be a little petrifying for other teams who still can't decide if he'll be the real deal, and AJ Allmendinger led 54 laps early in the race.

Allmendinger did fade to 17th late in the race - something he can't do as the No. 22 team moves forward.

NOT: We're still waiting for Joe Gibbs Racing to make the case of "solid contender" after Denny Hamlin's Phoenix win. Sunday? Joey Logano was 16th, Hamlin 20th and Kyle Busch - caught up in the early crash - was 32nd.

NOT: Kasey Kahne's first season with Hendrick Motorsports has been nothing short of a bad dream courtesy of a lot of bad luck and timing. That said, I still like Kahne as a Chase for the Sprint Cup driver. You should too, unless you think he can't win twice before Richmond in September and be inside the top-20 in points.

HOT: Solid days for Jamie McMurray (7th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (8th) went mostly unnoticed at Bristol. Can they keep that up? You can bet Chip Ganassi is pushing those teams hard after a disappointing 2011.

NOT: Fox Sports said before the season that the last hour of race telecasts during their run would be in side-by-side fashion at commercial breaks. While they've gotten to the feature in each event, it's been way beyond the one hour left mark. What's the real answer, Fox?

HOT: Elliott Sadler suddenly has two wins in the first four Nationwide Series races. That's a pretty compelling story to watch, and made better after seeing his close calls derailed so often in 2011.

NOT: I'm still trying to figure out why any team thought it was a good idea to pit Sunday during the final caution with less than ten miles (20 laps) to go. There simply wasn't enough time for tires to make a difference, and it may well have handed the win to Keselowski.

It cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15th) a chance at a top-5 when he was busted for speeding on pit road. Silly.

HOT: Paul Menard didn't lead the Richard Childress Racing charge this weekend (Jeff Burton, 6th) but his 10th-place finish makes it two top-10s in a row.

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Updated Tuesday, Mar 20, 2012