BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — With a two-handed toss of his helmet, Tony Stewart brought back everything that had been missing at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It was the rock ’em, sock ’em style of racing that made the Tennessee bullring the toughest ticket in NASCAR, and fans fill the place for 55 consecutive races hoping to see bumping and banging on the track and the off-track drama it created.
Progressive banking added in 2007 diluted the action, and fans turned their backs on Bristol in droves. Yet another disappointing crowd in March was the final straw for track owner Bruton Smith, who ordered changes to the track surface in the hopes the action would pick up and the fans would return.
He got exactly what he wanted Saturday night, even if his idea didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Tempers flared again at Bristol — the boiling point coming when Stewart heaved his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car after the two wrecked racing for the lead — and the action on track picked up enough to satisfy most fans.
Five-time Bristol winner Jeff Gordon, who watched some of Bristol’s greatest races from the spotter stand before he began his Cup career, thought Saturday night looked a lot like old Bristol.
“Even though it was really tough to pass, it just reminded me of old school Bristol,” Gordon said. “I think it was a success and I certainly had a lot of fun. I say they grind the whole place. Sounds awesome. I hope they do that next time.”
Believing the progressive banking had created too many lanes for drivers to use, Smith ordered the top groove to be ground down at Bristol. His desired effect was a tighter track that forced drivers to run around the bottom and use their bumpers to move cars out of their way.
They had to use their bumpers, but it was at the top of the track where the action occurred. The new top groove picked up rubber as the race progressed, and the grip in the high line was too attractive for drivers to ignore.
Denny Hamlin, who picked up his first Bristol victory, thought the racing was similar to years past.
“We were all running in a line and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around,” he said. “That’s what you had with the old Bristol. That’s how we had to race. I don’t think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You just saw a bunch of cars in line waiting on someone to get knocked out of the way or mess up and that’s the same thing we had.”
With it came the return of a vintage Stewart reaction following his accident with Kenseth.
The three-time series champion had rallied from a lap down to run for the lead with Kenseth, but after the two came close to wrecking for at least an entire lap, they finally collided for reasons neither agreed upon. Stewart showed his displeasure by tossing his helmet at Kenseth’s car, and promising a rocky ride the rest of the season.
“I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now ’til the end of the year, every chance I’ve got,” Stewart said.
That’s the kind of responses fans expect at Bristol, where Dale Jarrett in 1993 threw his helmet at Bobby Hillin Jr.’s car. Ward Burton once threw his heel guards at Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson made an obscene gesture, Gordon shoved Kenseth, Kevin Harvick charged after Greg Biffle, and, oh, the late Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte in an effort to “rattle his cage.”
On Saturday night, even Danica Patrick got into the action, angrily wagging her finger at Regan Smith after contact from him caused a race-ending wreck after she’d worked her way to 19th.
“We were just racing hard, this is Bristol, this is why people love this track because you see a lot of that, you see tempers flare,” Patrick said.
It was the perfect kickoff for the final push to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Hamlin’s win was his third of the season, and it created a four-way tie for most wins in the series. Should nothing give over the next two races between Hamlin, Johnson, Stewart and Brad Keselowski, there’d be a logjam for the top seed in the 10-race Chase.
And the race is still on for the final two wild card spots.
A wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya was devastating for Ryan Newman, who slipped out of contention for one of the two wild card berths. Headed into next Sunday’s race at Atlanta, Kasey Kahne is still holding steady for one of the spots. Kyle Busch moved into position for the second one, and he leads Gordon by 16 points. Newman fell to fourth in the wild card standings, 19 points behind Busch.
And Carl Edwards, who lost the championship to Stewart last year on a tie-breaker, is still trying to find a way into the Chase.
Hamlin was well aware of the repercussions as he chased down Edwards on the track, using a vintage “slide job” pass of Edwards to take the lead. Then he successfully defended Edwards’ attempt to use a crossover to take the lead back, and Hamlin preserved a win that helped him and Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Gordon, who finished third, also had an eye on the standings.
“If Carl had won or Kyle had won, it would have gotten us way behind, so we kept ourselves in the battle for it,” Gordon said. “We’ve got two more opportunities and they’re good opportunities. I’m a little disappointed myself because I think we had the car and we had the track position and I got loose on new tires on that one run when we really had the guys I felt we had to beat behind us.”