Bristol a nightmare for crew chiefs
Fans may love the fast and furious Bristol Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Food City 500. But for crew chiefs, the 0.533-mile high-banked oval produces an entire weekend’s worth of headaches, ulcers and nightmares.
The combination of the track’s steep corners, 15-second laps and claustrophobic layout can make even the most seasoned crew chief’s stomach churn. And this year comes with a new challenge, as the track has extended the SAFER barriers at the exits of turns 2 and 4, which should tighten the action even further.
“I’m anxious to see how the new outside barrier will affect the top groove at Bristol,” said Jay Guy, crew chief for Brad Keselowski and the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge. “When they reconfigured it and widened it a little bit, you saw drivers making more passes on the outside. With that extra room now having been taken away, you’ll really need to have the car working well on the bottom. Forward drive is always important at Bristol, or any short track for that matter. If you can get underneath someone coming off the corner you can usually beat him to the next corner to make the pass.”
Guy isn’t the only one wondering about how the additional SAFER barriers will play out in the race.
Lance McGrew, who is crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, said he is going to alter his practice strategy this time around.
“Normally I would go to Bristol in qualifying trim for the first practice because qualifying there is so important,” said McGrew. “But the new barriers made me think enough about the line, the difference in coming off the corner and how you have to approach that, so we'll probably go in race trim. I want to let Dale run 10 or 15 laps until he feels comfortable, and then we'll switch over to qualifying trim.”
Then there is the whole issue of in-race communication. The crew chiefs are in the lowest part of the entire track and can basically only see half the track at any time. And given how quick the laps go by, that can be a problem, so a lot of crew chiefs use their spotters as a go-between with drivers.
“What we do is sit down with the driver and spotter before the race and go over a lot of what-if scenarios,” said Mike Shiplett, crew chief for AJ Allmendinger’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. “Then I can talk to the spotter on another radio and if I have to tell AJ something I will relay it to the spotter and he will tell AJ in between clearing him in and out of traffic. If I start talking and something happens in another corner, I know we are going to be in that corner in eight seconds, so there is not enough time for me to get off the radio before he could drive right into a wreck.”
And that would not be a good thing.
“Bristol is usually all about trying to avoid the wrecks,” said Donnie Wingo, crew chief for David Ragan and the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
As if those problems weren’t enough, the BMS pits are devilishly tight and the rules somewhat unusual.
“The biggest thing is you can enter pit road in two different places,” said Shiplett. “In a yellow, everyone enters off Turn 2. If you have to make a green-flag pit stop you have to enter off of Turn 4. The driver, making 500 laps around that place, can get confused very easily with what corner they are in. Some of the best drivers in this business have come down the wrong pit road and lost the race at Bristol. It is easy to do.”
With the pits being so tight at Bristol, qualifying is hugely important.
“There (are) really only four good pit stalls in the place, period,” said McGrew. “If you're not in the top four then everyone is in the same boat. Past that, it's all luck if you have a start-and-park next to you or someone who might have problems in the pit. It can make or break your night because it doesn't matter how good your pit crew is if you can't get in or out of your pit stall. The track position is everything there.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.