Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

A Game of Survival in The Last Great Colosseum

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

As crew chief Harry Hogge once said in the movie Days of Thunder, “Tires is what wins races,” and that was never truer than in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the first time in three years, the spring date on the half-mile high banked oval in East Tennessee was back on its concrete surface and back to the Bristol we all know and love, but this time around the NASCAR Cup Series teams and drivers would have to go into gladiator mode to make it out of Sunday’s race in one piece.

Always a battle, Bristol’s surface threw something new into the mix on Sunday as the resin-treated concrete acted like a cheese grater on the Goodyear tires and instead of the track taking rubber, it became a ticking time bomb on when the tires would give up.

It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

Like clockwork throughout the day, mostly near the end of a run, drivers would start dropping like flies when their tires gave way, either forcing them to pit road for a fresh set or in some cases, landing them into the wall.

For those drivers that could manage their tires the best, like winner Denny Hamlin and runner-up Martin Truex, Jr., they came out on the good end of the day, surviving the mayhem with great finishes to take back home, while others weren’t so lucky.

“It was challenging,” Hamlin said. “A different kind of challenge, for sure. Certainly not something we’ve had to do for a very long time in managing tires.

“Lesson learned early on. I kind of ran a certain pace, a certain line, wore my tires out. From that point on made some adjustments internally. He made some adjustments to the car that allowed me to just manage it from that point on.

“Once it got into that tire management type of race, certainly my history in late models where you had to do that big-time certainly paid off.”

Hamlin noted that while the tire wear may have been a bit excessive, Sunday was a bit of a throwback to old school NASCAR in that equipment management made a big difference.

“Do we want them wearing out in 40, 50 laps? No. That’s probably a little bit on the low end, for sure. But certainly this is what happens when you get tire wear. There’s comers and goers. I guarantee you, surely you guys at NASCAR have sent out a stat pack of all the passes that happened today. There was times where I was leading, Ty is just pressuring me. I’m like, No, it’s not time. Go ahead. That’s how it used to be. It really used to be that way.

“It was fun from my standpoint because obviously I had a good car that helped me do what I needed to do.”

Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, added that the uncertainly of the tire and having to manage that from start to finish made Sunday the race it became.

“It was fantastic,” Gabehart said. “The whole weekend was nothing what any of us expected, the driver, the crew chiefs, the engineers, the pit crew, the team, the spotter. I mean, from the minute practice was over, we suspected something was going to be different. I think a lot of us thought maybe 80, 100 in, this place would rubber in and get a little more familiar. But it did not

“It was a blast. I’m not just saying that because we won. I’m saying that because it was fun to have to do something so unrefined. Everything about our business gets to be 16th of a round and 10th of an air pressure. If you just maneuver this three inches, you’ll be perfect.

“It was not going to be perfect this weekend ever. I think that made for a fantastic show.”

Third-place finisher Brad Keselowski was another veteran driver at the top of the scoring pylon – one of only five to end the day on the lead lap – further illustrating that those who have been around the block and knew how to take care of their equipment were best suited to handle the mine field that was Bristol on Sunday.

“It was interesting,” said Keselowski. “Like a little short track race. You go to any of these local short tracks, that’s how you have to race. Have to take care of your stuff.

“It’s refreshing. It’s different. I like that, that it takes something different every week. That’s what makes Cup so hard. You go in every week, some weeks you drive ’em till you burn ’em down, this week you got to take care of ’em.”

Meanwhile, drivers like defending series champion Ryan Blaney were on the opposite side of the spectrum from the top finishers, only managing a 16th place finish after starting on pole.

“Did you enjoy the shit show?” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford jokingly asked the gathered media afterwards.

“I didn’t have fun. What’s fun about creeping around there? You can’t run 50 laps unless you blow a tire and you’ve got guys with blown stuff creeping around the race track. I can’t believe there wasn’t an accident when everybody blew a tire there before the last pit stop.

“You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of the Daytona fuel saving. That’s what it was. We were two by two, creeping around there quarter throttle, saving your tires and you just don’t know if you want to go or not.”

Blaney continued on, lighting into Goodyear for the tire that was brought for Sunday’s race.

“They say they brought the same tire, but that is absolute BS. If you bring a new tire like this, they’re going to deny they brought a new tire, but obviously it’s different. You have to test it. You can’t just show up at the race track and run 500 laps with it. Like, you have to have a tire test. That’s why we do tire tests. If you don’t, this is what it ends up like.

“Yeah, we want wear and fall off, but you have to have an idea of how it’s going to wear off and that’s at a tire test. You can’t just unload something out of the blue and have what it was today. I bet it was entertaining for everybody to watch. I bet it was wild. Yeah, little bit of a wild race, but not in a good way.”

Whether you loved it or hated it, Sunday’s race at Bristol will no doubt be a talking point in the days and weeks ahead. Only six months until the Cup Series is rolling back in to the track in the Playoffs with much more on the line.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.