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Cup Drivers Get Ready For Close Contact At Bristol Bullring

Two former winners at the Brickyard are the top two leaders of the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings heading into the first short-track race of the season Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson has firmly established himself as one of the greatest drivers to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with four Brickyard 400 wins, including last July’s contest. He has a five-point lead over another former Indianapolis winner, Brad Keselowski – who won the first-ever NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last July.

Johnson won five straight Cup titles from 2006-2010, and Keselowski won the Sprint Cup title in 2012. Both are ready to roll in Sunday’s fender-beating contest at the .533-mile, high-banked concrete short track in the east Tennessee hills.

Keselowski is the defending winner of this race, leading 232 laps last March to take team owner Roger Penske’s “Blue Deuce” to victory. He was also the winner of the August 2011 race and qualified seventh Friday to make him a major threat for victory on Sunday.

“Bristol to me is a man’s racetrack, and I respect this place so much,” Keselowski said. “I think it takes a level of respect for it. From day one, the first day I walked in there, I respected it, but I also wanted to win there. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could be the man to win at a man’s racetrack. So it’s always been a challenge to me, and it’s one that, for some reason, has taken a piece of me somewhere deep inside and made it rise to the next level.

“I could not be prouder of everyone on the Miller Lite Ford team for the start we’ve had to the season. Some of those tracks have not been our best, but now we are getting to some that are. Bristol this weekend is a place that I picked up on immediately. I always look forward to going there, which is half the battle. You can’t let it psyche you out before you walk through the gate.”

Keselowski’s two wins account for his two top-five and two top-10 finishes at Bristol. He was 30th in August 2012 race.

Kyle Busch scored his first Bristol Cup pole Friday in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with a track record lap at 129.535 mph for his 11th pole in 297 Sprint Cup starts. Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports starts on the outside of the front row in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

While Johnson has become the greatest NASCAR driver of his era, oddly enough he has just one victory at Bristol. That came in this race in 2010, when he led 107 laps to take the checkered flag. He has seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 22 Bristol starts.

But 2013 is a new season, and Johnson is off to a fantastic start, including his second Daytona 500 win.

“A lot of work went into it,” Johnson said. “As we are working our way through the different styles of tracks, we have been competitive. Bristol has been tough on me years ago. It has been pretty good to me here in the last two or three years that we have come to the racetrack.

“I’m excited coming back. I love competing here. It’s nice to walk through the tunnel and emerge inside the racetrack with a smile on my face because for years I would walk in here with a frown. Although I love the racetrack, I just wouldn’t run very good, and it makes for a long weekend.

“I have been so fortunate to not need to worry about Richmond and making the Chase, and hopefully that stays that way. Leaving Daytona in a hole is something we have grown accustomed to. It takes seven, eight weeks to get back up in the top five in points. A quick start is important. It frees up the first half of the year for you. You can preserve the test sessions that we are allowed to have at real racetracks on the tire we are going to race on. You can focus on inventory of your race cars, which we are all behind with the Gen-6 car. Just get your car allotment built up, which is very important to do at this stage. Instead of cutting up existing cars and rebuilding stuff and on and on, it is important to get off to a quick start. It helps lighten the work load for everybody.”

The competition level remains strong in NASCAR, and Johnson knows the development of Keselowski has given him another major foe to race with on a weekly basis.

“The competition has always been there,” Johnson said. “I think the faces have changed. I think Brad (Keselowski) has shown that he and that team are going to be a familiar face up there week in and week out and year after year. We have been able to stay in and around the top spot for the 10 years, 11 years we have been around, which is staggering to me that we have had that type of staying power. So, I’m very proud of that. It’s awfully competitive and gets a little congested at the top. Again, the faces might change, but it’s the sought after place to be.”

NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car will get tested for the first time in fender-to-fender short track combat this weekend.

“It’s so difficult to get the recipe right,” Johnson said. “This racetrack is a perfect example. For the longest time, we didn’t think the racing was all that good from a competitors’ standpoint. But, we had a sold-out event here with a long waiting list. They change it, drivers are happy, the track is very racy, but you can’t sell out the spring race. Last year’s race, we were all fighting for one lane, which was at the top instead of the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet, and it’s considered a good race. So I’m not sure racing and entertainment kind of go in the same piece. I do think that racing is top priority for NASCAR, and it has been. They have created a very safe race car and a very equal race car.”

Johnson is prepared for the bump and run at some point Sunday.

“On a short-track, if you are within bumper’s reach, you have to expect it’s coming,” Johnson said. “I would definitely anticipate that here, especially if there is a green/white/checkered at the end, I think it would get exciting as it would anywhere.”

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he is a former winner at Bristol when he drove to victory in the August 2004 race. That long victory is included in his seven top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 26 Bristol starts.

Earnhardt is another Hendrick Motorsports driver off to a fast start in 2013. He is third in points, just 10 out of the lead.

“We’ve got a good start to the year,” Earnhardt said. “I wish we’d have run a little bit better last week. I feel like we had a little better car than seventh. But we just never got the opportunity to really prove it. But I feel pretty good. The car has been driving really good. The guys did a lot of great work during the offseason. Steve (Letarte) and Chad (Knaus) and everybody in the shop just really have a good hold on the car out of the gate. We’re still learning a lot and there are still a lot of things to uncover as far as what makes this car really run well. We’re hoping we can stay ahead of the curve. The competition level has changed. It gets tougher every year. A lot of that has to do with the way the technical inspection and rules are refined over the years. When you go back to the 1970’s, everything was under interpretation. As you move on through the ‘80s and ‘90s, things were a little more uniform and a little more structured. Today, you basically have perfect measurements that the car has to go by from one end to the other, and all the components are scrutinized. So that definitely has leveled the playing field and put everybody in a smaller window as far as competition goes. So it definitely makes it tough.”

When it comes to NASCAR, Jeff Gordon is the original “Brickyard Legend” after winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. The driver who honed his racing skills as a youngster in Pittsboro, Ind., has driven to an impressive five victories at Bristol, most recently way back in 2002. Those five wins are included in his 16 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 40 Bristol starts.

Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., is a true “Brickyard Legend” with two wins in the Brickyard 400 and three Cup titles. But at Bristol he has just one win (2001), six top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 28 starts. He was 14th in this race last year and 27th in August 2012.

And then there is Danica Patrick, who became a “Brickyard Phenomenon” in her rookie year at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 when she nearly won the pole and became the first female ever to lead laps in the Indy 500. She was leading with seven laps to go before she was passed by eventual winner Dan Wheldon. Patrick went on to finish fourth.

Now, she is a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, and driving a stock car around Bristol is as dissimilar to racing an Indy car around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as anything in racing. But Patrick is preferred for the heavy-contact form of racing.

“I don’t mind some beating and banging out there,” she said. “I don’t mind pushing your way around a little bit. It just happens. I did it a little bit at Phoenix, even. It is just the nature of short tracks when you are running really close to one another. You put 43 cars out on a track this size; you are filling up a lot of the track. You are able to run closer as opposed to the mile-an-a-half or more. The short tracks are conducive for close racing. The aerodynamics doesn’t come into play quite as much. I enjoy it. I’ve always said from the beginning that NASCAR is a lot of fun for me because if somebody lays on you, you can lay right back.”

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