Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 10/27/14

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 05: Regan Smith drives the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 5, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR)

 

Last Saturday's bash at Bristol looked the same but acted a different part. Following fan outcry this spring, the condescending millionaire ears of Bristol owner Bruton Smith decided to listen and make some changes.

After overhauling the beloved 36 degrees of banking in 2007 with variable banking, Mr. Smith made the run-and-gun call of grinding down the upper layer of asphalt this summer in hopes of bringing back the old style of bumpin' and bangin' racing. The 2012 summer renovation complete, teams hit the track with one part anticipation and another part trepidation, and delivered smashing entertainment for the masses. Did the old Bristol rise from the dead?

That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.

Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.

Sam: To get logically surgical about it, it's hard to tell. From a visual standpoint, the racing was more or less the same.

The cars not only continued to run a high line, but drivers actually found the high line to be the fastest route, due to the presence of the shaved-down concrete and, evidently, resultant grip. It was still a beast to pull off a pass on the low line at times, something which never would have happened under the pre-2007 design. Prior to 2007, if you were high on the track, you were going to be low on speed; the bottom was the only place to survive and thrive. So, from a racing standpoint, things appeared to be somewhat similar to the style of racing that was intended to be fixed.

On the flip side of the coin, there was action and controversy present Saturday night which hasn't been around for the last five or so years at Bristol. More cautions were had, less massive green flag runs were present, and a great deal of classic Bristol ire was put on display. A completely unexpected rivalry between Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth was born; Danica Patrick had another chance to be angry on the tube; and in general, more beatin' and bangin' was present. For all of the same-style racing, a distinctly old-school Bristol look was there.

What's to make of all of that? It's hard to tell if the elements of classic Bristol on display were truly the result of a new track configuration or the entertaining results of a few on-track shenanigans. It does indeed look like the new surface, high-groove and all, has produced racing that while similar to recent years, has enough of a different warp and woof to qualify the racing style as new and improved. At least somewhat.

There might have been more yellow flags thrown on Saturday evening, but this writer gives a cautious but truly green wave of the rag to the re-redone Bristol. New doubts might still be present, but not enough to get in the way of some old-fashioned Bristol enthusiasm.

Luke: As I wrote earlier this week, there's a fine line to tread on the issue of whether or not the old Bristol is back following the recent renovations. Without a doubt, the action was scintillating, with cautions falling fierce and aplenty. One-groove racing was in vogue and the old chrome horn was back in style. Brian Vickers made a Kyle Busch-esque save en route to his second Bristol top-five of the year. Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth hatched a controversy, while SHR underling Danica Patrick did the same with Regan Smith shortly thereafter. By any measure, it was one of the best races of the 2012 season.

However, there was one major, and unexpected, difference from the Bristol of years gone by. The fast groove was not the low line, as before. Surprisingly enough, it was the top line--which now has less banking than in the spring race--that provided the quickest trip around the joint.

Why was that the case? No one seems to quite know. Will the top groove remain the undisputed preferred line in races to come? That's anyone's guess.

But wherever the cars ran fastest, the overall effect for the spectators was much the same as back in the good ol' days at Thunder Valley. Long gone appear to be the days of single-digit cautions, let alone the recent snoozefests with but four or five stoppages at the half-mile bullring of NASCAR.

Perhaps the only disappointment was the lack of more theatrics at the end of the event, when Denny Hamlin pulled away and cruised to a relatively comfortable margin of victory. But not every race has to end in a green-white-checkered finish, and fans appreciate seeing the best cars finish up front rather than having the winner decided by stock car version of Russian roulette.

In conclusion, the old Bristol is not "back," at least not in a verbatim sense. But in its spirit and the excitement it brings to the heart of NASCAR fans, I'm happy to award the green flag of confidence that Bristol is back in style!

Final analysis: There is consensus among Sports-at-Work prognosticators, with the hypothesis of "Bristol is back" receiving a solid green flag of approval.


Photo courtesy of NASCARmedia.com

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