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The good and bad from Bristol race weekend

By Jeff Birchfield • Apr 8, 2019 at 9:23 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Bristol Motor Speedway again delivered a great race with plenty of hard-nosed, side-by-side racing and passes for the lead in Sunday’s Food City 500.

There were 21 lead changes among nine different drivers and 11 cautions, including five for multicar incidents, making for a competitive and exciting race.

Since the track started applying the PJ1 compound to the turns to give the cars more grip, the racing has gotten significantly better. Sunday’s race was the best to date because the compound didn’t wear off as much in the final laps as it had in previous 500-lap races.

While racetrack officials aren’t going to openly cheer for certain drivers, BMS got all it could ask for with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott winning the pole Friday. Then the race ended with the anti-hero, Kyle Busch, outdueling his brother, Kurt, and the rest of the field to earn his eighth Monster Energy Cup Series win at Bristol.

Making it more interesting, Busch got spun out at the start of the race and had to charge through the field in his Toyota to become a contender.

For fans of other car makes, the Fords of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano led a significant part of race. With Kurt Busch, there was a shot for Chevrolet to get its first win of the season.

It all seemed perfect with ideal weather conditions, a little overcast for part of the day and sunny for the rest, making it not too hot or too cold.

What was missing were the fans.

Veteran reporters in the press box estimated around 35,000 in attendance for Sunday’s race with none of the seats in the turns sold. The grandstands overseeing the frontstretch and backstretch had plenty of empty spaces.

While it was pointed out that it’s still the second-largest sporting event in the Tri-Cities behind the August Night Race crowd, it’s nothing like 12 to 15 years ago when a ticket to a NASCAR race at Bristol rivaled the Masters and Packers’ home games as the hottest tickets in sports.

In the early 2000s, over 100,000 fans attended the Saturday Xfinity Series races at Bristol. The crowd for Sunday’s race wasn’t much larger than the track attracted back in those days for qualifying.

Fans have voiced their displeasure about the resurfacing and reconfiguration of the track in 2007, a move that many tend to forget was necessary with the metal rebar under the concrete starting to come up in the turns.

The track has successfully addressed the issues of boring racing that followed the next few years with the addition of the PJ1, which has added competition, although not as many of the spectacular wrecks as in the past.

There are still the issues outside the track like the local hotels price-gouging, which NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer ranted about on his Twitter account with the question of why they charge three times as much on race weekend.

That being said, there were fewer campers for the weekend than anytime I can remember.

Other problems lie within NASCAR itself and how a generation of fans has been lost. The complaints of many of the old-school, core fans were often dismissed as “You can’t do anything to make some people happy.”

That is true to a degree, especially in this day of social media and message boards where it often seems no one is happy about anything. Whether it’s a retail business, the newspapers or a sports organization, you still have to listen to the complaints of the customers and take them seriously.

To the credit of NASCAR, the teams and the tracks, they’ve tried some bold new initiatives like introducing the ROVAL at Charlotte and shaking up the 2020 schedule.

Still, the fans haven’t gotten excited about a new group of racers after many of their favorites like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired.

It’s easy to point out problems and even easier to throw out negative comments about a “dying sport,” especially when many of those come from people who aren’t NASCAR fans to begin with.

I’m a big believer in the ebbs and flows in life and, yes, NASCAR is in a serious downturn right now. With that being said, I believe there will a significantly larger crowd for the August Night Race, which is truly one of the marquee events on the calendar.

As for the spring race, there is good news with Food City extending the sponsorship for three more years. It shows the brand’s faith in the sport and the track.

Unless you’re in it just for spectacular wrecks, the racing at Bristol is better than ever before. Whether that’s enough to attract more fans to the spring race, we will see next April.

THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN COEBURN

Clay Valley Speedway had to halt its racing action Saturday night when a power outage knocked out all the lights at the track. The former Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, now a dirt track, hosts the $4,000-to-win Schaffer’s Oil Spring Nationals on Friday.

In addition to the Super Late Models, the Crate Late Models, Open Wheels and Pure 4s will be in action. Hot laps are scheduled to kick off the night’s racing at 7 p.m. Adult general admission is $20 and adult pit passes are $40.

WELCOME BACK

After a week off, Kingsport Speedway returns to action Friday with the weekly NASCAR Whelen All-American Series program at the three-eighths-mile dirt track. Headlining this week’s racing are the 60-lap Late Model Stock feature and twin features for the Pure 4 division.

Volunteer Speedway, the four-tenths-mile dirt track at Bulls Gap, has a weekly program Saturday with the Fastrack Late Models, the Sportsman Late Models, Mod Street, Classics, Mini Stock and Open Wheel divisions.

Contact Jeff Birchfield via email at jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com.

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