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No practice, no fans: Peculiar world greets racers at Bristol

Jeff Birchfield • May 31, 2020 at 10:00 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — No practice, no qualifying and no fans.

It’s not the ideal situation for NASCAR drivers racing at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday and Monday, although all involved are happy to be back on the track.

For Cole Custer, a NASCAR Cup Series rookie racing in Sunday’s Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500, the challenge is even greater.

“For a rookie, it’s the worst nightmare going to Bristol with no practice,” said the driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford. “It would be nice to have a practice to go through some things, but we’re able to watch videos and go to the Ford simulator to get ideas about going to the track. We will try to get through that first lap and work on our cars from there.”

Custer, who’s had two Xfinity Series pole positions at Bristol, will miss the fans. He was looking forward to Bristol’s unique driver introductions and the way the fans interact with the racers.

“Bristol is the place you walk out on the stage, have your own song and have everything going on,” he said. “To not have the fans, it’s going to be strange in the whole coliseum before and after the race. Once you get going in the car, you’re focused on the track. Before and after, it’s going to be a really strange feeling, almost hearing a pin drop on pit road.”

With little rest time between races, the drivers also have to put extra effort into staying hydrated so they don’t cramp up over the 500 grueling laps.

Ryan Preece, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet, is a former Bristol winner in both the Xfinity Series and Whelen Modified Series. He knows how quickly things happen at BMS, where the drivers can make a bigger difference than at some tracks by using the throttle and brakes.

“You kind of have to expect the unexpected,” he said. “With the VHT (PJT) compound, the bottom lane is really slippery for the first five or 10 minutes of practice. With 36 or 40 cars out there, that might speed up the process. But I think the racing is going to be really good.

“I think the field has been a heck of a lot closer over the course of these past few weeks just because it doesn’t give many people (the opportunity) to fine-tune. You’ve got what you’ve got. You can only do so much on pit stops. So I think the racing this weekend should be really good.”

John Hunter Nemechek, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, is a rookie like Custer. His team has been making strides since coming back from the coronavirus shutdown and he expects that to continue.

“I feel like our No. 38 Scag Power Equipment team has a lot of momentum going for us right now,” Nemechek said. “We’ve had some really encouraging, really strong runs at Darlington and Charlotte over the last couple of weeks. We’ve seen a lot of great speed and we’re making improvements each week to make sure that our results reflect that speed.”

The son of NASCAR veteran Joe Nemechek has won some of the biggest short-track races in the country, including the Snowball Derby in Florida and the All-American 400 in Nashville. He’s also done well at Bristol, posting top-three finishes in both the Xfinity and truck series. He knows a driver can easily make a mistake at Bristol.

“Bristol is a tough track all around. It’s fast and slick and it can be really unforgiving, so you’ve got to be on top of your game each and every lap,” he said. “Being able to pass and make the different grooves work for you will set you up for a good finish. It will be interesting to go in without practice and qualifying.”

ABOUT THE XFINITY RACE

Brandon Jones will be one of the favorites in Monday’s Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota said the races at Darlington and Charlotte with no practice and no qualifying have been intense and tested the drivers.

He expects more of a challenge at Bristol, although he has quite a lot of experience on the short track. Monday’s race will be his 10th Xfinity start at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”

“I’ve been racing there since K&N days, so I was 15, 16 years old. So I’ve been to Bristol a bunch,” he said. “I know my marks. But Bristol is a handful. Every time I come off of Bristol on a normal week with practice, I’m out of breath. It only takes five laps; you forget to breathe.

“It’s got so much load, so much g-force for a little track that it will surprise you quick. That’s going to be one thing that I have to keep in my mind — make sure we are using our breathing and make sure everything is good there. I will be out of breath for five laps till we get calmed down and get going again.”


Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 Lineup

At Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn.

Lap length: .533 miles

(Car number in parentheses)

1. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford.

2. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford.

3. (22) Joey Logano, Ford.

4. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford.

5. (19) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota.

6. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet.

7. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota.

8. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford.

9. (21) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford.

10. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota.

11. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet.

12. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet.

13. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet.

14. (42) Matt Kenseth, Chevrolet.

15. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota.

16. (47) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chevrolet.

17. (6) Ryan Newman, Ford.

18. (38) John Hunter Nemechek, Ford.

19. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford.

20. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet.

21. (8) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet.

22. (41) Cole Custer, Ford.

23. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford.

24. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet.

25. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford.

26. (53) Bayley Currey, Chevrolet.

27. (51) Joey Gase, Chevrolet.

28. (00) Quin Houff, Dodge, Chevrolet.

29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet.

30. (27) Gray Gaulding, Ford.

31. (77) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet.

32. (32) Corey LaJoie, Ford.

33. (37) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet.

34. (15) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet.

35. (95) Christopher Bell, Toyota.

36. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet.

37. (96) Daniel Suarez, Toyota.

38. (66) Timmy Hill, Toyota.

39. (78) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet.

40. (7) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet.

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