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Rookie drivers facing unknowns at Bristol

Jeff Birchfield • May 29, 2020 at 1:00 PM

BRISTOL — Imagine the nerves of a rookie driver starting a NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time. Now imagine you have no time on the track for practice or qualifying before the race.

It’s the exact scenario facing Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell heading into Sunday’s Food City presents Supermarket Heroes 500.

Reddick, the two-time Xfinity Series champion and winner of last August’s Food City 300, believes racing on the high-banked short track could be interesting from the start.

“The first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap. That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it,” said Reddick during an online press conference. “I’ve run Truck races there through my career, and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much.”

While the PJ-1 compound is put on the track’s turns to make them sticky and allow for multiple grooves of racing, the driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet believes it could have the opposite effect with no practice laps.

“The traction compound is slick — you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out,” he said. “You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.”

He speaks from personal experience, being on the race track when the compound used in drag racing was first used as an experiment at an oval track in August 2016. He started out running in the middle of the track and was OK. It changed when he tried driving different lines.

“I wanted to try the bottom (of the track), so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s not going to work.’ I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence. I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

Bell, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, sees Bristol as a much different place with no practice than Darlington or Charlotte, which have hosted races in recent days. The teams are coming to Bristol with a different set of rules for the car than last August. It’s a low-downforce package to make it more challenging for the drivers.

“It has the potential to be tougher than Darlington and Charlotte,” Bell said. “We only have one race under our belts with the short-track package and that was at Phoenix. Nobody knows what to expect when we show up there. With these race cars, you try to get them all the way to the ground, but yet not hit the ground. It’s going to be a double-edged sword there. It’s going to be fun to see who gets their car the best off the truck.”

The nature of BMS makes it a challenge in itself. Bell, who won the spring 2019 Xfinity Series race at Bristol, likes the way a driver has to navigate around lapped cars on the .533-mile oval. What he is going to miss the most is no fans in the stands due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s going to be really weird,” he said. “Pre-race and post-race has been really different. Whenever we get inside the race car, it’s more normal. There’s a huge void there with no fans.”

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