By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
BRISTOL, Tenn. — The moment practice ended at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch climbed the steep banking of the concrete bullring. He checked the track temperature in several spots, then used his shoes to test the grip of the surface as he scuffed his way back down.
There’s a sticky situation heading into today’s race in Thunder Valley, and it’s causing fits for the drivers.
“It’s tough to trust, it’s tough to predict,” said Busch, a five-time Bristol winner.
Bristol officials applied a VHT resin to the track surface that is intended to enhance grip. The TrackBite is much wider than it was last summer, when Bristol first tried it in August in an effort to make a stronger second lane. The top lane for years had been the preferred line, but the wider swath of VHT seems to have made the bottom of the track the place to be as drivers used limited practice time to prepare for Sunday.
Intermittent rain at Bristol has wiped out a ton of the notes drivers have gathered about the surface because every time they think they’ve figured out a lane, the showers wash off any tire rubber that’s been accumulated. The Xfinity Series race was stopped for rain Saturday, hours after the Cup drivers had completed their final practice.
“The surface was real slick and then it was really grippy and then it started to slicken back up,” Brad Keselowski said. “It’s going to be an evolving surface race, so that just means it’s going to be tough. We’re supposed to be the best, so we’ll have to figure it out.
“It’s changing faster than I can keep up with it. This will be a weekend full of things we’ve never seen before, which usually means the field is privy to making a lot of mistakes, a lot of action, a lot of wrecks and that’s not always a bad thing.”
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said the driver’s council met during the fall and was in favor of Bristol continuing to explore using the VHT because “we were all eager to make sure it was back down and thought that it did offer more options.
“I welcome any change that might be thrown at us and any opportunity to create different lanes and searching around the race track,” he said.
Only every time on the track, the bottom lane is where everyone wants to be — all but current points leader Kyle Larson.
Larson, who starts on the pole because Friday qualifying was washed out, was among only a handful of drivers trying to run near the wall during practice. It almost bit him during Saturday morning’s session when he spun and clipped the outside wall. It caused only cosmetic damage to his car.
But, after running a chunk of practice on the bottom line, he went to work on the top and wondered why so few other drivers were willing to try to make it a two-lane track.
“I feel like it would still be really fast up there [in the top lane], it’s just nobody is brave enough to go up there and work in the groove,” Larson said. “The VHT is wider than the width of our race cars now, too, which makes it extremely easy to run around the bottom.”
Should the top line fail to become appealing by race time, Bristol could revert to the way it once was — a one-lane track in which bumping a car out of the way was the only way to make a pass.
THE OLD WAYS
The current crop of younger drivers in NASCAR’s top series has never experienced the old bump-and-run ways that made Bristol famous. It could be a disadvantage to Larson and Chase Elliott, who both start on the front row.
“I mean I will probably have to go back and watch like 1980 Bristol or something like that,” Larson quipped. “Myself and Chase, who I feel like have been the fastest all year long who are young, haven’t gotten to race around Bristol when it’s been on the bottom.
“I think you will see some of the veterans, the older guys who did get to run on the old Bristol excel if it does end up being around the bottom.”
Kyle Busch led the field in Saturday’s final practice. He had two wins at this point of the season last year but has yet to visit victory lane this season.
In fact, all of Joe Gibbs Racing is still seeking its first Cup victory.
Busch led the field with a lap at 128.563 mph and teammate Daniel Suarez was second at 128.262.
Kasey Kahne posted the best 10-lap average at 127.482 mph.
Juan Pablo Montoya was back at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday as part of a sponsor announcement for his Indianapolis 500 car.
Montoya will compete for Team Penske with Fitzgerald Glider Kits as sponsor, and the company also sponsored Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol.
“I love this place,” Montoya said. “The biggest problem I had with a stock car was it had no grip. Here, with the banking, it made up a lot of grip. I always ran really well here. This was a fun place for me.”
Montoya only has two scheduled IndyCar races this year, both with Penske at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But could the relationship with Penske and Fitzgerald Glider Kits give him another shot somewhere?
“I don’t know,” he said. “They tell me go here, I go there. I mean they say, ‘Jump,’ I say ‘How high?’”