This Just In: Bristol Racing Tough On Tempers

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

There are faster tracks on the NASCAR Winston Cup Tour than Bristol Motor Speedway. There are bigger tracks, prettier tracks, fan-friendlier tracks than the high-banked, half-mile bullring in the hills of Tennessee. So why, year after year, do 100,000 fans spend a large chunk of their hard-earned paycheck to shoehorn their way into Bristol’s grandstands?

In a word? Action.

Saturday’s Busch Series race there tied the all-time record for caution flags. In fact, by the time the checkered flag flew, what few cars were still running closely resembled a giant plastic bag full of walnuts. Winner Greg Biffle saw his Victory Lane celebration delayed when Kevin Harvick hurdled the rear deck of Biffle’s Ford and wrapped his hands around the winner’s neck in an attempt to express his displeasure with being crashed out with a handful of laps remaining. At the same time, former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague was screaming obscenities at fourth-place finisher Jimmy Spencer, whose bank-shot maneuver on the final lap left Sprague’s Chevrolet in a similar steaming heap.

Sunday’s Winston Cup's “Food City 500” ended with fireworks, as well, as sophomore driver Kurt Busch punted his way past Spencer to claim the win, returning an earlier nerf job by “Mr. Excitement.” On the cool down lap, Robby Gordon spun Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s car out on pit road, after the two had engaged in a late-race beat and bang session of their own.

NASCAR fined Harvick $15,000 and put him on probation until late August, while Gordon was fined $10,000 and also placed on probation for five months. Earnhardt, Jr. was slapped with a $5,000 fine.

''Biffle's an idiot,'' said Harvick afterward. ''I just wasn't going to put up with it. You can't tolerate people shoving you around and putting you in the fence. I needed to let him know that I wasn't going to put up with it.''

''Harvick can dish it out but he can't take it,'' countered Biffle. ''I can't tell you how many people the guy has run over on a racetrack, me included. (He) runs into somebody, but he gets mad when somebody runs into him. He needs to be sent a message that that kind of behavior can't be tolerated in any level of NASCAR.”

''Kevin didn't used to be like that,'' said Biffle. ''He seems to have changed in the past year or two. Maybe (he’s) trying to be tough and impress people, but he's out of line. He's going to get himself in trouble if he keeps it up.''

Earnhardt and Gordon had similarly non-complimentary things to say about each other, as well.

Spencer, meanwhile, threw a few stones from within his own glass house, ripping Busch’s bump-and-run move, while conveniently ignoring an identical bumper job of his own just a few laps earlier.

"One thing you can't do is beat and bang with people and knock them up out of the way," said the self-described “man who never forgets,” somehow managing to keep a straight face.

While certain members of the media - and possibly a few NASCAR officials as well - saw Sunday’s dustups as a major threat to life, liberty and the American way, we’re here to tell you it’s not that bad. Last weekend was, at worst, a typical weekend at Bristol; the track where punt-and-run racing long ago became a way of life. After all, this is the place where the late Dale Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte out of the lead within sight of the checkered flag not many years ago; the track that saw Rusty Wallace hurl a bottle of water at “The Intimidator” after a late-race crash; the track where Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte once engaged in an impromptu game of “helmet toss” in an effort to express their displeasure.

From the time they unload the cars on Thursday, to the time the final fingers are pointed (or otherwise projected) in Victory Lane, Bristol provides the kind of rock`em, sock`em, fender-banging, top-blowing action race fans love. In this writer’s opinion, a little beating and banging adds spice to the soup, and when it’s all over, a few four-letter words and extended middle digits are far superior to the usual ration of cookie-cutter answers usually spewed in NASCAR’s Victory Lanes.

Fans love a little controversy. It gives them something to talk about while they wait for the mandatory, four-hour post race traffic jam to clear. And no matter what NASCAR and the television talking heads might say, they love it, too. Controversy sells tickets. Controversy raises TV ratings. Those are both good things.

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Structural changes are in the works at New Hampshire International Speedway. Track owner Bob
Bahre said this week that several inches of pavement will be removed from the bottom groove at both ends of the one-mile oval, before those sections of the track are repaved. The new groove - estimated to be approximately 22-feet wide -- will hopefully lead to increased passing at NHIS, currently one of the least competitive tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

"We want to put another groove down on the turns," said Bahre. "We hope to make it a little better racing, even though we thought the racing last fall was pretty good. If it doesn't work, it won't make it any worse, but we think it will work."

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…Steve Park is back behind the wheel of the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated/Pennzoil Winston Cup Chevrolet, but there’s no guarantee he’ll stay there. Brain injuries suffered during a Busch Series crash at Darlington last September produced double vision that sidelined Park for six months. And after no less than five on-track incidents in two races since returning two weeks ago, sources say that DEI and NASCAR will reevaluate Park to be sure his return was not premature.

Park was involved in two incidents with lapped cars in his first race at Darlington, and last week at Bristol,
he tangled with Buckshot Jones on lap 81, rear-ended Robby Gordon on lap 342, and suffered a solo spin on lap 408.

…The Granite State Mini-Sprints will make frequent visits to the quarter-mile Canaan Speedway dirt track this summer. Promoter C.V. Elms, III, has announced that the two-division club has been added to the Canaan racing card on six different nights this season, in addition to one outing at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford. The Mini Sprints will be at Canaan on May 17, June 14 and 28, July 16, August 9 and September 6. They will appear at Bear Ridge on August 24.

"The Mini Sprints are always fun to watch," said Elms. "They put on a fast-paced, exciting show, and they really get around the track. They make a perfect compliment to our own divisions, and I'm glad our schedules fit together so well."

…Former NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Darrell Waltrip will reportedly come out of retirement for a one-race run with Stacy Compton’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team. Waltrip, who has confined himself to the TV booth since his retirement at the end of the 2000 season, has already received clearance from NASCAR to return to the cockpit in the April 13 Truck Series race at Martinsville.

…And finally, from the Blatant Self-Promotion Department, we’re set to kick off our 23rd season of “The Inside Track with Dave Moody” Monday night, on WDEV FM 96.1 in Warren, WDEV AM 550 in Waterbury, and NewsTalk 1390/WKDR in Burlington. After a long, cold winter - and an even worse spring - we’ve got plenty of news to bring you up to speed on, and no shortage of live guests lined up to tell you all about it. There’s a new start time this year -- 5:30 p.m. instead of 6:00 as in seasons past - and also a new way for out-of-town fans to join the fray. Simply click on the appropriate link at www.wdevradio.com to hear the show anywhere in the world via the worldwide web.

My, how we’ve grown.