BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Race one prompted the helmet toss. Race two featured the former teammate fracas. Will race three at the reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway be more of the same or even more of what fans seem to feed on?
With just two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races thus far on the retooled .533-mile bullring, it's premature to render a verdict on what sort of track Bristol has become. According to the early reviews, however, the changes are a huge hit.
Speedway officials announced in grand fashion after last spring's Food City 500 that they would alter the track to promote closer-quarters racing, something that was missing after the surface shifted to progressive banking in 2007. The grinding away of the top lane of concrete didn't exactly return the track to its previous condition, but it's hard to argue with the positive response.
"I would say that the old Bristol isn't back. I quite honestly feel like this one's better," said Brad Keselowski, who finished third Sunday after winning two of the previous three Bristol races. "Now it's hard because you don't have the nostalgia effect, the Terry Labonte-Dale Earnhardt battles for the win, all that kind of stuff. That's not coming back. But I think you have something better than that right now.
"I know there's a lot of people that don't see it that way. I think if you look at it objectively, this was a great race."
Every great race needs a camera-friendly highlight with a side of controversy. After Sunday, the new track is 2-for-2.
Last fall, Tony Stewart meted out revenge after his crash with Matt Kenseth by winging his helmet squarely at Kenseth's car on pit road. Sunday, it was Joey Logano and former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin doing their part. Their post-race discussion escalated into a shoving match between their crews, continued into a Twitter skirmish and included the memorable Logano quote: "That's a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car -- probably the worst teammate I ever had."
The sideshows and sound bites will be what fans remember. But beyond those etched-in images, the afternoon with plenty of two- and sometimes three-wide racing likely will also stand the test of time.
"It's a very racy track. It's a bit of an unknown," Keselowski said. "It changes a lot throughout the race. Certainly you have the ability to run into each other like you always had, but you also have the ability to really work a lot of different lanes. That makes lap traffic and all that stuff really, really fun to go through and really fun to watch."
Before the race, scribes and drivers alike tried to predict what sort of event Bristol would produce. On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. struck a cautionary tone, saying "everybody needs to put away the pick-axes and hammers because we really don't know what makes a good race track."
After notching a steady sixth-place finish Sunday, Earnhardt's measured response seemed to reiterate his earlier statement: Leave Bristol alone.
"I hope the race was fun for the fans. I enjoy racing here," Earnhardt said. "What are you going to do? It's not the old Bristol any more and it won't be unless they spend several million dollars trying to get it back and even then, who knows if you could. You'll get everybody's opinions."
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