NASCAR went full bore into the bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday and put on a magnificent show.
Pit strategy played a role. Different drivers fought for the lead at different times of the race. Survival was key as competitors were forced to dodge crashes and mechanical failures.
It was everything that short-track racing in NASCAR should be.
The series gave fans the first taste of this lower-downforce short-track package at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, the final race before the sport was placed on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That race received rave reviews as drivers were able to pass more effectively while also being forced to wrestle their cars through the corners.
This year’s package for tracks under 1.25 miles in length was changed after those races produced multiple snoozefests. When aerodynamic dependency limits passing at a track like Martinsville – the shortest circuit on NASCAR’s schedule at 0.519 miles – problems are evident.
So this year, NASCAR kept horsepower higher (750 hp) but trimmed the spoiler on the trunk decklid significantly, reducing stability in the rear of the car. At intermediate tracks such as Pocono Raceway, Michigan International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, that tall spoiler remains along with a 550-hp motor in efforts to allow for more drafting and hopefully more passing.
None of the latter mattered on Sunday at Bristol. It was a classic, physical, full-contact 500 laps that saw as many bent tempers as there were bent fenders.
It helps, of course, when the reigning most popular driver, Chase Elliott, is involved in a main storyline for the third consecutive week.
After tangling with Kyle Busch in Darlington, losing the Coca-Cola 600 due to pit strategy at Charlotte, and redeeming himself with a Charlotte win on Thursday, Elliott found himself in contention for another win Sunday at Bristol.
Instead, an overaggressive move into Turn 3 with three laps remaining saw Elliott slide underneath 2018 Cup Series champion Joey Logano and slam both of them against the outside wall, ending their chances at winning and relegating them to finishes outside the top 20.
Elliott, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, is an obvious fan favorite. Logano, thanks to prior dust-ups with a multitude of drivers, is not always well-received. Combine the two, and NASCAR fans have fodder for days.
Hard racing, meaningful battles and dramatic highlights have always fueled the allure of stock-car racing. Perhaps with the exception of a strung-out, single-file Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend, NASCAR appears to be checking all of the right boxes.
The only glaring absence is that of the fans, who aren’t expected to be allowed to attend races for some time yet. On Friday, Pocono Raceway announced it would host its 2020 events without fans.
The nation is hurting right now. While protests and riots have taken their rightful place at center stage over the past week, the threat of the coronavirus still lingers as do many Americans’ lost jobs.
Fans returning to watch a race should not be the main focus in a time like this. But when they are allowed back, NASCAR will have to take into account the risks that come with allowing any number of people at the track.
As for the on-track action, NASCAR seems to be delivering a quality product it can be proud of. Fans can only hope they see it in person sooner rather than later – with safety first in mind.