Bristol Returns to Racing on Concrete and Sets a New Record for Lead Changes

Denny Hamlin pulls off the win in one of the most exciting Bristol races in years.

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Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, TN — March 17, 2024

“It’s Bristol, Baby.” After three years of dirt racing, not a spec of red clay is in sight. The Bristol spring race returns to the Speedway’s concrete high banks. The experiment was fun and interesting and produced some notable memories. However, most fans and drivers are ready to move on or move back to “racing the way it ought to be.”

The race’s Title Sponsor, Food City, celebrates its 32nd year—the second-longest race sponsorship in NASCAR. Bristol Motor Speedway is honoring the brand with a throwback weekend, using the original race logo from that 1992 race. The track also painted the outside retaining wall red and white, reflective of that era.

As the Food City 500 returns to its traditional concrete surface and Sunday afternoon race time, the company has grown by leaps and bounds during that time period. Food City will celebrate its 34th anniversary in the sport. In 1992, the company had 4,800 employees, and now that it has expanded into five states, it boasts nearly 19,000 employees.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is once again the NASCAR Cup Series point standings leader after becoming the only driver this season to post three top-five finishes in the first four races of 2024. The reigning Cup champion currently holds a 10-point lead over second-place Kyle Larson and third-place Martin Truex Jr.

There has not been a repeat champion since the current playoff format was adopted. Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat. He recorded five straight championships (2006-2010) in the Cup series.

Today’s Race

Blaney is on the pole for today’s race, and fellow Ford Mustang Dark Horse driver Josh Berry will start beside him.

Ryan Blaney / Lasco Press Photo

Qualifying is important each week but can be even more so in a race like today’s Food City 500, given how quickly cars can go a lap down at a short track like Bristol Motor Speedway. Interestingly, 27 of the 123 NASCAR Cup Series races held at Bristol Motor Speedway have been won from the pole or first starting position, a winning percentage of 21.95%—the most of any starting position on the grid. Current drivers who have accomplished the feat are Brad Keselowski (2020), Denny Hamlin (2019) and Kyle Busch (2018).

Active Bristol Winners (6) Wins Seasons
Kyle Busch 8 2019, ’18, ’17, ’11, ’10, ’09 sweep, ’07
Brad Keselowski 3 2020, ’12, ’11
Denny Hamlin 3 2023, ’19, ’12
Joey Logano 2 2015, ’14
Chris Buescher 1 2022
Kyle Larson 1 2021

 

Stages today are set for 125/125/250 laps. The fuel window is approximately 175 laps. However tire wear will have a bigger impact on pit stop timing.

Who is the favorite? Veterans have been gobbling up the wins at Bristol for the last 20+ years. There hasn’t been a first-time winner at the track since 2002. Big names have earned their first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway, including Dale Earnhardt (April 1, 1979), Rusty Wallace (April 6, 1986), Ernie Irvan (March 25, 1990), Elliott Sadler (March 25, 2001) and Kurt Busch (March 24, 2002).

Will we see a new winner this weekend? Twelve different drivers (33% of the drivers entered this weekend) are looking for their first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, including Josh Berry, Harrison Burton, Ty Gibbs, Todd Gilliland, Noah Gragson, Kaz Grala, Daniel Hemric, Carson Hocevar, Corey Lajoie, John H. Nemechek, Ryan Preece, and Zane Smith.

The Last Great Colosseum has been the scene of some memorable races and exciting finishes. The return to concrete could produce just such an event.

Stage One

Ryan Blaney(12) fired off into turn one with the lead. But Josh Berry(4) stuck his nose inside Blaney’s car and got back to side-by-side racing. Four laps in, Berry cleared Blaney and pulled away to a four-car length lead.

Joey Logano(22) started outside the second row and could not get to the preferred bottom line. He dropped 10 spots in the first six laps before an opening appeared. Logano was soon involved in an incident as he was pushed up the track and made slight contact with William Byron(24). Byron hit the wall and broke the toe link on the right rear.

On lap 22, the caution was waved for debris on the track, just as Denny Hamlin(11) had driven to the front of the pack.

Tyler Reddick(45) stayed on the track while the remainder of the field pitted under the yellow flag. The stops scrambled the standings, with Berry out first to take second, followed by Bubba Wallace(23), Chase Elliott(9) and Martin Truex Jr.(19).

Byron went six laps down as his crew repaired the race car.

When the race restarted, Reddick was loose on worn tires. Before they could complete a lap, Berry tapped Reddick, and he went around, bringing out the caution for the second time.

Restarting again, it was Bubba Wallace and Berry on the front row. Berry passed for the lead and held it for a couple of laps until Wallace returned to the front. However, Hamlin was the man on the move. Quickly driving to the front, he brought Blaney and Chase Elliott(9) with him.

With the second groove starting to come in, two-by-two racing was back, and passes for the lead were happening every lap or two. Hamlin, Blaney, Elliott, and Kyle Busch(8) all took a turn at the front.

Zane Smith(71) blew a right front tire and scattered debris around the race track. Caution number three gave the teams another chance to pit and check their tire wear. Many teams reported the right-side tires were wearing into the cords. Teams only had 10 sets of tires to last the afternoon. Tire wear quickly became the concern of every team on pit road. Smith lost four laps getting repairs to the body of his car after the blown tire incident.

Hamlin, Blaney, Elliott, Busch, and Brad Keselowski(6) were the top five when the race restarted.

With laps running down in the Stage, drivers were more concerned about getting to the end of the stage than earning Stage Points. Hamlin lost a right rear tire and tapped the wall. Kyle Busch dropped positions before spinning in turn two. Busch had to drive in reverse down the back stretch to get into turn three, where he could turn the car around.

Drivers who could manage their tires drove to the front. Ty Gibbs(54) earned the first Stage win of his Cup Career.

Ty Gibbs wins Stage One at Bristol / Lasco Press Photo

Results of Stage One

POS CAR DRIVER POINTS
1 54 Ty Gibbs 10
2 5 Kyle Larson 9
3 17 Chris Buescher* 8
4 6 Brad Keselowski* 7
5 42 John Hunter Nemechek 6
6 12 Ryan Blaney* 5
7 19 Martin Truex Jr. 4
8 20 Christopher Bell 3
9 41 Ryan Preece* 2
10 4 Josh Berry * 1

*Ford Mustang Drivers

Stage Two

Kyle Larson(5), Keselowski, Gibbs, Blaney, and John Hunter Nemechek(42) led the field back to the green flag. The Stage started with 28 cars on the lead lap. Kyle Busch was a lap down after his tire incident at the end of Stage One.

Gibbs drove away at the drop of the green flag. Truex took a turn at the lead, becoming the 10th leader of the race and making the 20th lead change of the race. Truex relinquished the lead back to Gibbs. Then Larson took the lead for a few laps before Gibbs returned to the top spot. Hamlin returned to the lead for two laps

It appears drivers can pass at will. The question is, how long will the tires last before the leaders experience excessive wear and begin to drop back? The race pace has definitely slowed, with 18-second laps being turned when 15-second laps are the norm.

The caution waved on lap 175 as cars stacked up back in the pack due to the slower speeds. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.(47), Smith, and Daniel Hemric(31) were involved. It was perfect timing for the drivers to bring their cars to pit road and get fresh tires.

Checking tire wear and making adjustments will be critical in helping the drivers manage their tire wear, and the team that hits the right formula will have a huge advantage in the race.

The race off pit road went to Chris Buescher(17). Truex, Gibbs, Christopher Bell(20), Todd Gilliland(38) and Larson followed Buescher. Gibbs had a tire get away from their crew and was penalized by being sent to the rear of the field.

Given the circumstances, Gibbs’ crew decided to bring their driver back to the pit road and put on a set of scuffs. Saving a set of tires at this point in the race could be a key strategic move.

NASCAR announced they will release one more set of tires to each team. This will deplete Goodyear’s inventory at the track, but saving rubber will still be critical.

It is hard to tell a race car driver to slow down and save tires. Bell drove to the front, Truex followed, Nemechek, Logano, and Larson were the top five when the field settled down and ran single file.

After just 35 laps of green flag racing, Ty Gibbs drove from the rear of the field to the top ten. On lap 225, Gibbs was in third place. But what about his tires?

Kyle Larson’s tires went away, and he dropped to the 10th position.  Kyle Busch spun off turn two on lap 227. Again, perfect timing for the crews to put on fresh Goodyears for a sprint to the end of Stage Two.

Kyle Larson / Lasco Press Photo

The tire wear is causing the marbles (bits of tires) to accumulate on the track. NASCAR has the sweepers and jet blower out on every caution period to clean the track. The process extends the time cars circle the track under the yellow flag.

Ryan Blaney was caught entering the pits too fast and was penalized by being forced to the field’s rear for the restart. Corey LaJoie(7) and Carson Hocevar(77) stayed out in an attempt to gain track points. Bell, Nemechek, Logano, and Hamlin were first out of the pits.

The race restarted with 12 laps to go in the Stage. With five laps to go, the running order had changed. It was Logano, Gibbs, Keselowski, Nemechek, and Bell.

When the green and white checkered flag waved, Gibbs repeated as the Stage winner. Keselowski also passed Logano on the final lap.

Results of Stage Two

POS CAR DRIVER POINTS
1 54 Ty Gibbs 10
2 6 Brad Keselowski* 9
3 22 Joey Logano* 8
4 42 John Hunter Nemechek 7
5 20 Christopher Bell 6
6 19 Martin Truex Jr. 5
7 11 Denny Hamlin 4
8 5 Kyle Larson 3
9 23 Bubba Wallace 2
10 41 Ryan Preece* 1

*Ford Mustang Drivers

The Final Stage

Ty Gibbs leads the field back to the green flag. He was followed by Truex, Bell, Logano, Nemechek, and Gilliland in the first three rows.

The longest green flag run of the day began the race’s Final Stage. With 200 laps to go, Joe Gibbs Racing(JGR) dominated the front of the field. Truex led, and Bell ran second. Ty Gibbs sat in third, and Denny Hamlin was running fourth.

Denny Hamlin / Lasco Press Photo

On lap 310, Josh Berry spun and brought out the caution flag, allowing teams to pit under the yellow for tire replacements. So far, tire issues have jumbled the field, but cautions have cooperated by coming at the right time to avoid mass chaos. Will that trend continue as the race progresses?

The race restarted with 178 to go. Ty Gibbs shot from the second row to the lead on the drop of the green. Hamlin, Bell, Larson, and Truex followed as the JGR team dominance continued.

By lap 360,  everyone seemed to be struggling with tire wear. With 123 laps to go, Austin Cindric(2) and Stenhouse got together in turn four and spun. Another yellow and another mad rush to pit road for fresh tires.

Larson incurred a pit stop infraction for interfering with another team when a tire got loose. He was sent to the rear for the restart.

Hamlin, Bell, Gibbs, Larson, Truex, and Keselowski were first off pit road. With 121 laps to go, the race went back to green. Again, the four JGR teammates lined up at the front.

As the race progresses, the lap times are picking up. Racers are racers. The final 50 laps should be quite the scene.

Gibbs moved to the lead. The second-year driver seems intent on winning his first Cup series event this afternoon. Gibbs currently has led more laps in the race than any other driver.

For the most part, the remainder of the pack seems resigned to the fact that it may be Gibbs or JGR’s race to lose, as everyone is logging laps to get to that 40-50 laps to-go point.

With 75 laps to go, tires are again beginning to go away. No one wants to be the first to pit, but someone will be the first to spin when a tire completely gives away.

Everyone wants a caution, but no one wants to be the reason for the caution. Josh Berry pitted under the green and lost two laps to the field.

But, more and more cars are coming to pit road. Gibbs had a right rear tire go down and lost a lap before he could get to the pit road. Hamlin pitted with 52 laps to go.

Eventually, everyone pitted under green flag racing conditions as drivers ran their tires until they began to lose air.

The Finish

After pit stops were completed, only 11 cars remained on the lead lap. Ty Gibbs was not one of them.

Out front, Hamlin led, Truex ran second, and they were a half lap ahead of the rest of the pack. The race has produced a new record for NASCAR short-track racing, and there are still 25 laps to go.

Hamlin and Truex are navigating lapped traffic. It is only a matter of time before the culminating event of the race happens.

Truex took the lead as lapped traffic slowed Hamlin. Lapped traffic raced three wide to avoid going another lap down. Truex closed to Hamlin’s bumper as the laps wound down to under 10 to go.

With five laps to go, cars all around the track were losing traction. When Hamlin took the white flag, Truex’s car seemed to go away. Hamlin took the checkered flag by 12 car lengths over his teammate.

Five cars remained on the lead lap at the conclusion of the race. There were 54 lead changes among 17 drivers recorded at the start/finish line, with many more occurring around the “World’s Fastest Half Mile.”

If you want tickets for the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol in September, buy them now. After this performance, it will surely sell out. What a Race!

NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings

RK DRIVER POINTS STATUS
1 Kyle Larson 185 IN WIN
2 Denny Hamlin 173 IN WIN
3 Christopher Bell 138 IN WIN
4 William Byron 136 IN WIN
5 Daniel Suarez 133 IN WIN
6 Martin Truex Jr. 185 +75
7 Ty Gibbs 178 +68
8 Ryan Blaney* 177 +67
9 Chase Elliott 152 +42
10 Ross Chastain 151 +41
11 Tyler Reddick 137 +27
12 Alex Bowman 132 +22
13 Brad Keselowski* 125 +15
14 Chris Buescher* 124 +14
15 John Hunter Nemechek 124 +14
16 Kyle Busch 122 +12
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Cut Line
17 Michael McDowell* 110 -12
18 Bubba Wallace 107 -15
19 Chase Briscoe* 107 -15
20 Erik Jones 101 -21
21 Austin Cindric* 93 -29
22 Corey LaJoie 86 -36
23 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 84 -38
24 Carson Hocevar 80 -42
25 Daniel Hemric 76 -46

*Ford Mustang Drivers

Larson and Truex are tied atop the points, with Larson already into the playoffs with his win at Las Vegas. Drivers missing from the top 25 include Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, and Ryan Preece.

Results of Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway

POS CAR DRIVER BEHIND LAPS
1 11 Denny Hamlin 500
2 19 Martin Truex Jr. 1.083 500
3 6 Brad Keselowski 7.284 500
4 48 Alex Bowman 14.342 500
5 5 Kyle Larson 15.155 500
6 42 John Hunter Nemechek -1 499
7 17 Chris Buescher -1 499
8 9 Chase Elliott -1 499
9 54 Ty Gibbs -1 499
10 20 Christopher Bell -1 499
11 34 Michael McDowell -1 499
12 4 Josh Berry -1 499
13 14 Chase Briscoe -2 498
14 41 Ryan Preece -2 498
15 1 Ross Chastain -2 498
16 12 Ryan Blaney -2 498
17 51 Justin Haley -2 498
18 99 Daniel Suarez -2 498
19 15 Kaz Grala -2 498
20 43 Erik Jones -2 498
21 7 Corey LaJoie -2 498
22 22 Joey Logano -2 498
23 16 AJ Allmendinger -2 498
24 3 Austin Dillon -2 498
25 8 Kyle Busch -2 498
26 38 Todd Gilliland -3 497
27 77 Carson Hocevar -3 497
28 31 Daniel Hemric -4 496
29 23 Bubba Wallace -4 496
30 45 Tyler Reddick -5 495
31 2 Austin Cindric -5 495
32 21 Harrison Burton -5 495
33 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -5 495
34 10 Noah Gragson -6 494
35 24 William Byron -8 492
36 71 Zane Smith -308 192