Drivers left scratching heads after huge swing in Bristol conditions

Ryan Blaney enjoyed his Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway despite a drastic change in track conditions between NASCAR Cup Series practice and qualifying.

“A fun day, overall,” Blaney said after winning the pole. “A pretty challenging day, I think, for everybody trying to figure out what the track was doing, what this tire was doing, and where your car needs to get better. It was pretty challenging, which was fun. That’s kind of neat when we’re guessing and things like that.

“Especially qualifying was really interesting because in the first round, I had tons of grip — everybody did — but it was still tricky. You still had people missing the bottom and going for it and slipping out of it, and it was a narrow strip [of track] you had to get. Then, in the second round, I don’t think anyone knew how much grip was going to be lost, like how much we were going to slow down. That was a tricky situation.”


Blaney was fastest in the lone practice session and then in qualifying. The Team Penske driver didn’t seem to have the same white-knuckle experiences some of his fellow competitors did with cars that were suddenly out of control.

The track began to change late in practice before becoming noticeably different in qualifying when drivers started sliding all over the racetrack. Justin Haley was one of the drivers who had to catch his Rick Ware Racing car after it got away from him more than once. Chris Buescher was another driver who was left trying to hang on when his RFK Racing Ford got loose.

Buescher said afterward he didn’t predict the resin would wear off as quickly as it did. NASCAR sprayed the bottom lane of the racetrack at the start of the weekend, looking to add a potential groove, with the top having been the dominant way around Bristol over the last few races.

The RFK pilot qualified 34th out of 36 drivers.

Some drivers were left wondering if the resin was coming up during practice and qualifying, and Buescher admitted he was “not feeling like it’s working how I had hoped. I don’t know if everyone else is happy, but I’m not liking where it’s at right now.”

Todd Gilliland of Front Row Motorsports called his Saturday drive “nerve-wracking.” Legacy Motor Club’s John Hunter Nemechek pondered if it was more car-related, coupled with how each driver attacked the corners. Austin Cindric pointed at the tires and said his Team Penske car drove completely differently after going from one set to another.

Nemechek qualified 26th and Gilliland, 24th. Cindric qualified 21st.

Martin Truex Jr. summed up the day by saying something different is going on at Bristol than what the field is used to, as if the track didn’t drive like resin was laid down.

“We had that quick caution at the start of Group B practice, and there was a lot of dirt blown around from the jet dryer,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “I don’t know if it just covered the bottom up with marbles and dirt and whatnot, but the track was obviously in terrible shape for our practice and really slick, really hard to get a read on. It was just really difficult.

“It made it hard to know [what] to do for qualifying; that hurt me a little bit, but still a decent starting spot for us. But we really didn’t learn anything in practice at all, which is difficult. You don’t get much as it is, and then to not learn anything is tough for tomorrow.”

If track conditions are the same for the Cup Series race Sunday, drivers like Nemechek, Buescher, and William Byron believe the bottom won’t be effective. Byron thinks it will be fine on new tires, but the field will move to the top lane because of the quick pace.

“It was slick for sure,” Byron said after qualifying eighth in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “It was not the most fun thing, but when you realize everyone is running that speed, you kind of realize there’s not much more grip to go get. It was definitely weird recycling on tires and running three-quarters of a second slower and then trying to figure out what your car needs for that pace.

“It was definitely a lot different. We were just OK today; I think we have a lot of room to improve, but it’s a unique challenge.”

Nemechek hopes NASCAR doesn’t do anything with the resin because he’ll need the top lane to make up ground. Michael McDowell, who qualified seventh for Front Row Motorsports, shared a similar sentiment because he felt it was “kind of fun” how the track was Saturday.

“We’ll see what happens for tonight’s truck race,” McDowell said, “And then I’m sure they’ll make a decision on how they’re going to do whatever it is they’re going to do.”

Saturday night’s Craftsman Truck Series race followed Cup Series qualifying and was 250 laps. The Cup Series race will be 500 laps Sunday.

Story originally appeared on Racer