Let’s put in historical perspective what No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS driver Ty Dillon is about to face in Sunday’s Food City 500, when he drives a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car on the high banks of Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for the first time.
The 24-year-old Dillon will attempt to slay the .533-mile, 28-degree-banked, beast of an East Tennessee track that opened in 1960. Bristol is the fourth-largest sports venue in the United States with about 160,000 seats and is certainly the loudest with 40 cars circulating for 500 laps. After turning near-15-second lap times, drivers must also negotiate a narrow pit lane on both the front and back stretches. Whether it’s the speeds, traffic, number of laps or beating and banging, it all makes Bristol one of the toughest tracks in motorsports. Even before replacing the asphalt with concrete in 1992, Bristol was known in the sport as a track that devours most drivers – especially rookie drivers, even the ones who go on to win championships later in their careers.
|A third of the 21 drivers to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title since 1970 are competing full time in 2016. None of the seven scored a top-five finish in his first appearance at the “Last Great Colosseum.” Jimmie Johnson’s seventh-place finish in 2002 is the best of the active champions making his Bristol debut. None of the others managed a top-10 finish.
A deeper dive into the NASCAR history book reveals that not just the active champions, but nearly all the champions since 1970, struggled in their maiden voyage at Bristol.
Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac and Benny Parsons failed to score a top-10 on NASCAR’s second-shortest track. Even eventual 12-time Bristol winner Darrell Waltrip could only manage a 30th-place finish at Bristol in his first race. Some didn’t do too badly. Bill Elliott finished 10th in the fall of 1979, Terry Labonte seventh earlier that year, and Richard Petty earned a fourth-place finish his first time at Bristol in 1961.
There is an exception to every rule, and it occurred in the 1979 spring race when future seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt led 163 laps on his way to winning his rookie race at Bristol driving Rod Osterlund’s Chevrolet. In one of the quirks of history, Dillon’s grandfather Richard Childress, who was a driver-owner at the time, gave up racing and hired Earnhardt to drive his car midway through the 1981 season and, as they say, the rest became racing history. Childress, who was no slouch as a driver, posting six top-fives and 76 top-10s, couldn’t conquer Bristol his rookie year as he finished 18th in 1972.
The young Dillion has a few weapons of his own in Sunday’s Bristol battle. He’s finished in the top-10 in six of his eight NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series races since 2012 at Bristol. Plus, he’ll have the help of the three-time-champion Stewart, who’ll be on the radio with Dillon throughout the weekend. Dillon and Brian Vickers have served as interim drivers in 2016 while Stewart recovers from an offseason back injury.
Dillon’s greatest asset might be the speed of Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) No. 14 Chevrolet SS led by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz that has been on a roll of late. The team had posted three consecutive top-15 finishes and raced up to fourth at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth Saturdaynight before a pit lane spin and accident left Vickers with a 37th-place finish.
Dillon knows, with just 11 career Sprint Cup starts, he’s entering the ring with the toughest of opponents. But, conquering Bristol as a rookie would be an accomplishment few of the sport’s greats have equaled.
|TY DILLON, Substitute Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:|
|What are your thoughts on racing at Bristol?
“I think anyone who says they are a NASCAR fan likes Bristol. I’ve loved the place since I was a kid and I’ve loved racing there in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity series. I know how tough this weekend is going to be. The Sprint Cup race is a lot longer of a race, plus you are going against the best drivers in the world. Most of those guys have more starts at Bristol than I have all my starts combined. But I love a challenge and I am optimistic. The Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet is always fast and the team is getting better each race. It will be fun to get back in and race at Bristol.”
Assess your experience in the No. 14 at Atlanta and Phoenix?
“I think the thing that jumps out at you is we keep getting better and better. We’ve been better at the end of the race than we were at the beginning. We’ve been better than the second race together than we were the first time at Atlanta. Improvement is what you look for and that’s what we’ve been seeing. Brian (Vickers) has been the same way. His results are getting better and better each time he drives the No. 14. I have to thank Stewart-Haas Racing for the opportunity to be in the 14 car. I think everyone wants to see Tony (Stewart) in this car. With those unfortunate circumstances, I was able to be in the car, which is good for me to get the experience in such great equipment. I can’t thank them and Bass Pro Shops enough for the opportunity. It’s an honor to drive the No. 14 for Tony.”
|TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS and Co-Owner of Stewart-Haas Racing:|
|Assess the 2016 performance of crew chief Mike ‘Buga” Bugarewicz?
“We’ve kind of thrown him to the wolves this year. If becoming a crew chief for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series wasn’t enough, my accident kind of changed the plans just a few weeks before the season opener. At this point, he’s had to run two different drivers. That in itself has made it hard, but he’s done a great job. His composure has been incredible and he knows what he needs in his cars. We just want to showcase what ‘Buga’ has been doing with the cars and the hard work of the No. 14 crew.”
What is the update on your health?
“We won’t know anything until the end of the month, when we go get scanned again. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of waiting right now, which is about to drive me crazy. Tomorrow, in my heart (I could be back) but, the reality is, I’m 45 and I don’t know how fast my bones are healing. It’s not like you go in there every week and get scanned and (get) an update. The hard part is literally waiting until we get scanned and they’ll have a better idea when we can get back in. In the meantime, you’re just waiting. I feel confident that when they say I’m ready, I will be ready. Breaking a leg or an arm is a lot different than when you have something going on in your back because that is your core, (and it) is important to make sure it gets healed right. This is important to make sure it heals right, but it hasn’t stopped me from pushing the envelope here and there just to see where I’m at. If I get sore at the end of the day, I’m very good about it. I think breaking (my) leg and going through that cycle (in 2013), I learned to just listen to my body and, when it’s telling you it’s had enough, then OK, stop. The doctor has to go to NASCAR to clear me, so there’s no point in going through the agony (of questioning) when it’s still in their hands. It’s literally about doing what they tell you to do and, when they say it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
TILL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!