Segment Racing Brings A New Dimension To The Bristol Bump-And-Run
The Food City 500 marks the eighth race of the NASCAR season and the second on a track less than a mile in length. That means this will be the second time segmented breaks will be used on a course this size.
Pandora's box was opened at Martinsville Speedway three weeks ago.
At the beginning of the year, no one knew exactly how segments would impact racing. For more than a decade, NASCAR has worried that its races are too long. Each new event that came on the schedule was trimmed to 400 or fewer miles in order to fit a more convenient TV schedule of three hours, but the angst never completely went away.
NASCAR tried its hand at heat racing in the Xfinity Series in 2016, mostly on short tracks, but the fanbase did not grab hold. During the offseason, the organization convened drivers, owners, and series executives and settled on stage racing: a hybrid of heats that is prevalent in grassroots racing, the competition caution NASCAR has been trying to sell fans for years, and the long-form racing that dates back to the beginning of the sport.
It was not until Martinsville's STP 500 that the impact of the new rules was truly felt.
Near the end of segment two, Kyle Busch had a comfortable lead over Chase Elliott. As Busch caught the tail end of the field, everyone raced even harder to stay on the lead lap with a caution about to wave at lap 260. About five laps from the segment break, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was put a lap down, but Busch could not get away from the front bumper of the No. 17.
On the final lap of the segment, Stenhouse moved Busch out of the groove and rejoined the end of the field.
Busch's loss of momentum allowed Elliott to slip past and win his first segment of the year. More importantly, he pocketed a bonus point that will enhance his total throughout the playoffs.
Busch fumed over the radio.
Stenhouse ultimately finished 10th among 20 drivers that completed all the laps.
Stenhouse did what he had to do. So did Busch, because slowing to carefully navigate traffic would also have allowed Elliott to catch up.
But that set the tone for how the closing laps of a segment are going to be raced. Stenhouse did not wreck Busch; he simply moved him up the track so he could pass.
Bristol is an entirely different track; however, and therein lies the danger this week. Speeds are higher, the banking is steeper, and cars are on the edge of traction all the way down the straightaways.
The bump-and-run has been a fixture of Bristol racing ever since the track opened, and it has caused some spectacular moments. The groove is narrow, and a spinning car almost never gets straightened up without collecting another car or two.
In the Food City 500, viewers should expect both segment breaks to be punctuated by contact among the leaders. This week will be survival of the fittest on a track known as "The Last Great Colosseum."