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Drivers strive to get Bristol groove back

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch has three races remaining to claim a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Under normal circumstances, the Las Vegan’s chances would be good headed into tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch, after all, has five Cup victories at Bristol.

But that was before track owner Bruton Smith decided grinding the race track would potentially lure fans back after several years of declining attendance. Asked Friday what he thought of the changes, Busch offered a succinct assessment:

“Terrible,” he said.

Busch was one of the few drivers with a strong opinion after two Friday practice sessions. Qualifying was rained out, and Casey Mears and Brad Keselowski will start on the front row because the field was set by practice times. Keselowski has won the last two Cup races at the track.

Few drivers ventured into the top groove during practice, and insisted it’s too early to tell how the race will develop.

Smith hopes the race proves Bristol is once again one of the most exciting tracks in NASCAR. After yet another ho-hum Bristol race in March, Smith had the top lane ground down in an effort to eliminate the two-wide racing that fans believed ruined the product. Progressive banking was added to the track in 2007, and the bumping and banging that was a Bristol trademark disappeared.

The track had a streak of 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982 until 2010, and Smith believed tightening the track might bring the fans back.

Busch was one of the drivers who didn’t bother to run at the top of the track on Friday. Why didn’t he check it out?

“I don’t have to,” he replied, “I watched the Truck race.”

Timothy Peters led all 204 laps – the first 82 were under green – in Wednesday’s truck series race. Afterward, drivers voiced their frustrations with Smith’s track on Twitter.

“Just as expected. Killing the top groove doesn’t make the bottom groove any better,” tweeted Martin Truex Jr.

Carl Edwards, who also needs a win to move into Chase contention, said he’s reserving judgment until after the race. He stayed out of the top groove during practice, saying, “I don’t want to be the first guy to go up there if there’s no grip.”

Matt Kenseth said he wasn’t sure the track needed to be changed at all. He surmised the push for changes snowballed, perhaps in part to the presence of social media.

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