In The Pits: What makes a great race?

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Associated Press

Posted on March 21, 2013 at 1:04 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 21 at 1:04 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — It was a simple question asked the day before the Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway that started a debate: "Who won the last race here?"

The answer: "I don't know, but Tony Stewart threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth."

The fact that Denny Hamlin's victory last August was obscured by Stewart's burst of anger proved once again that drama almost always overshadows the actual racing. Especially at Bristol, where fans have come to expect a temper tantrum or two during every visit to the tight Tennessee bullring.

There is no need to guess what the lasting image will be of Sunday's race. It won't be Kasey Kahne celebrating his first trip to Bristol's winner's circle or his late battle with Brad Keselowski to pick up the victory.

Nope, it's most certainly going to be Joey Logano angrily leaning inside former teammate Denny Hamlin's car window before some light pushing from crew members prevented a full-blown skirmish.

The confrontation led to a pair of tersely worded interviews, with Logano revealing he thought Hamlin was "probably the worst teammate I've ever had." The whole thing lingered long after the race in an amusing Twitter exchange between the two.

That's the stuff fans feast on anymore, and while the grade-school sniping may be a bit much for some, they sure don't mind when the racing draws out that drama.

It's part of the problem that plagued Bristol after a repave in 2007 essentially ruined the racing here in the eyes of the fan. Strangely, the repave created multiple grooves that drivers universally praised.

But happy drivers don't use their bumpers to move a car out of the way. Happy drivers don't run down pit road to yell at a rival. And happy drivers most definitely don't throw their helmets at moving cars.

So after 55 consecutive sellouts, Bristol suddenly wasn't the toughest ticket in NASCAR. The crowd got smaller and smaller, track owner Bruton Smith couldn't take it anymore, and he demanded changes last summer.

The result — the grinding of the high line around the 0.533-mile track — made for a better race last August. After all, Stewart did get mad enough to throw that helmet.

It also started a conversation about the fine line the industry walks in trying to find a balance between good racing for the drivers and entertaining the fans. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson touched on the dilemma two days before Sunday's race.

"For the longest time we didn't think the racing was all that good from a competitor's standpoint," Johnson said. "But, we had a sold-out event here with a long waiting list. They change it, drivers are happy, the track is very racy, but you can't sell out the spring race. Last year's race, we were all fighting for one lane which was at the top instead of the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet and it's considered a good race. So, I'm not sure racing and entertainment kind of go in the same piece."

In the case of Bristol, Smith can't seem to do anything right.

He made changes to the track, got a better race in August, and attendance didn't seem to be much better Sunday than it was a year ago. Granted, Thunder Valley has high motel prices and a weather forecast suggesting rain might have kept fans at home.

It's also possible that after three mediocre races with NASCAR's new Gen-6 car to open the season, fans didn't want to spend the money to see its first short track test.

But in sitting home, they missed a race that was good for all the right reasons.

Yeah, Hamlin dumped Logano while Logano was chasing Jeff Gordon for the lead, and that's why Logano confronted him after the race. If that wasn't enough, Gordon as the leader later got a flat that contributed him to taking out the second-place car driven by Kenseth.

Both incidents were memorable, but fans of great racing got to see a real show later as Kahne and Keselowski hunkered down in a battle for the checkered flag.

Kahne tried to work his way around Keselowski, who blocked high, low and all over the track. Kahne finally made the pass, only to get stuck in traffic and watch Keselowski reclaim the lead.

"I bumped him a few times. He was sideways trying to hold us back," Kahne said. "I got the lead, then gave it right back in lapped traffic two laps later. Definitely I was mad at myself at that point in time. About spun out off of (turn) two a few laps after that, had to calm down, get things going again."

He got his chance after a caution put them side-by-side for a final restart, where Kahne took off as Keselowski was held up either because he spun his tires or was hit from behind. Keselowski said he was hit and never had a chance again, in part because he had his hands full holding off Kyle Busch in a fierce battle for second.

It wasn't the old Bristol because, as Keselowski said, it might be better.

"The old Bristol can never come back. It will never be 1995 through 1999," he said. "It's a whole different era with a different car. You can't recreate that. You can try like hell, but you'll probably be disappointed in the result. But I say that the old Bristol isn't back. I quite honestly feel like this one's better. Now it's hard because you don't have the nostalgia effect, the Terry Labonte-Dale Earnhardt battles for the win, all that kind of stuff — that's not coming back.

"But I think you have something better than that right now. I think if you look at it objectively, this was a great race."

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