Track Talk: Food City 500 at Bristol

O. Bruton Smith sure has to love that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams contended with one of the fastest tracks on the circuit to a track where tempers flare and patience wears thin, all in a matter of two weeks.  As the owner of Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, to say the least, the month of April surely has some of the most diverse portfolio of tracks all season long in terms of speedways.

Today, 40 drivers and teams will do battle at the 0.533-mile concrete beast of Tennessee in front of race fans and the likes of NFL legend Peyton Manning and NASCAR Hall of Fame racer Rusty Wallace.  As if that were pressure enough, there’s also that cool sword handed to the winner of today’s Food City 500 after all is said and done.  There’s a reason this track is called “The Last Coliseum” as it turns these drivers into gladiators with their chariots of steel (not the dreaded FOX movie our dear friend Bones Bourcier “enjoyed” when reviewing it in a 1997 Stock Car Racing magazine column).

Even with the retirement of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart’s recovery from an off-season injury, the 2016 season has seen great racing on the track.  However, it’s somewhat duplicated what was prevalent last year with the Joe Gibbs Racing efforts dominating the Cup circuit with Ford and Chevrolet trying in earnest to keep up with their efforts. Perhaps today is when all of that talk of speed and horsepower are put to the side as Bristol may be the place where the driver can be the difference maker on the track.

Before we head to the grocery store or think of our meals for the day, let’s get started with Trending Topics on Track Talk with our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull,Cody Shoppe, Jessica TowKathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Sean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics

Question 1
Kyle Busch is halfway to winning at Connect Four.

Kyle Busch is halfway to winning at Connect Four.

Kyle Busch has swept the past two NASCAR race weekends at Martinsville and Texas.  Is it safe to say that we can expect more weekends like these from our defending Cup champion?

Hobbs :  If NASCAR constantly lets Cup drivers dabble the way they do in the XFINITY Series, then yes. Kyle Busch is a great driver, there is no arguing it; but it has come time for this to stop. I understand that sponsors what names they like and know in the seats, but that takes away from the purpose of the XFINITY Series, which is to give the unknowns a chance. Kyle Busch will always either 1) win the race or 2) dominate and take away attention from the XFINITY regulars (and not win). Time for NASCAR to make some sweeping changes.

Fesko :  Kyle Busch is on a roll, pass the butter. Busch’s streak is something that hasn’t been done in decades, and with his best track of Bristol coming up (13 wins in XFINITY and Cup combined) I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the defending Cup champ in victory lane twice more. With the dominance he’s been showing it’s very likely he could keep the streak continuing at Richmond, another strong track of his –and Talladega, where he’s won before. From there, sky’s the limit.

Hull :  I think it’s safe to say that Kyle Busch is pretty much on fire this year. You cannot really say that it has been too often that one driver has swept TWO weekends in his career. He looks like he could have another weekend like this again, He also has a great chance of winning another championship this season. So, this won’t be the last we will hear of KB!

Cassidy :  I think it’s easy to say that the 18 team has found their momentum and will continue to run with it. Coming hot off of a championship, most people do not always expect the defending winner to be such a huge contender again. However, it’s hard to make an argument to be made that Kyle Busch will not be hunting for his second championship.

Copple :  I think the answer to this question is pretty obvious…YES! Busch tends to dominate in the Truck and XFINITY Series and this year, he living up to his Championship. These won’t be the only sweeps we see from him this season. Far from it!

Shoppe :  It’s a pretty safe bet he will sweep a few more weekends again this year. I really hope it doesn’t happen as much soon. Some fans are certainly getting tired of it but you have to appreciate the job Kyle Busch and his teams are doing.

Conley :   I believe we’ll certainly see more of this. With JGR’s early season dominance, I’d be surprised if it’s not a near weekly thing. Kyle Busch wants that 200 win mark – there’s no reason to expect that count keeps climbing in 2016.

Tow :  I would not put it past him to continue on his successful streak of wins between both the Xfinity and Sprint Cup Series. As history has shown, once Kyle is on a roll, he is unstoppable. Right now Kyle is the most dominant driver and although his streak may come to an end soon, I think it is still far from over.

Question 2
Like the old song by The Clash, "Should I stay (out) or should I go (to pit road)?"

Like the old song by The Clash, “Should I stay (out) or should I go (to pit road)?”

Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr, elected to retain the race lead when a bulk of the lead lap drivers and teams decided to pit for the caution that flew on lap 289.  While Truex relinquished the lead, in hindsight, was this a situation where the leaders would’ve done the opposite move no matter what Pearn called from the 78 pit box?

Hobbs :  This is always the case and will always be the case. Being the leader is great, it is where you want to be. The exception comes at the end of the race when a critical decision has to be made. More times than not, the decision will not go in your favor.

Fesko :  Despite what FOX NASCAR said, I think every single driver would’ve hit pit road even had Truex come in. At this point in the race, there was 45 laps remaining and with tires so necessary to make things happen, that meant the No. 78 would essentially be doubling the time on its tires. Throwing fresh rubber on the car might not have guaranteed a win, but not doing so guaranteed that the team wouldn’t. Lesson learned for next time, I guess.

Hull :  This is the number one reason that I am not a crew chief. The people who tend to criticize crew chiefs do not understand the magnitude of job they have to undertake. You not only have to make sure your car setup is fast as a rocket, but you have to make a lot of tough strategy calls. We can really say that Cole Pearn was put between a rock and a hard place. No matter what he would have done, he could have cost Martin Truex, Jr. the win. But I believe he should have been prepared in case the race went caution-free, and gave him some tires to work with. But again, that is the reason I don’t sit up there, because I am very bad about making these calls. Either way, I am sure that this will be a learning experience for Pearn. They are still a solid team, and their first win is within reach.

Cassidy :  I feel like there is always a chance for teams to gamble at any race track. Sometimes crew chiefs call decisions that everyone thinks is insane, but they end up working. Prime example of this is Chad Knaus or Paul Wolfe. However, I think Cole Pearn should have bought Truex down pit road, as they had a fast race car that could have raced its way back to the lead no problem. At the end of the day, sometimes tires make all the difference.

Copple :  I think the leaders were going to come in regardless. Fuel and tires are important at Texas, especially at night. The No. 78 team gambled by staying out. Was it the right call? Was it the right call for the others to come to the pits? Who knows. Making that call isn’t something I would feel comfortable doing! Kudos to the crew chiefs!

Shoppe :  Hindsight is always 20/20. I think if you ask anyone now they would say that Truex would have been better off pitting on that caution. Even if he had lost some spots, he had the car to make it back up with tires. I feel for Cole Pearn the most. The 78 was the car to beat yet again without a win to show for it. Hopefully they can learn from that bad luck for next time.

Conley :  No, I believe everyone was coming to pit road one way or another. We saw early how much tires meant and with the number of laps left. He would have/should have seen a train coming. It sounds like Pearn called Martin Truex Jr in a second too late and he couldn’t make the turn. Hindsight is 20/20.

Tow :  Yes, the biggest gamble of each race always comes at the very end with the last set of pit stops. The question always remain: Should I stay or should I go? While it’s great to stay out and retain the lead position, it seems to be more beneficial in most cases to visit pit road and add fresh tires and fuel. In Truex’s case, he relinquished the lead as his car was on scuff tires instead of stickers like most of his competitors. Ultimately it is all a gamble and up to the crew chief and driver on whether or not it is most beneficial to stay out or come to pit road.

Question 3
Kenzie Ruston has been one of the recent upcoming female racers in NASCAR.

Kenzie Ruston has been one of the recent upcoming female racers in NASCAR.

We’ve seen women succeed in various motorsports leagues such as IndyCar, sports car racing, and prominently in the NHRA.  What can NASCAR do to get on par with its competitor racing series aside from the diversity movements and programs in place?

Hobbs :  1) NASCAR has diversity programs in place; actually use them and get these ladies into the spotlight.

2) Do not use women as a sex object for the sport. Focus on them for the talent they have and how they can impact the sport in that way, and that way only.

3) 99% of sports are male dominated and it takes a small number of females who excel in that sport to open the door. This goes along with NASCAR’s diversity programs; scope out the fields for female drivers and if you think they have what it takes, make them an offer. This is what the XFINITY Series (and local organizations) are for – to get these undiscovered talents a shot.

Fesko :  In NASCAR, it’s a perception issue and a money issue. NASCAR has made strides the last decade to show fans that the sport isn’t reserved for tough-guy, white males. Everyone is welcome and in fact encouraged to race – but without the money to keep cars on the track, not even the most talented driver – female or male – will make the show for very long. Danica Patrick isn’t the most-talented racer out there but she’s in the field each week because she can bring in the sponsors. The same thing could happen for Jennifer Jo Cobb, any of the Deckers, Johanna Long. It’s just a matter of timing to get the contracts signed. Both issues certainly need more work, but I can’t see what NASCAR can do in the upper leagues to fix the issue. Continue Rev Racing and other programs in the future it will happen.

Hull :  I think we are seeing some women coming up through the series. I just think that they need to be given better opportunities, like Danica Patrick has been given. I think that women can succeed in the sport, but the old stereotypical notion still holds that women cannot drive, and they cannot succeed in the sport. I just wish that these teams would give women the opportunities they deserve. If that would happen, we would see more women do well.

Cassidy :  With females in NASCAR, we have seen to different sides of the spectrum. On one hand, we have a woman like Danica Patrick who can be noted as having a large fan base, which will ensure her sponsorship and a ride for many years. However, drivers such as Jennifer Jo Cobb and Johanna Long show talent and determination, yet remain unnoticeable to many NASCAR fans. Perhaps to fix this, NASCAR could create marketing techniques to include these female drivers more. By getting their names out there and creating a fan base, sponsors and more opportunities will come for more female drivers.  

Copple :  As someone who follows female drivers in NASCAR fairly closely, it’s tough to see talented drivers stall in certain series or lose rides when they deserve a chance behind the wheel. There are a number of female drivers who would be competitive in NASCAR’s upper series like Trucks or XFINTIY.

The first one who comes to mind is Johanna Long. She never quite got the break she deserved in the then Nationwide Series. She has a lot of talent and could really make a name for herself in NASCAR. There are so many talented women in stock cars and NASCAR and race teams need to take a look at them.

Motorsports are one of the very few sorts where women can compete head-to-head with the men. Just because Danica Patrick hasn’t won a race in NASCAR (yet!) doesn’t mean another woman can’t!

Shoppe :  I really don’t think NASCAR should “do” anything about this. Like Danica Patrick has said before, the car doesn’t know who’s driving it. I feel like the lack of successful women in NASCAR is just because there hasn’t been a women to come along that has been the whole package to compete well (experience, talent, sponsor money, team, etc.).

I certainly don’t believe there is any kind of disadvantage in racing success because you’re a women so there should be no necessary change to make a change for equality in that way. We can all agree we would like to see a day where men and women are equally battling for a Sprint Cup title.

Conley :  I don’t think there is anything they can do. We have some talented women in the lower series, but the money needed to succeed is a risk and I really think companies are asking themselves if it’s worth it. Danica Patrick is not a success but is able to sell. The risk is not worth the reward for big companies today. Hard work, wins and luck is all that can be done.

Tow :  I think NASCAR has continued to do an outstanding job with the inclusion of women through their various diversity initiatives, especially now more than ever before. Between their diversity internship program and drive for diversity combine, there is a significantly higher presence of women throughout the garage that hold various roles in public relations, management, technical/mechanics, and more. As a woman myself, it has been great to see the industry’s media focus shift toward highlighting successful and inspirational women who have made their respective marks in the sport; women such as DeLana Harvick, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Lesa France Kennedy. Seeing their stories and watching other trailblazers such as Kaitlyn Vincie and Kenna Primm gives me hope that someday I will be able to hold a job at NASCAR’s top level.

Question 4
More Toyota time?

More Toyota time?

Toyota’s NASCAR efforts, primarily through Joe Gibbs Racing, has duplicated their efforts of a season ago with fast cars and strong motors to start the 2016 campaign.  Can the Chevrolet and Ford teams find the speed and durability to hold their own as the year progresses?

Hobbs :  Ford really has no shot. Ford has gone somewhere bad and needs to come back. The only hope for Ford is Team Penske right now.

When it comes to Chevrolet, they are indeed #2. While they have as many wins as the Toyota camp does, the average finish that the Toyota group is laying down, mainly thanks to JGR, is quite impressive. When looking ahead to Bristol, Chevrolet has been the dominate group there, but Toyota does have the advantage with Kyle Busch in their corner.

I would not say Toyota has this season in the bag at all; I will say they have the edge over Chevrolet this season though.

Fesko :  Yes. While Toyota has won three races this season, so has Chevrolet. Ford has a win too, so the parity issues that everyone thought might happen with the new low-downforce package isn’t as bad as expected. That said, both the Bow Tie Brigade and the Blue Oval teams do have work to do. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll see Toyota continue its dominance via Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Hull :  There is no question that Toyota is the manufacturer to beat this year. The Hendrick and Stewart-Haas cars seem to be holding their own and being at the top of the pack though. Roush Fenway and Penske has had some good finishes too this year. But they will need to do more if they want to compete with Toyota. They seem to be the class of the field this year. We shall see if some of them will find their speed or not in the coming weeks, but they need to work harder than they are working to catch up.

Cassidy :  I would argue that it is not only Toyota’s fast cars and strong motors that have lead to their success in 2016, but the way this equipment has been used by the 18 team. Clearly, they are not the only Toyota team to be successful this year, however they play a predominate role in finding setups that work for Joe Gibbs Racing. Aside from this, I would not leave Chevrolet or Ford teams out of the picture. Each team has wins this year and I believe the differences will play out depending on the tracks.

Copple :  Personally, I think Chevrolet is right up there with Toyota. They already have multiple wins this season in all series. Ford does need to step up their game. They seem to be struggling and not just this season. They seem to be missing some key element in speed in their cars. This season is still young so there is plenty of time to turn that around but they better do it quick!

Shoppe :  It seems to me that dominance by any manufacturer in NASCAR comes in waves. With Toyota having the success with Joe Gibbs Racing at the moment only means someone else will step up soon enough. The great thing about NASCAR is the parity in manufactures is far better then any other top motorsport. All three makes have a great chance to win on any week.

Conley :  The Ford camp is the one I have a question on but I’ve seen good runs by Stenhouse Jr, Biffle, and Blaney that would give hope for the Blue Oval fans. The Hendrick cars will again lead Chevy and after having all four in the top-10 last week, I think we’ll see more of the Bowtie celebrations soon. It’s Toyota’s year but the other two will put up a fight in the latter rounds.

Tow :  Absolutely. There are 36 races in a season, and although Toyota has shown that they are the current manufacturer to beat, Ford and Chevrolet both still have plenty of time to catch up and plenty of other races to win.

Terrific work, team!  As we’ve gotten through our round of questions, let’s look at the Texas race results and take a gander at those points standings heading into today’s battle at Bristol!
Ashley Hull returned to the winner's circle at Texas..

Ashley Hull returned to the winner’s circle at Texas..

...thus regaining the points lead while TPF Stats has put some distance on our awesome stats guru.

…thus regaining the points lead while TPF Stats has put some distance on our awesome stats guru.

Alright, fans!  It’s about that time.  Let’s look at our race picks for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway!
It's either a Joe Gibbs kind of day or Joey Logano finally winning the Bristol spring race.

It’s either a Joe Gibbs kind of day or Joey Logano finally winning the Bristol spring race.

Tiongson :  It’s not every day when you see a driver win three in a row but if Kyle Busch can make it happen on Sunday at Bristol, he’ll assert himself as the definitive top racer in the Cup ranks. When Kyle Busch is winning and his confidence is as good as it gets, it’s pretty hard to stop him.

Hobbs :  Sticking to the stats this time and going for Kyle Busch.

Fesko :  Kyle Busch picks up his sixth-consecutive national series win on Sunday (I’ll look silly if he doesn’t win the XFINITY race now to get that fifth win, so Busch had better win that too!)

Tow :  I shall go with Kyle Busch.

Hull :  I think that Matt Kenseth has a pretty good chance of reversing his bad luck and winning at Bristol this weekend!

Shoppe :  It’ll be Matt Kenseth’s day at Bristol.

Cassidy :  Going with “Cousin” Carl Edwards today.

Conley :  It’s Denny Hamlin time.

Copple :  I’m going with Joey Logano!

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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