BRISTOL — Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a rough time qualifying for today’s Food City 500, but NASCAR’s 10-time reigning Most Popular Driver still ranks Bristol Motor Speedway near the top of his list of race tracks.
“I like Bristol. I’ve always enjoyed coming here as a kid and watching races here,” he said. “This is one of the best tickets in the series. It’s an exciting race track and it’s a lot of fun for the drivers. You’re always in the middle of something every lap. It keeps you on your toes and it’s a pretty tough race track. I enjoy the challenge and
look forward to hopefully having a good weekend.”
That weekend got off to a rough start with a 32nd place run in qualifying, but the 19-time Sprint Cup Series winner added that the competition has never been tougher. The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said part of that comes from NASCAR’s stricter enforcement of the rules.
“It gets tougher every year,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the way the technical inspection and rules are refined over the years. When you go back to the 1970’s, everything was under interpretation. As you move on through the 80’s and 90’s, things were a little more uniform and a little more structured.
“Today, you basically have perfect measurements that the car has to go by from one end to the other and all the components are scrutinized. That has leveled the playing field and put everybody in a smaller window as far as competition goes. It definitely makes it tough.”
Earnhardt, 38, has stepped up to the challenge, currently third in the standings after starting the season with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Despite that, he was disappointed to finish seventh last week at Las Vegas.
“I feel like we had a little better car than seventh.” he said.
Now comes the big unknown of Bristol, even moreso with the new car and a track surface which the drivers have raced only once. Speedway owner Bruton Smith ordered changes to the track surface after last year’s Food City 500 to accomodate the wishes of the fans. Although the majority of drivers were against the move, Earnhardt felt it was still a great place to race last August.
“I really did enjoy racing at Bristol last time and I know they were trying to push us all down the race track and get us to run on the bottom like we used to run here, but that didn’t work out,” he said. “It was still a good show.”
As for today’s Food City 500, the 2004 August night race winner believes there will be plenty of excitement. He added if someone wants to be the first to win the first short track race in NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, they better be ready to get physical.
“I’m not really worried or concerned that we won’t have a good
race,” he said. “Bristol always provides some kind of spark; whether it’s the last lap and what happens there or the overall race itself. We haven’t run into each other with these cars yet on a short track, so I don’t really know what to expect. “
“The bump-and run, you were going to use that no matter
what kind of bumper you had on there. If you want to win at Bristol, it doesn’t matter what kind of bumper is on there. You’re going to try to get the guy out of the way.”