Petty has unique take on Bristol

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   You've heard all the insane descriptions of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.
   "It's like riding a jet fighter in a basement," some proclaim. Former BMS winning crew chief Barry Dotson describes it as putting 43 cars in a blender.
   Kyle Petty has his own perspective of what Saturday night's Sharpie 500 is like.
   "Bristol is our own reality show," said the driver of the No. 45 Georgia-Pacific Dodge. "Bristol is a matter of survival and survival is everything. Everybody gets voted off the island at the end of the race. The key is being there at the end so you have a shot at doing something."
   An eight-time winner on NASCAR's top circuit, Petty has been one of the series' most durable drivers. Saturday will mark his 668th career Winston Cup start.
   "You run Bristol the way people play golf," Petty commented. "In golf, the lowest score wins. At Bristol, everybody gets dents and gets fenders beaten in some, that sort of thing.
   "But it always seems like the car with the least amount of those things is the one with the best chance to win the race."
   Maybe Bristol will be what the doctor ordered for Petty Enterprises, once the dominant team in NASCAR. In recent years, the team has fell on tough times with the last win for the organization coming four years ago at Martinsville with driver John Andretti.
   Petty goes back to his original theme of what he thinks it will take to finish well Saturday night.
   "In a lot of ways, Bristol is a battle of survival," said Petty. "You spend the first 450 laps trying not to let your car get torn up so that you can tear it up if you need to at the end.
   "Part of it is obvious - you don't want your car totally torn up, or to have to spend a bunch of laps in the pits trying to get it fixed."
   There are certain parts of the car too sensitive to survive too much contact at Bristol. Radiators busted are a common problem as well as protecting where rubber meets the road."
   "You are trying to keep the sheet metal protecting your car too," said Petty, who won his first ever professional race in 1979 at Daytona. "The second to the last thing you want is a tire with no sheet metal on it.
   "The first time you rub another car, it's going to cut into it. The last thing you want is your own sheet metal cutting into your tire because it got knocked down into it."
   According to Petty, racing at Bristol doesn't resemble competing at other tracks as much as it does another motorsports event.
   "You know how demolition derby works," Petty remarked. "You give up everything but try to protect your radiator and try to keep the sheet metal off the tires.
   "Well, that's the way things are at Bristol. You have to protect the vitals, of the car, and keep enough car there to finish the race.
   A lead foot, which can be an asset at other places, can be a driver's downfall at the shortest tracks the Winston Cup Series race at.
   "The guys who get into trouble at Bristol, or a Martinsville, for that matter, are the ones who go into the first turn of the first lap as hard as they can go," said Petty. "If they make it to the second turn, they usually are mad at somebody by the third turn."
   "So they retaliate, or try to, and have usually spun once or twice in the first 50 laps. By the 100th lap, they are sitting in the car in the pits, fuming and plotting revenge. But they are 30 laps down by then, and it hardly makes any difference."
   Petty says Bristol is more about the driver keeping a cool head and making smart decisions.
   "A lot of times that means holding onto your temper and, if somebody has done something to make you mad, trying to let it go for awhile," said Petty. "Beating on him doesn't help your car and him getting madder at you and starting to beat on you doesn't help anyone."
   However, you have to question that's just part of the game at Bristol.
   "You expect a certain amount of leaning on each other and bumping and banging," said Petty. "That's what Bristol is all about. You can usually tell what's intentional and what's not.
   "The best thing to do is, if it is not intentional, laugh it off and go on. If it is intentional, well, put it in your memory bank and figure it will come in handy sometime down the road."