Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bristol Full of Close Calls; for Open-Wheel Guys, the Tiny Half-Mile Track Will Be a Frenzied Test

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bristol Full of Close Calls; for Open-Wheel Guys, the Tiny Half-Mile Track Will Be a Frenzied Test

Article excerpt

Byline: DON COBLE

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. wanted new challenges when they came to NASCAR. But they never expected anything like the Bristol Motor Speedway.

The stock car rookies - both former Indy car champions amd Indianapolis 500 winners - have struggled in their first four races in the Sprint Cup Series. But the real lesson comes today in the Food City 500 on the toughest half-mile of racing real estate in the business.

Franchitti was so overwhelmed by Bristol, he laughed and compared it to an oversized soccer stadium when he walked onto the fabled grounds on Friday. The track is barely big enough to hold all 43 cars in today's race (2 p.m., Fox). The 36-degree banking and 160,000 permanent seats only adds to the carnival-like atmosphere.

As veterans of open-wheel racing, Franchitti and Hornish aren't used to racing in close quarters. Veterans of stock cars have warned both that Bristol isn't close. It's full-contact.

"Good luck," said Kevin Harvick while laughing. "I didn't realize Sam has never been here. My best advice would be to make laps and try to stay out of the way and just survive, because the biggest part of Bristol is surviving."

Both Franchitti and Hornish benefited by a loophole in the NASCAR rulebook to automatically qualify for the first five races. Franchitti used the points earned by David Stremme last year at Chip Ganassi Racing; Hornish used points earned by Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Stremme and Busch were both ranked in the top 35, and that gave them exemptions into the first five races this year.

Starting with the race at the Martinsville Speedway on March 30, this year's standings will be used to determine exemptions. Hornish currently is 36th in the rankings; Franchitti is 38th. Not only do both have to survive 500 laps at Bristol today, they have to make up ground in the standings. …

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