Five things we learned from Bristol
Brad Keselowski reigned supreme at Thunder Valley, taking another race at BMS
With Mark Martin out, Brian Vickers came in and gave MWR a lift, placing fifth
Drivers are appreciating the newer style of high-banked short track racing
As the weather warms up, so does the action in NASCAR Sprint Cup as the series headed to its first short track race of the season in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. This physical style of racing often leads to feuds on the racetrack that last for weeks into the season.
While racing at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas require a certain degree of finesse, the short tracks allow a little beating and banging and that is what some NASCAR fans consider their favorite type of racing.
There was a little of that Sunday, but it was mostly a battle between NASCAR's newest driver with attitude -- Brad Keselowski -- and the savvy veteran and former champion Matt Kenseth.
So let's get right to the "Five things we learned from Bristol"
1. Brad Keselowski is the new king of the hill -- There are plenty of mountain tops and hilly areas that surround Bristol Motor Speedway, giving it the nickname "Thunder Valley." The new leader at Bristol is Keselowski, who won his second-straight race at Bristol without any of the controversy from last August, when he was involved in a minor skeptical issue regarding the timing lines on pit road which gave those pitting just ahead of the lines a chance to accelerate before getting to the next line. There was a timing line roughly every 11 pit stalls and Keselowski chose a pit stall that allowed him to speed down half of pit road and pass cars actually going pit road speed without being penalized.
He used that tactic last August to gain an advantage, so NASCAR took that edge away from any driver by adding more timing lines every six pit stalls to catch speeders on pit road.
The biggest advantages Keselowski had Sunday were his ability behind the wheel and a fast Dodge Charger. It was his fifth career Sprint Cup victory in 93 starts for the driver from Rochester, Michigan. It was team owner Roger Penske's 10th Bristol win with all f those coming in the No. 2 driven by Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and now Keselowski.
"I got on Twitter and got kind of PO'd at some people that said I won it because of the timing line," Keselowski said in Victory Lane on Sunday. "I knew this Blue Deuce was fast enough to win the race last fall with or without timing lines. It feels so good to just prove it here today in the spring race."
With 18 laps to go, the two short-track warriors went after it with Keselowski getting the advantage over Kenseth. Keselowski's Dodge proved to be more powerful as he was able to pull away from Kenseth's Ford.
It was the fourth different race team to win a race in the first four races of the season with Roush Fenway winning the Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs Racing winning at Phoenix with Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing winning with Tony Stewart at Las Vegas last Sunday.
Keselowski led a career-high 231 laps in Sunday's race.
"The last few races have been really good and I knew we had a shot at winning one," Keselowski. "Matt raced me hard and I raced him hard. We rubbed a little bit. Bristol racing is better than it has ever been. This is the best race I've ever been a part of. If this team keeps competing like we are we'll be tough to beat."
Kenseth did his best to stay on Keselowski's rear bumper and even beat him to the line a few times on late-race restarts. But, when it mattered the most on the final restart, Keselowski hit the gas and drove away from his pursuer.
"If I had been on the top I might have been able to pin him down there but on that last run we were just a little too loose," Kenseth said. "I could keep up but that was about it."
Last year Keselowski made "The Chase" as a wild card with three victories. By scoring a win so early in the season, that gives him an early edge. He is up to 13th in points after the first four races but Keselowski has the talent and is gaining the experience to be in the top 10 in the standings by the time September's cutoff rolls around.
2. Brian Vickers proves he belongs in a full-time ride -- Toward the end of last season, Vickers was rapidly running out of friends in the Cup garage area, especially after intentionally crashing Matt Kenseth at Martinsville Speedway last fall all but ended Kenseth's chance at a championship. When Red Bull Racing shut down, Vickers was without a ride and without prospects.
Enter team owner Michael Waltrip, who offered Vickers the chance to drive in a very limited schedule in the same car that Mark Martin had driven in the first three Cup races of 2012. Martin is also driving a limited schedule this season so the ride was open for Vickers at Bristol and five more races in 2012.
Vickers impressed in his first start of the season, leading three times for 125 laps before finishing fifth.
"When it's your only one, you better make it count," Vickers said. "To have three MWR cars in the top five, I can't be more proud to be a part of that. (Crew chief) Rodney Childress bolted together my first go-cart 20 years ago and he put together this car. Everyone did a great job as well."
3. Drivers are starting to love the new Bristol -- Before Bristol Motor Speedway was reconfigured, the style of racing used to be all about the "bump-and-run." But when the track was redone, it was widened to allow an additional lane of racing with progressive banking. While some fans miss the old, physical style of racing which often resulted in many more crashes, the drivers, including race-winner Keselowski, are starting to appreciate the newer style of racing on the high-banked short track.
Drivers still have moments of contact, including one between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The two drivers were racing hard, made contact and the tailpipe from Earnhardt's Chevrolet cut the left-side rear tire on Gordon's Chevy, sending it into the wall.
"I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like," Gordon said. "We definitely didn't hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left-rear (tire) immediately. We didn't hit that hard. We were a little bit too tight and he was pretty good on the restart there and we were racing hard. I know that it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day. I hate it for this race team. There were times we had the best car out there and I think we could have got back to that before this thing was over."
4. "The Big One" doesn't always happen at Talladega or Daytona -- The race had only five cautions, but the first one proved "The Big One" -- a six-car pileup triggered when Kasey Kahne tried to cut in front of Regan Smith after he thought he had cleared him for the pass. By the time it was over, Kahne also took out big-name contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. Smith and Keselowski were also involved, but their cars didn't suffer any damage.
"We were going forward, just taking our time. Regan Smith was pretty slow and I was under him for a couple of laps," Kahne explained. "When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is doing such an awesome job. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it."
There will also be contact on the short tracks and big crashes are just as likely to happen at Bristol as on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega.
5. Starting on the pole doesn't help at Bristol -- The last time a driver won from the Bristol pole was Rusty Wallace in 1999. That trend continued when pole winner Greg Biffle faded to 13th while Keselowski won from the fifth starting position.