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Dicey top lane could play big role in Bristol Cup dirt race

From hosting the NFL, college football, and an ultimate game of tag, to its number of nicknames, to Dale Earnhardt's run-in with Terry Labonte, to the "Snow-Bowl Derby", there's nothing quite like Bristol.

The question: Who will be the first NASCAR Cup Series driver to win on Easter since Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace in 1989 at Richmond Raceway?

The answer to that question may depend on the answer to another: Which drivers will run the top lane in Sunday night’s 250-lap race on the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track?

As several drivers found out in Friday’s practice sessions, the stronger composite body of their new Next Gen cars wasn’t enough to protect against suspension damage after hitting the wall with the right-rear corner.

Adding to the risk up top is the lack of a proper dirt cushion against the wall for drivers to lean on.

William Byron, among the unlucky ones to find the fence Friday, and Aric Almirola both used the term “crumbs” to describe track conditions against the wall.

Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick, described the same area as “a big pile of dust.”

Altogether, it’s made for some wariness from those behind the wheel.

“I just don’t think you can (hit the wall) with the suspension,” Byron said Friday. “You’re going to hit the wall and something is going to break or it’s going to bend really bad.

“Every time I hit the wall (Friday), my (steering) wheel was at least a couple of numbers clockwise off. I don’t think I could race a whole race that way. We’ve just got to try to stay off it.”

Said Harvick on the subject: “The same guys have all hit the wall and they break the toe link. You hit the wall and the car is 45 degrees yawed out - it’s gonna hit the back of the wheel and it’s gonna break the toe link.

“There’s really no way around that, so I don’t know what to tell them, other than don’t hit the wall.”

Ryan Blaney noted that even dirt-track aces like Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell got into the wall Friday, while he stayed in the middle since he was “not good enough to run up there consistently like they could.”

Blaney feels the top lane will be in play Sunday night. But, like others, he noted the risk.

“There’s really nothing to lean on and you’re just kind of gauging where your right-rear tire is and is it gonna get in the moisture,” Blaney said. “And the bad thing is you can’t get close to the wall because the quarter-panel is gonna hit before the tire hits anything.

“So I will not be up there probably because I’m not good enough, so I’m gonna be in the middle trying to chase where the other grip is.”

However, Chase Elliott - who was also preparing to run Saturday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the Bristol dirt - seemed at least open to attempting to make the top lane work for him.
“There’s pace there for a while,” he said. “I think by the end (of the final Cup practice), we were getting to where it was so thin, it was hard to hit - but there for a while, I thought it was the place to be. Certainly throughout the Truck practice and the beginning of our practice, I thought that way.

“You’ll just have to weigh that out as you go. There might be certain points where you have to take that risks and there might be points where you don’t need to. We’ll see.”