BRISTOL, Tenn. - Jimmie Johnson believes that finding a balance between satisfying fans and placating the drivers should be one of the top priorities amongst track officials in NASCAR. When Bristol Motor Speedway first repaved its track surface in 2007, drivers praised the side-by-side racing and its multiple grooves but fans were not as pleased.
Fans demanded a single groove and a return to the bump-and-run nature of the previous configuration. This convinced track owner Bruton Smith to once again tinker with his facility, grinding up the high lane and pushing the walls closer to the racing line.
The changes did not eliminate the high lane as intended but did put on a more exciting race for fans in August. But this time, drivers were not pleased as helmets were tossed and tempers flared in traditional Thunder Valley fashion.
Johnson pretty much summed up the situation during his media session on Friday, saying that fans tend to dislike the racing when the drivers are the most happy.
"For the longest time we didn't think the racing was all that good from a competitor's standpoint," Johnson said. "But, we had a sold-out event here with a long waiting list. They change it, drivers are happy, the track is very racy, but you can't sell out the spring race.
"Last year's race we were all fighting for one lane which was at the top instead of the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet and it's considered a good race. So, I'm not sure racing and entertainment kind of go in the same piece. "
It appears that drivers and fans have very different opinions of what constitutes as good racing. Some of the most fondly remembered finishes in NASCAR history have occurred on short tracks and involved the bump-and-run. Even the sport's most prestigious speedway finish -- the 1979 Daytona 500 -- involved two drivers wrecking each other and fighting on the backstretch.
Needless to say, drivers would prefer to avoid physical confrontations at all cost. There's simply too much as stake with the season championship and sponsor obligations to fuel feuds that could linger for the remainder of the season.
Drivers prefer high-banked and wide venues where there is plenty of room to race side-by-side and allowing them to race hard while avoiding contact.
Unfortunately, they can't have it both ways.
The byproduct of speedway racing is that there is enough room to safely compete side-by-side but so much room that cars quickly spread themselves out and simply can't stay near each other. So instead of placing unjust expectations on the Gen-6, Johnson says track owners should follow Bristol's model and investigate changes they could make to improve the racing.
"There can be and I do empathize or sympathize with the track owners in trying to create the right surface," Johnson said. "Bruton did everything in his power to create a racy track here. We had it. Drivers loved it as you know. Fans didn't like it. So, there is that balancing point and I think we have to keep the fans in mind and what is going to keep people buying tickets and sitting in the seats.
What do you constitute as good racing -- and what is your favorite track? Tell us in the comments section below.