Tire strategy at 'new' Bristol pays big-time for Benson

Mark Martin never changed tires. Brendan Gaughan opted for right-side rubber only on his one pit stop. Johnny Benson stayed on the track longer than the rest of the field, coming in for four new Goodyears just past the midway point.

At Wednesday night's O'Reilly 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway, there was more than one way to approach pit strategy. There also was more than one way to race, helping one of the more anticipated races of the 2007 Craftsman Truck Series season live up to the billing.

Bristol got a new concrete surface after the Nextel Cup cars competed in March, and the trucks were the first NASCAR vehicles to race on the .533-mile oval since the work was completed.
Teams throughout the circuit wondered if the new variable banking and three feet of width on the new surface would allow for multiple grooves to develop, and the trucks showed that indeed it had.

From the beginning there was side-by-side racing, and throughout the 200 laps drivers found room to drive and pass on a high lane instead of solely on the bottom per the "old" Bristol.

While many drivers raved about the track during and after the race, no one had more fun than Benson, winning for the second time this year in his Bill Davis Racing Toyota.

"It showed that it had huge promise," said Benson, who has won seven times in 32 starts dating to last year. "I really didn't expect the track to be that good that quick right out of the box. It was incredible."

Benson and crew chief Trip Bruce talked pit strategy before the race, wanting to have fresher tires for the end. With the race covering just over 106 miles, only one pit stop would be necessary. While most of the leaders came in under caution on Lap 35 of the 200-lap event, Benson and Co. felt later was better with a new, friendlier Bristol.

"That was our plan the whole time. With the new track surface and the multi-groove deal, it was really the only pit strategy to be used," Benson said. "We were a little dumbfounded that they all came in so early. If it was the old track, we'd have come in with them before Lap 40. This called for something different."

Benson held the lead from Laps 42-104, surrendering it to Roush Fenway's Travis Kvapil when he finally came in for service. Kvapil led for the next 75 laps in a bid for his fourth win of the season, only to see that chance spin away when Kyle Busch got loose on the inside and made contact with Kvapil, spinning both out.

That handed the race back to Benson, and with fresher tires he was able to hold off Gaughan, third-place Martin and fourth-finishing Mike Skinner, who for the first race all year failed to lead a lap but nonetheless increased his points lead over sixth-finishing Ron Hornaday.

"I wasn't too concerned," Benson said about holding off runner-up Gaughan, who lurked in a strong Chevrolet but couldn't make a late pass. "He was good for two or three laps, we were good from five laps on out. After two, three laps of green-flag racing, we'd start to pull away."

For the newly-married Gaughan, it was his best day since a second-place finish at last year's season-ending race at Homestead. After the race there was little remorse about not winning; instead, he was adding to the chorus of praise for Thunder Valley's transformation.

"I tell you what, this is one hell of a Bristol," said Gaughan, who qualified second and battled polesitter Kvapil early. "[Track owner] Bruton Smith should be dang proud of this place. On the first start, I called my crew chief when the first caution came out and said, 'Can you believe that?' I have never seen anyone do side-by-side for the lead on the first lap at Bristol -- that was pretty awesome. This place is magnificent."

Benson said it should only get better this weekend when the Busch and Cup cars get their turn.

Good and bad for Bodine

Todd Bodine scored his third top-10 in as many Busch Series races Saturday at Michigan, finishing eighth in a Germain Racing Toyota after qualifying 20th. He finished eighth for Germain last month at Gateway (Ill.) and is scheduled to run Sept. 7 in the Busch race at Richmond.

"Our results so far, to come out with two top-10s in our first two Busch races in the Germain Toyota Camry, that's pleasing. It shows a lot of promise in the team and I know we have a great team to do it with," said Bodine, who also finished sixth earlier this season at Milwaukee for Braun Racing.
"There's no difference in how the Tundras and Camrys run -- we have great motors."

But it looks like the No. 30 Tundra will not be successfully defending its 2006 truck title. Bodine finished 24th at Bristol, his worst outing since finishing 31st at Mansfield, Ohio, in May. He remains fourth in points, but lost ground to Mike Skinner (fourth at Bristol), Ron Hornaday (sixth) and Travis Kvapil (11th). His 335-point deficit is likely too much to make up with nine races remaining.

Lester's return uncertain

Billy Ballew Motorsports driver Bill Lester missed Bristol due to lack of sponsorship. It's only the second race he has missed since 2002; he sat out last year's event at Charlotte after an accident in qualifying.

Lester was replaced Wednesday night by Nate Monteith, a Bristol, Tenn., native who brought a local sponsor for a one-off deal. Monteith, who raced twice in the Busch Series in 2001, finished 33rd in his first truck race after bowing out with handling problems.

Team officials are unsure if money will emerge in time for next week's race at Gateway. If not they'll target the Sept. 15 event at Loudon, N.H.

"It is a real shame to step out of a truck that we have all worked so hard to get pointed in the right direction. It seemed like momentum was finally coming our way," said Lester, 17th in points in the No. 15 Chevrolet.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.