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Races at Bristol: Circumstance Rules

Bristol is the only motor speedway where the grandstands wrap all the way around the half-mile oval track, completely enclosing it. With 40 cars hurtling round and round at up to 160 mph, and 160,000 fans screaming for their heroes from the steep tiers, the place turns into a vortex of noise so intense that fans wear ear-plugs or the headphones that allow them to tune in on the race. Watching it on TV, I can't help thinking of the Circus Maximus of Rome -- that first oval track in history, invented for chariot racing. The oval track was a Roman-genius engineering idea that let spectators savor every detail of the whole race. And the idea has worn well -- though today the chariots have 500 horse under the hood.

So this weekend, NASCAR action has romaned its way to Bristol. The steep banked turns and short straightaways make for traffic challenges as drivers try to pass or check for turns. It's what the motor media like to call "full contact stock-car racing." It's also the spooky play of circumstance that makes motor sports what it is. Bristol is where fans expect, and race teams fear, more wrecks than usual.

As the Sharpie Mini 300 got the green flag, rain was threatening and those not-quite-160,000 fans got their ration of circumstance. A few minutes into the race, in lap 13, Martin Truex's car spun out, taking Kyle Busch's car with it. For them, the race ended there. Imagine Tiger spending $250,000 to get ready for the Masters, playing for three minutes and finding himself out of the tournament because his putter broke.

The freaky play of circumstance is one of the things that makes motor sports so intriguingly different from many other sports. Every race bristles with problematical circumstance. The gods and goddesses of Fortune who ruled the chariot races of Rome are still lurking around today's tracks and stirring things up -- everything from a plastic bag blowing against a car grill to catastrophic engine failure to a slick spot on the track. Most drivers count themselves lucky to place in the top 10. You can lead for 499 laps, and hit the wall just half a lap from the checkered flag. Winning is almost a bonus. Bristol is one speedway where circumstance gets more intense.

Today the circumstances included rain, and Clint Bowyer was declared the winner after NASCAR stopped the race at 171 laps. Yesterday's qualifying for tomorrow's big race, the Food City 500, was rained out completely, so the rain rules put together a field of 43 cars for tomorrow. Provided, of course, that the great god Zeus won't be raining thunderbolts all over that part of Tennessee. -- Patricia Nell Warren