NASCAR Preview: Bristol Dirt Race

By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

The Bullring. Thunder Valley. The World’s Fastest Half-Mile. The Last Great Coliseum. Nicknames like these are descriptive by nature. Pointing out something specific to help define a person or thing. Sometimes nicknames can become more well-known than their real counterparts.

Sport venues across the country have nicknames given to them by the community they stand in. Some are based on a mascot, sponsor or iconic figure in the team’s history. Racetracks are given nicknames too, but usually for the action and excitement they provide.

Bristol Motor Speedway seems almost out of place the way it’s tucked into the rolling hills just inside the borders of Tennessee. It’s massive, bowl-like features jut out at you as you see it for the first time. Bristol has earned its nicknames over the years. It’s high banks and short straightaways has been the birthplace for some of NASCAR’s most iconic rivalries and triumphs. Names like Earnhardt, Gordon, Waltrip and Wallace are raised high above the stands for all 162,000 loyal race fans to see. Bristol at its very nature is a short track, but it’s massive banking allows the cars to generate speeds higher than any half-mile track in the world.

Normally Bristol’s two scheduled races are always a draw for fans. The annual night race in the fall is one of the sport’s most iconic event. However, the Spring race in recent years has lost a bit of its luster with fewer fans showing up. Rumors swirled a few years ago that NASCAR may try to overhaul their 2021 schedule to try and rebuild its fan base once again.

The announcement came last year that NASCAR will be bringing in new track venues and an overall shakeup of the schedule. The biggest change that stuck out wasn’t a new track. It was a big change to an already existing track date. Bristol Motor Speedway, the world’s fastest half-mile oval, will host a dirt race.

What? Bristol on dirt? It sounded like an unlockable fantasy track in a NASCAR game from the 2000s. I have been pushing for a Cup race on dirt for years after the success of the Eldora Dirt Derby for the Truck Series…. but Bristol? Why would you haul in a bunch of dirt from different areas of the country and cover one of the best short tracks in the world when there are plenty of fantastic dirt venues that would be great for stock cars?

The answer lies in the track itself. Is there a dirt track anywhere in the United States that can hold 162,000 fans? And can that place accommodate the mass number of personnel and equipment for Cup teams? Probably not. The idea of a dirt Bristol may be a bit of a reach for the sport, but if it is a success, fans will continue to buy tickets.

This event is undoubtedly one of, if not the most, anticipated NASCAR Cup race in recent memory. The Cup series has not touched a dirt track since 1970. The teams and drivers are coming in with zero notes and nobody knows what to expect. NASCAR stock cars and trucks are not built for slinging around in the dirt. If you watch a Late Model, Big Block Modified, or a winged Sprint Car, those things can haul in the dirt. They’re made for such racing. Stock cars belong on pavement. They’re big, heavy, and lack the maneuverability dirt cars do. But, that doesn’t mean they cannot put on a show.

The Eldora Dirt Derby has been a fan favorite since it began hosting the truck series at the start of the 2010s. It’s a fantastic race with a ton of beating and banging. I can’t recall a winner of that race having a clean truck. Most of the field has the right side smashed in due to hitting the wall several times.

We will most likely see something similar at Bristol. The main feature for the Cup race will be 250 laps. That is very long for any dirt race. Almost too long. The race length combined with the inexperience of the field could push this event well past 4 hours. That doesn’t mean we won’t be entertained. There will be qualifying heats taking place on Saturday before Sunday’s Cup race. These heats will be filled with a random draw from the entry list and will take the top drivers from each to set the final field for the main event.

Let’s talk about this entry list. Every full-time Cup driver will be in this race, but there are a few names that will be making a splash thanks to their extensive dirt racing background. Truck Series regular and decorated dirt racing star Stewart Friesen will be driving the #77 entry for Spire Motorsports. USAC Champion Chris Windom will be in the #15 for Rick Ware Racing. Shane Golobic will be bringing his sprint car skills to the #78 Live Fast Motorsports entry. It will be interesting to see if the dirt track ringers can take it to the Cup series stars in underdog cars.

Another point to note is the level of preparation some of these Cup drivers will take to be competitive for the big race. Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie, Austin Dillion, and Kyle Busch have all taken part in dirt Late Model races within the past two weeks to get acclimated to Bristol’s new dirt skin. Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series race will also feature seven Cup drivers trying to make the field. Chase Briscoe, Bubba Wallace, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Daniel Suárez will all try their hand behind a truck. This race for them I believe will be extremely valuable to how they perform for the Cup race. While the Trucks are different from the Cup cars, the weight and performance in both vehicles should be similar. The more laps these drivers have under their belt before the big race the better.

A high level of dirt experience comes with the knowledge of how to see and react to changing track conditions. The beginning of dirt races is always wet. Water trucks pack in moisture to the surface to create heavier mud to help provide grip. As more cars run over the same area of the track, that moisture goes away and mud begins to collect higher and higher up the track with each passing lap. This collection of mud is called the “cushion.” Drivers will slide way up to this cushion to basically lean their car on throughout the corner. It gives them a lot of grip as the tires spin and struggle for traction. The cushion is constantly changing and will be a target for drivers throughout the race.

This leads me to one concern, however. The Cup race is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. The sun should be out bringing more heat to the dirt surface. When dirt dries out it breaks apart. There is a reason nearly all dirt events take place in the evening into the night. The dirt surface itself can break down and become dusty and what moisture was found disappears as the dirt becomes packed into the track. My concern is if you begin a 250-lap dirt event in the middle of the afternoon, you could end up with a 1-groove race that could almost mimic a normal short track. When dirt tracks lose their moisture, the tires begin to dig into the surface and lay down rubber like what you would see in an asphalt track. That rubber provides grip. If too much rubber is laid down too early, these drivers could only be running in one area of the race track. But, I wouldn’t let this concern you too much. This is the first dirt race Cup has had since 1970. This will be a learning experience for drivers, Bristol Motor Speedway, and NASCAR as a sanctioning body.

So, how do you predict who is going to win? My money has been sitting on Kyle Larson for a while. The best racecar drivers are great at adapting to different cars and styles of racing. Larson possesses this talent for dirt racing. He’s proven time and time again that if it has 4 wheels and an engine, he can park it on a dirt track. He’s done it before in the Truck too at the Eldora Dirt Derby. Larson is not alone, however. Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chace Briscoe, Christopher Bell and Stewart Fiesen have all found victory lane in the dirt behind the wheel of a Truck. I’m willing to bet, at the very least, that the drivers with the most dirt experience will be very strong.

Expect the unexpected at Bristol. This race is one I will be attending in person and I am excited to see who can make history as the first Cup driver to win on the dirt since Richard Petty did it in 1970. Cars will be battered. Drivers will be angry. Fans will be entertained. One thing is for certain: It’s going to be very dirty.

Let’s have ourselves a race!

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