NASCAR unveils procedures for Bristol dirt race

NASCAR officials unveiled the remaining details and procedures Wednesday for its inaugural dirt-track race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway later this month, revealing that the starting lineups will be determined by the finishing order of qualifying heats and by the amount of positions gained in those preliminaries.

The Food City Dirt Race (Sunday, March 28, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will mark the Cup Series’ first dirt-track event since 1970. The Camping World Truck Series introduced dirt-track racing to its schedule in 2013, starting a seven-year run at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, but the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt (Saturday, March 27, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will mark a series debut on Bristol’s .533-mile layout with dirt overlayed on the usual concrete surface.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, had previously announced that heats would be used during Bristol’s dirt weekend — a carryover from Eldora’s qualifying format. The addition of a system of “passing points” as a qualifying heat incentive is a new wrinkle for NASCAR’s national series.

The decision to drop customary pole qualifying with time trials in favor of rewarding passing and strong finishes in heats, Miller said, was at least in part a nod to dirt-track tradition.

“Well, I think it’s special rules for obviously quite a different event than we’ve ever done in the Cup Series, but we really wanted to just kind of take a page out of the dirt-track racing playbook,” Miller said. “They do and use these type of procedures to set the field for their main events, so we thought it would be something different for us and interesting to implement for this one.”

Here’s how that structure looks, plus other facets of the Bristol dirt inaugural that were announced Wednesday:

Starting lineup format

  • Each series will have four qualifying heats of 15 laps each. Heat field size will depend upon the size of the overall entry list. So, if there are 44 cars, there will be 11 cars in each heat race. Only green-flag laps will count. No overtime rule will be in effect, but free-pass and wave-around procedures will remain.
  • Qualifying heat assignments and starting positions will be determined by a random draw, conducted in order of current team owner points standings.
  • The starting lineup will be determined by a formula that weighs finishing position plus positions gained during each heat. Drivers finishing first in their heats earn 10 points, second place earns nine, third place earns eight and so forth. Additionally, drivers earn one passing point for each position gained in their heat; there are no points deductions or “negative points” for drivers who lose positions in their heats. Also, these points are merely used to calculate the starting lineup and do not count toward the championship standings.
  • Ties in these combined points totals will be broken by current team owner points.

Pit-stop procedures

  • Teams will not be permitted to change tires, add fuel or work on their vehicles except during the breaks between stages. Exceptions will be made for vehicles involved in incidents.
  • Teams are not required to pit during stage breaks. Those that elect to stay on the track during stage intermissions will line up ahead of the cars/trucks that pit on the ensuing restart. There will be no race onto or off pit road, using a controlled pit-stop procedure similar to the previous format in Eldora events.

Explains Miller: “If we had green-flag stops or changed tires under yellow, that would get us to a competitive pit road. With dirt tires, dirt on concrete, who knows what the traction’s going to be like, having pit crews running around out there under those circumstances, running around in a not-clean pit box, we just felt was not something that we were going to do, and it would potentially create an unsafe environment, so we had to take the actual competitive element out of the pit stops for predominantly safety reasons.”

Stages and schedule

  • Stages for Sunday’s Cup Series main will end at Lap 75, Lap 150, with 250 laps the scheduled full distance. Stage endings for Saturday’s Truck Series feature are set for Lap 40, Lap 90 and Lap 150. None of the stage lengths are scheduled longer than a full fuel run for either series.
  • Each series will hold two 50-minute practice sessions on Friday, March 26. Qualifying heats for both series are scheduled Saturday, March 27.

NASCAR officials announced before the season that a tentative number of eight Cup Series events would he conducted with practice and quailfying in 2021 as COVID-19 protocols continued to limit at-track exposure. Miller indicated that including Bristol’s dirt-track debut on that short list was nearly imperative.

“We really felt like it was,” Miller said. “Some of the drivers, obviously we have a few drivers with a lot of dirt experience. This is obviously going to be a different type of vehicle than your typical dirt-track race car, so that will be different. Some of the guys have been out running different stuff to get some experience on dirt that were brought up on asphalt, but it’s one of those things where there was no way that we could not have practice. I’m not sure how many yellow flags we’re going to have as it is, but if we wouldn’t have had practice, we probably would have had double the amount.”

Choose rule

The choose rule procedure of allowing teams/drivers to pick either the inside or outside line for restarts will not be in effect for Bristol dirt-track events. The rule is also not used at superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega) or at road-course events. The race leader — or “control car” in scoring tower parlance — will still select the inside or outside lane on the front row for restarts, as is the case for all NASCAR national-series events.

The specialized nature of dirt-track racing played a part in that determination, Miller said. But was the decision also partly due to the difficulty of painting and maintaining an orange “V” and box as the choose location on a high-traffic dirt surface?

“You know, that factored heavily into the equation,” Miller said with half a chuckle. “The start-finish line and the choose V were something we were going to have to work around, and we didn’t want to commit to something we were going to have trouble executing. We don’t like to do that, so we just kind of took the safe route and went back to no choose rule for this event.”

Future applications

One more dirt-track weekend remains on the 2021 NASCAR national-series calendar as the Camping World Trucks visit historic Knoxville (Iowa) Speedway for the first time on July 9. Miller said that barring a necessary post-Bristol tweak, he expects the same qualifying and race procedures to be in effect for that inaugural 200-lapper.

“I would think that unless we see something that we don’t like, we will probably continue on with that there,” Miller says. “The feedback that we’ve gotten from everybody that I’ve kind of worked with and socialized with on the team side about some of these items, everybody’s pretty excited about it. So we really feel confident that it’s going to work well.”

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