NASCAR Pre Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race (3:30 p.m. E.T., FOX, PRN)

Who Are The Favorites?

With this being the first dirt race for NASCAR’s Cup Series in several decades, most fans are wanting to know who are the guys to beat on Sunday. Well, I’d just start with the guys with past dirt experience to begin with. Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. make the most sense. They have a bunch of recent success on dirt tracks across the country and should be the ones to beat on Sunday as a direct result of that.

But, don’t count out guys like Ryan Newman or Austin Dillon either who’s also had past dirt experience and can race with the best of them on this type of racing surface.

How Much Does Past Dirt Experience Pay Off?

That’s the million dollar question, right? We know guys like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe come to mind of obvious favorites, but how much can racing another form of vehicle on dirt translate over to a Cup car on dirt?

The dirt guys, I would say, definitely have an advantage,” Kyle Busch noted. “The more experience you have on dirt, the more trust you have in what the vehicle can do on dirt and what your driving style is or what your driving technique can be and how you can trust the grip level that the dirt has versus what your car has. I think there’s a lot of things that the dirt guys can really pick up on. You always see in those truck races the guys that are good at it, that put some time into it, are better than the ones that are not. I can’t name them all, but (Kyle) Larson, Christopher (Bell), (Tyler) Reddick, even Bubba (Wallace). Bubba never really had any dirt experience, but he did a good job in the Eldora race for us (winning in 2014). (Stewart) Friesen, I think he will actually do a really good job. He’s obviously known as a dirt guy. Those guys will shine, and I think that they will be faster during points of the weekend, but I think it’s all going to be circumstantial on how it comes down to the end and what exactly happens towards the finish.”

While they know what the car should feel like from the drivers seat, wresting a Cup car around a half mile race track on dirt is a whole different beast than a Midget. While there’s pressure on these drivers to perform Sunday in Bristol, do they have a leg up with dirt experience?

“I think people look at me with all the experience that I have on dirt as being even more of a favorite,” said Larson. “But these cars are way different than what I typically race on dirt. They don’t drive anything like what I’m used to with a sprint car, midget or now a dirt late model. These cars are way heavier and have a lot less horsepower than I’m used to on a dirt track.

“I still think I’ve got a good shot, but I don’t really know if I have an advantage over anybody, other than just being able to kind of read the track surface; know kind of how that’s changing, where to find grip and things like that.”

Larson said that Christopher Bell (5-1) and even Austin Dillon (9-1) would be the better drivers to focus on instead of him. 

“I would not be shocked if a pavement guy went there and was fast right off the bat because I don’t think it’s going to be like dirt like we’re used to,” Larson continued. “It’s hard to also not look at the guys that have a lot of dirt experience as being the favorite. I think Christopher Bell, I think he’s obviously one of the most talented race car drivers I’ve ever watched, especially on dirt. I think, for sure, he’ll be one of the guys to beat.

“Austin Dillon is another one that I look at. If anybody has got more experience racing on this type of stuff, it’s him. I’ve got probably still under 10 dirt late model events under my belt, where he grew up racing modifieds and late models and stuff, so he is used to the heavier types of cars. He just raced a crate late model there, so he’s used less horsepower and stuff in a full-bodied car.

“I think Austin, if anybody, probably has the most advantage, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like Kyle Busch, who is so talented and can adapt to anything, can go there and win. I wouldn’t be shocked either if the finishing results weren’t much different than a normal Bristol race.”

Dillon, was astonished to say the least that Larson put him in a category with him for Sunday’s race. 

“(Larson’s) good at anything he gets in – I’m just glad he mentioned me,” Dillon said in his media availability on Tuesday. “That’s pretty awesome, really. Makes my day. Now I’ve gotta step up and perform.”

Both Larson and Dillon ran Super Late Model’s at Bristol last week, an event that Dillon actually won. Larson had a front row seat for it. In fact, Dillon earned three wins in the 604 Late Models class for Cory Hedgecock Racing. He also won his heat and feature on March 16 and again on March 20. He also won the Truck Series’ inaugural race at Eldora in 2013 as well. 

With that vast array of dirt experience as well as success, Dillon does feel like he should be a contender this weekend. 

“The competition in the Cup Series … I think it’s the highest form of motorsports, the best drivers in the world,” said Dillon. “All of them are doing their job, preparation-wise, off the track, running other cars they’re not comfortable running in just to get on dirt and understand what the transition of the track is. There’s a lot of smart dirt crew chiefs out there also that people are probably bringing in trying to understand how they can make their cars drive better on dirt.

“… I think there’s some guys with less dirt experience that are going to be surprised. But there’s so many good race car drivers at the Cup level that have dirt experience or some sort of dirt experience they’ll be able to lean on. Not many of the guys at this point in the Cup level – maybe, a couple – have ever not been on dirt. I think everybody has some form of dirt experience at this point.”

Both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch say that they’re leaning on teammates or for Busch’s sake, a Truck team for help. 

“I think there are so many variables in that race,” said Harvick. “If I just step back and look at it and say, ‘What would you think about this race? What would be the proper thing to do for us with me personally not having a huge background?’ … I know that I’m gonna be at a little bit at a deficit as far as when I look at the racetrack and the things that I see and where I need to go. Do I need to keep moving up? Do I need to move down? When does it go dry slick? What’s the racetrack gonna be like? What are you anticipating? I think, for me, I have to look at Chase Briscoe and kind of take (his) lead. He’s got a background in it, and just know that I’m still gonna be driving a Cup car on a dirt track. It’s not gonna be like a dirt late model or a midget or a modified, but those guys that do that stuff all the time will definitely have an advantage of knowing where they need to go when they need to go, and I just kind of have to follow along and keep my eyes open and pay attention. In the end, I still think that it’s gonna be just survival. It’s the longest dirt race in the history of mankind, so who knows what the racetrack is going to be like at the end of 250 laps.”

Busch said that he will go out there and give it everything he’s got and see what we can do.

“Our team has really relied heavily on Kyle Busch Motorsports as to what we’ve done with the trucks and the Truck Series with the success that we’ve had,” he said.

“It’s just going to be a learning experience for sure. These vehicles are nothing like I’ve driven on dirt, probably, so it’s going to be interesting.”

What Kind Of Race Will We See?

This is something that’s being debated within the NASCAR circles. The race will be 250 laps in length which is long for a dirt race. That’s 250 circuits by 39 Cup cars that weigh around 3,400 pounds. That can make for a nightmare in terms of track prep and what crew chiefs can do to make these cars handle right for the long race.

The main worry is that the track would take in rubber. That’s a good thing for asphalt tracks, but not for dirt. With that many laps, if the track rubbers in as the race goes on, we may not be in store for a very good show.

“You can expect all you want to, but until you get there and you see what the track is like and how much water they’ve put down on it, if it’s rubbering up, if it’s really slick — that’s just game time stuff,” said Ryan Blaney. “That’s what makes those dirt guys so great at what they do is they have to notice that every single lap and it changes every lap and they have great ability to really switch up what they’re doing.”

Larson says that following last weekend’s race that he feels like the track is going to be more of a slick track anyways than a normal dirt race. 

“I would assume that (the track is) going to be really slick,” Larson said. “It’ll probably slow down a lot. I don’t think it’s going to drive like an aggressive-style dirt car that I’m used to. So yeah, I think that if anything, (it) evens the playing field a lot for guys that don’t have dirt experience. We’ll see how it goes.

“I don’t know what to expect. I think I have a little bit more of an idea now after racing there last week. But still, there’s a lot of unknown because the cars are different; the tires are different than what I ran last week. So, we’ll see.”

Dillon though is more confident in the sense that he feels like he can find a lane with grip in it. 

“This stuff kind of creates a fluff,” he said. “It gets up there and you can gain grip, because it might be wet up there for a while. But it’s not something you can use as a curb to catch you.

“It’s just different, and I’m glad it came from around here, because I feel like I’ve ran on it a lot and know when it has grip and when it doesn’t.”

Also, the other worry is about the race time. See, a majority of dirt races around the country are held at night. That’s because of a combination of the moisture and ambient conditions and the dirt in the track. It’s better to have a dirt race at night, rather than during the day, to help with track prep too.

Well, 250 laps around a dirt track during the day could cause this to become a one groove race track too. These two factors worry the drivers and teams as it’s hard to prepare for by virtue of these unknowns.

Then, you have lapped traffic that will certainly get in the way. That’s standard for Bristol, but it’s even more treacherous this weekend due to the guys in the back likely being all over the place. See, you can get wrapped up in a lapped cars mess and not have any time to slow down and get collected yourself. It happens every night on dirt tracks. The leader is constantly battling lapped traffic and the minute a lapper spins or gets upside down, sometimes the leader has no where to go but into the mess.

That can certainly happen on Sunday which is why this race will be so unpredictable. Some drivers also say this race will run more like a Richmond and Martinsville and less like a dirt race with the cars not really getting very sideways.

“I heard from a lot of people that, ‘think more like Richmond and Martinsville than dirt track racing.’ From what I’ve heard from a lot of people, it’s not like typical dirt car racing,” Aric Almirola said. “You don’t have the car really hung out sideways, standing in the gas and just slinging mud. The cars drive a lot straighter on the dirt. These big heavy stock cars do. They’re not running super sideways. You’re not driving them like you would a typical dirt car, so I think that’s what everybody has really referenced is that the cars are not way up on the left side and dug in with the right side tires. There’s just a lot of differences in the way that the dirt cars drive and the way that they race versus how I’m expecting it from what I hear and what I gather our Cup cars to drive on dirt.”

Eldora ran as Kyle Busch says more like an ice skating rink than dirt. I mean, a Cup car isn’t made for dirt, so it could have a slick track tendency instead of guys driving their cars in the corners deep and getting sideways. It may be more throttle control instead. 

That leads to the weird factor of needing less horsepower instead of more.

“Obviously, (Kyle) Larson, (Christopher) Bell are the ones to watch, (Tyler) Reddick, for sure,” said Bubba Wallace. “From my experience at Eldora, it didn’t really drive much like a dirt late model or a sprint car. It drove like a really slick asphalt. You just had to be really mindful of rear grip and forward drive, and making sure you’re making your straightaways as long as possible. We’ll see. We ended up beating one of the best dirt guys (Larson) in 2014 (Truck race at Eldora). See if we can do it again.”

Denny Hamlin agreed.

“Our cars aren’t built for dirt, but we’ll make adjustments to the chassis and whatever’s needed,” he said. “I personally have very little dirt experience, but I love dirt racing. I’m a fan of it. Hopefully it will live up to the hype.

“It’s going to be different than anything we’ve done before. Who knows how it will turn out? But all the Cup guys know how to put on a show, regardless of their dirt experience, so I’m confident we’ll do that.”

The other factor is that there’s not any live pit stops. You can only pit during stage breaks. So, that will allow for some strategy calls. With the first two stages only being 75 laps in length, one would figure that you can go until the end of the second stage without having to pit for fuel. If you stay out, you stay up front and don’t lose spots to those who did pit. That in turn leads to the question, how important are tires going to be? Is it a benefit to pit for tires at the end of both stage breaks, or will you have some roll the dice and gamble on just staying out?

If tires aren’t a factor, then you may see two separate strategy calls. How many pit at the end of the first stage and know that they can go the final 175 laps until the end without needing to stop? That means you just pit once all day and not again?

The flip side of that is, how many stay out after the first stage and use the stage break for Stage 2 (Lap 150) to pit for their first and only time?

That’s two varying strategies that you know some may use. 

Kyle Busch during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 7, 2019 in Bristol, Tennessee.

What’s The Format?

The main event is 250 laps with stage breaks on Lap 75 and again on Lap 150. They’ll qualify on Friday via heat races. The Bush’s Beans Qualifying heat races for Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race in the Cup Series will be held that Saturday at 6, 6:15, 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. ‘

  • Heat Race Starting Lineup – Random draw determines heat race designation and starting position for the heat race. The draw will be in order of current owner points.
  • Qualifying Heat Races – Four qualifying races held at 15 laps each with only green flag laps counted – no overtime rule. Free pass and wave around procedures will be in effect.
  • Passing Points – Drivers will accumulate points in the heat races based on finishing position and passing points. The points total determines the starting position for the feature event.
    • Passing Points = The difference between assigned starting position and finishing position
      • Go forward – accumulate passing points
      • Go backward or finish where you started – zero passing points
      • Tiebreaker – Owner Points.

For the race action itself, the running order will be frozen at the conclusion of each stage. During the stage breaks, teams can change tires, add fuel and make adjustments to their cars/trucks. These non-competitive pit stops must be completed in a time designated by NASCAR (TBD). No fuel or tires except at stage breaks. (Note: Teams will not be required to pit during the stage breaks. Teams that elect not to pit will re-start ahead of teams that pitted. Re-start order determined by the freeze at the conclusion of the preceding stage)

  • Additional Event Highlights – Choose rule will not be in effect for the Bristol Dirt race. The overtime rules, free pass and wave around procedures will be in effect.

“The heat races – they’ll be challenging,” Austin Dillon said. “It’s a short amount of time and you’ll want to get as many passing points as you can. Your starting position matters at any type of racing level. The draw – I haven’t really looked into how that’s going to go down or where we start in the heat races yet. But I think the whole process is going to be fun. I was hoping we would go off of a regular race weekend and go off of the past race, because we would have a pretty good starting position after our run at Atlanta this past weekend, and I think starting up front would be really good for us. I’m not really worried about where we start in the dirt race because I feel like if you do your job and practice that you should be able to move forward through the race.”

Will This Race Come Back?

That’s all dependent on how Sunday’s race looks. Right now, this is a one race deal for the dirt, but depending on how much action we see this weekend will determine on if NASCAR elects to bring a dirt race back in 2022. If this is a boring show, then expect this to be a one-and-done. If this is a thrilling battle, this could be a part of the future of the sport.

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