What Kind Of Race Will We See?
This is something that’s being debated within the NASCAR circles. The short track package with this new Next Gen car has honestly been a flop. Well, why not try it out on dirt? Last year’s race was being questioned from the get go for trying to race during the day. See, there’s a reason most dirt tracks across the country stage races at night.
That’s because of a combination of the moisture and ambient conditions and the dirt in the track. At night, there’s natural moisture in the air which helps advance a better racing surface. 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. That’s exactly what happened last year.
All that rain that fell in the eastern Tennessee mountains plus a day race created a mess. The track got so dry, it was hard to even see as it became a dusty one groove race track.
250 laps for 40 cars that weigh 3,400 pounds isn’t ideal for a make shift dirt track. So, conditions have to be perfect and running during the day already starts off on the wrong footing.
This year, the race is scheduled for a night time event. Does that help the show?
Another worry was 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.
So, hopefully night time can help.
One factor in this too is lapped traffic. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. That’s standard for Bristol anyways, 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.
Eldora ran as Kyle Busch says more like an ice skating rink than dirt. I mean, a Cup car isn’t made for dirt, even this Next Gen, 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.
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.
How Much Does Past Dirt Experience Pay Off?
That’s the million dollar question, right? We know guys like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 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?
Joey Logano (+800) was a 30-1 winner last March in this very race. So far this season, 7 of the 8 races have seen the race winner with double digit odds. We’ve seen a 28-1 (Austin Cindric) and 50-1 (Chase Briscoe) reach victory lane. We’ve also seen 25-1 Ross Chastain in COTA, 18-1 (Alex Bowman) and a pair of 12-1 odds (William Byron twice, Denny Hamlin) triumph too.
So, what do you get Sunday?
Now that Bristol is back on dirt and under the lights at that, does it sway the advantage back to the dirt guys?
“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 and even Austin Dillon 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. “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 year, 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 of 2021. On top of that, he 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.”
In saying that, the top six finishers last year had odds entering the race of 30-1 (Logano), 14-1 (Stenhouse Jr.), 25-1 (Hamlin), 100-1 (Suarez), 50-1 (Newman) and 66-1 (Byron). 25-1 Martin Truex Jr. Led the most laps.
So, how much does dirt experience truly play?
Will This Race Be Back?
Bristol announced prior to last year’s race even being over that the spring race in 2022 will be back on dirt. Now that we’ve reached that second annual event, what’s the future? Do we run it back a third year?
I think it all depends on how Sunday works. NASCAR, especially SMI has shown that they’re willing to take risks. Charlotte moved their second race to the ROVAL. Texas got their first race to the All-Star event. Atlanta made a radical change to the track itself. Should Bristol keep the dirt, go back to two concrete races or differentiate the two somehow?
Last year’s dirt weekend was met with high anticipation and excitement. While NASCAR can’t control the weather, they can somewhat with the racing surface.
See, the track started off great last year then became treacherous mid race. As the race went on, the track started taking in more rubber which in turn makes the surface more slicker. That leads to some tough conditions. Then, factor in that leading to a dusty and dry race track and you saw what was becoming a mess.
Drivers couldn’t see anything which led to four cautions in a 35 lap span. NASCAR adapted and moved from a double file restart to single file in what should help with visibility.
It worked in the sense we only saw two cautions the rest of the way.
Steve O’Donnell gave the race two thumbs up and said that it will be back for 2022 and beyond.
“Yeah, certainly a wild few days here at Bristol,” said O’Donnell last year. “I think the industry had everything thrown at it. When you think of the challenge of coming into this weekend just to race on dirt, how much went into that. But then you add on the fact that we experienced flooding, hail, a day race with unbelievable sunshine, more laps with a truck and a Cup race than you’d ever put on a racetrack normally if you were conducting a dirt event.
“All in all really proud of the industry for setting this up, getting the racing in for the race fans, knowing it was a challenge for our fans to stick around on Monday. An incredible crowd turned out here today. We’re really proud of that.
“The fans had asked us for years to look at innovation around the schedule. In fact, we’ve been taken to task for not making some moves. We were bold and aggressive this year. I’m proud of the team for doing that, proud of the industry for taking a chance here. Marcus Smith, his team. What Steve Swift did for putting this track together was incredible, the amount of hours he put together. Really happy for the work he did as well.
“All in all I’d give it a thumbs up with some things to learn.”
O’Donnell said then that their plan was hoping that this wouldn’t be a one-off.
“Our hope was this would be a success, something we could repeat, become really a staple of the schedule going forward,” he continued.
“Certainly a number of things we learned throughout the weekend that will apply to 2022’s event weekend. Some of those things, how much you race in a single day, are there other racing series that can be part of this in terms of late models as well. We fully intend to be back in ’22 and beyond and continue to apply those learnings and put on some great races.”
O’Donnell also said that NASCAR certainly learned a number of things in the race and throughout the week last year that they can apply as they go forward in 2022.
So, if they learned and adapted, plus a new car and a night race, especially on Easter Night, is this event here to stay?
Can NASCAR Make Easter Night Work?
NBA has Christmas Day. NFL has Thanksgiving Day. Can NASCAR make Easter work? See, it’s not common for NASCAR to race on Easter. In the history of the sport, they’ve raced just 11 times on the holiday.
The first came in 1953 on the Charlotte Speedway dirt track. Dick Passwater won. They then ran on Central City Speedway a year later before taking the next four years off. Then, they came back in 1959 and stayed racing on Easter 8 times in a 12 year span on 7 different tracks. All in the southeast.
The thing is, it wasn’t just Easter they ran on. They also raced on the Saturday night before in 1952, 1958, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971 and 1985.
Basically, on Easter weekend, they’ve ran 19 times, but 17 of them were between 1952-1971. Among those 17, 11 were on Easter itself and 8 on the Saturday before.
That ended in 1972 and they stayed away from the holiday from then through 1984. They brought it back in 1985 but paused every year since with the exception in 1989 when Richmond was ran that Easter. The only reason though, was due to weather in February so they postponed it to Easter that season.
They’ve not raced on that weekend in NASCAR’s premiere series since. Until this year.
Richard Petty won three times on Easter Sunday, the most of any driver.
YEARS NASCAR RAN ON EASTER
|1953||Charlotte Speedway||Dick Passwater|
|1954||Central City Speedway||Gober Sosebee|
|1959||Wilson Speedway||Junior Johnson|
|1960||Wilson Speedway||Richard Petty|
|1961||Hickory Motor Speedway||Cotton Owens|
|1962||Martinsville Speedway||Richard Petty|
|1963||South Boston Speedway||Richard Petty|
|1965||North Wilkesboro Speedway||Junior Johnson|
|1969||Hickory Motor Speedway||Bobby Isaac|
|1970||Atlanta Motor Speedway||Bobby Allison|
|1989||Richmond Raceway||Rusty Wallace|
So, why bring it back now?
I get NASCAR is trying to get their own holiday, but I don’t know if this is the right one. How many people are going to travel on Easter and if they do so, does being Easter Night hurt those plans?
The NFL and NBA playing on holiday’s are during the day. You have afternoon get togethers. Do people get together on Easter night?
If they do, it’s usually for dinner which takes precedence over a race. That’s my fear is it won’t be well attended and the ratings may not be as good as it would be if it was held during the day. However, you can’t run a dirt race during the day either so if NASCAR wants to explore racing on Easter in the future, Bristol Dirt may not be the right spot.
How Much Does Trucks Or Xfinity Series Appearances Help With Cup Success?
In the past, when Cup Series regulars showed up to run in a Truck or Xfinity Series race, they did so to get extra seat time to help them on their Cup program. But, over the years, it’s actually not truly been much of a benefit. The racing packages have been growing further and further apart between Trucks/Xfinity to Cup that you really didn’t get much to take back with you to the Cup side.
Now, with a new car in Cup, doesn’t it push it even further apart?
That still hasn’t slowed the amount of appearances. Ross Chastain raced in COTA for DGM Racing. He’d win the Cup race a day later. Cole Custer raced and won in Fontana with SS Green Light. His best Cup finish all season came a day later.
William Byron raced in last weeks Truck Series race in Martinsville. He turned that into a Cup win two days later. Kyle Busch has made 3 Truck starts in 2022. 2 of his best 3 finishes on the Cup season came in those weekend’s.
Alex Bowman also raced in the Truck Series race at COTA and was there in the hunt in the top three on the final lap to win. He was in the same situation a day later on the final lap.
So, how much are you truly learning because it proves it’s working.
Now, with a dirt race, drivers are taking advantage of the Truck Series again this weekend in Bristol. 4 Cup drivers will race in the Truck race on Saturday night including Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Austin Dillon and Harrison Burton. Trends say one of which will win on Sunday night in the Cup race.