Last year’s race was vastly better than the year prior. Part was due to the Next Gen and how it raced. The other due to the conditions in which they were racing in too.
The 2021 race was being questioned from the get-go for even 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 for the inaugural 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.
Last year, the race is scheduled for a nighttime event. It greatly helped the show.
It didn’t take in rubber and created multiple lanes to pass on.
Rubber settling into a race track is 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.
Nighttime helps with 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.
Which is also why starting position hasn’t mattered all that much here. In fact, the inaugural race saw 11 of the top 14 finishers each start outside the top 10 that day.
In both races, the pole winner failed to lead a single lap. Kyle Larson finished 29th from the pole in 2021 and Cole Custer 13th a year ago. Also, in both races, the 2nd place starter has just 1 total lap led too. Denny Hamlin led just a single lap in 2021. Christopher Bell failed to lead a lap last year and finished 7th.
So far, dirt experience hasn’t paid off as much here as we would have thought. We’re two races in and the likes of Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe are shutout.
“The dirt guys, I would say, definitely have an advantage,” Kyle Busch noted before the inaugural race. “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 is arguably the top dirt racer in the game today. He started on the pole in 2021 and finished fifth after leading 27 laps last year. Bell is off to a strong start this season (4 top 5’s in the 1st 5 weeks) and honestly as good as Larson is on dirt. He started second and finished seventh a year ago.
Stats say Briscoe has finishes of 20th and 29th respectively. However, Briscoe is a dirt guy by nature and was second in the final laps a year ago. He even led 59 laps in the process. However, an overzealous move for the win cost him a top two finish. He’s after redemption on Sunday night.
Bowman is also a dirt guy growing up with a finish of sixth last year. He’s started in Row 4 (7th, 8th) in both events too. Stenhouse Jr. is also a dirt guy who was runner-up in 2021.
So, how much does dirt experience truly play?
The dirt guys are off to a strong start to the 2023 season. Larson and Stenhouse have each won a race. Bell has five top six finishes in seven weeks.
Joey Logano was a 30-1 winner in the inaugural race. Kyle Busch was a 16-1 winner last year. Do we follow a similar trend this weekend?
In saying that, the top six finishers of the 2021 race 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.
Last year, it was 18-1 Busch followed by Reddick (14-1), Logano (8-1), Larson (6-1) and Blaney (16-1).
Who are this year’s potenetials?
Ryan Blaney isn’t known as a dirt racer, but he’s been in the Top-10 in both races (8th, 5th).
Tyler Reddick was seventh in the inaugural edition in 2021 and runner-up last year after leading 99 laps and being two corners away from victory. His former teammate, Austin Dillon, won a late model race at Bristol in 2021 and has a dirt background to where he’s been very successful at. That’s why I don’t put a lot of stock in his finishes (21st, 31st) here.
Brad Keselowski was 11th in both races. You have to put yourself up front in order to capitalize on others’ mistakes and I feel like Keselowski has that capability here. Worth a flier.
Michael McDowell was a respectable 12th in 2021 and ninth last year.
Justin Haley has been great on dirt tracks and was 14th as a rookie last year. I expect a good night out of him on Sunday.
What a start of the season that it’s been for the Chevrolet camp. They’re 5-for-7 with four different winners. However, they’re also 0-for-2 on Bristol Dirt. Can the most dominant team in NASCAR this season pick up their first win on the .566-mile dirt track?