Years before this weekend's Food City Dirt Race, NASCAR racing on dirt tracks was the rule, not the exception. Seven of eight events in the sport's inaugural Cup Series season of 1949 were held on this track type. By the mid-1950s, that number rose to 40 and over a dozen dirt track events were on the schedule as late as 1967.
But as the sport came into its own, original NASCAR President Bill France Sr. foresaw larger oval tracks as the next step to grow his series. So, on Sept. 30, 1970, when Richard Petty bested a small field of 23 drivers to win the Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, it was the last of just three dirt track events held that season.
It would also be the final time in more than 50 years NASCAR's top series would compete on that track type. By 1972, a schedule of 48 races across the southeast was cut by 35 percent as the sport refocused on newer asphalt facilities like Talladega Superspeedway, Michigan International Speedway, and Dover International Speedway to take the sport national.
That decades-long drought hopefully will end on Monday following the postponement of Sunday's scheduled race due to torrential rains in the Bristol, Tennessee, area when Bristol Motor Speedway ushers in the sport's return to dirt with an incredible three-month transformation. Over 2,300 truckloads of the brown stuff were brought in, weighing almost 30,000 tons to turn this .533-mile oval into the sport's great big experiment of 2021. Rather than take their top series to an established dirt track, NASCAR's chosen to muddy the waters, holding a 250-lap event at a premier remodeled venue paired with sky-high expectations and one that is having to battle Mother Nature as well.
Can this untested race match the hype? Many in the 39-driver field have limited to no experience competing this way, some utilizing a series of Late Model events called the Bristol Dirt Nationals as their testing ground last week. In fact, a few owners at the back of the grid are resorting to "dirt ringers" like Camping World Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen, reigning USAC Midget champion Chris Windom, and 2018 World of Outlaws champion Mike Marlar.
Up front, all eyes will be on Kyle Larson, off to a fast start already with his new No. 5 ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Larson spent most of 2020 running circles around inferior dirt competition after that racial slur heard around the racing world left him without a Cup ride. The two-time defending Chili Bowl Nationals winner enters as a heavy favorite to cash in here despite needing to start from the rear after a Friday engine change.
But that's no guarantee as a bigger question surrounds how much green-flag racing we'll actually get. Concerns about tires marked Friday practice sessions filled with a few spins and broken fenders from diving too low on the apron. While heat races loom on Saturday to set the starting lineup, an opportunity for additional practice, Goodyear can't exactly fix their compound midstream. Can the rubber meet the road when it comes to a raceable track surface?
It all adds up to a true wild card race in which we could see a seventh different winner in as many events. So much for March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, right? NASCAR's 2021 schedule filled with unpredictability leaves us with little if any idea of what to expect.
Only one way to find out: tune in. Boom or bust, this weekend will easily become one of the sport's most memorable of the next several years.
Food City Dirt Race
Date: Monday, March 29 (postponed from Sunday, March 28 due to weather)
Time: 4 p.m. ET
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Blaney bolted to the front in the closing laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway after a dominant Kyle Larson wore out his tires. Twenty years after his dad, Dave, led 70 laps here before a flat tire foiled his chances, the son took the trophy home for the family in extending his streak of at least one Cup win per season to five years.
Here's the problem for Blaney; he's always stopped at one. To be taken seriously at a title contender, that win total needs to tick up to two or more by the time the playoffs hit come September.
Who's at the Back: Kurt Busch
Busch was an innocent victim in a midrace Atlanta crash caused when younger brother Kyle spun his tires on a restart. Still, that disappointing 39th-place result was the fifth time in six races this season the 2004 Cup champion's finished worse than he started. Slipping to 15th in the standings with just three laps led, Chip Ganassi Racing's best entry seems a cylinder or two behind four-car Hendrick Motorsports at Chevrolet. Will that gulf in performance be too wide for Busch to overcome in what could potentially be his final full-time season at age 42?
NASCAR chose not to penalize drivers Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson after an Xfinity Series post-race scuffle at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The drivers came to blows after Hemric was upset over Gragson backing into his No. 18 Toyota during a mid-race pit stop sequence. Gragson claimed the contact was unintentional but it's not the first time this season he's run into trouble. Earlier this month, he caused controversy by criticizing David Starr after the driver unintentionally blew a tire in front of him and cost Gragson a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
William Byron won the sport's midweek Bristol Dirt warmup, an eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series race held entirely online. Byron reprised his role as the iRacing favorite among Cup competitors, winning three of the seven events held during the two-month 2020 suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This race was filled with off-track news, too, as another 2020 eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series winner, Timmy Hill, was initially left out of the field until Roger Penske offered him a virtual ride at the last minute.
NASCAR is teaming up with the White House in a bid to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations across the country. The sport joins its stick-and-ball counterparts like Major League Baseball and the NFL in joining an ad campaign designed to convince skeptics the doses are safe and effective. So far this season, one Camping World Truck Series driver, Kris Wright, has tested positive for the virus.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup races since the last dirt event at the Cup level (1970).
Dirt races at Eldora Speedway held at the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series level since 2013, the only recent competition on this track type in the sport's top three divisions. The Trucks are racing at Bristol Saturday and will have a second dirt event in Knoxville, Tennessee, later in 2021.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to ignore Kyle Larson and the years of success he's had in all forms of dirt racing. He also comes into this event with back-to-back top-2 finishes, a series-high 379 laps led, and a track record of paved Bristol success (two runner-up results in his last four starts). The price is high for a reason; Larson could whoop the field here and no one would so much as bat an eyebrow. And starting from the rear? I wouldn't worry about it, especially when it comes with a truckload of position differential points.
Denny Hamlin surprised some by placing inside the top 5 during Friday's practice sessions. Hamlin is one of the sport's short track specialists and could surprise here; the last of his two Bristol wins on the paved track came recently (2019). Hamlin, who has five top-five finishes in six races this season, has also mastered the art of stage points, bonuses that could provide extra value for your roster.
Christopher Bell has a NASCAR dirt track win on his resume already, earning the top spot at Eldora Speedway's Truck Series event back in 2015. The three-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner (2017-19) is also a former USAC Midget champion and has an extensive dirt racing background. Add in the strong start to 2021 (see: Daytona road course victory) and you have a recipe for success.
Here's a fact people forget: Austin Dillon won the first-ever Truck race at Eldora Speedway in 2013. While not known as a short track expert, Dillon could surprise with a Richard Childress Racing team building momentum after a strong sixth-place finish at Atlanta last Sunday.
Rookie Chase Briscoe has stumbled out of the gate at the Cup level with Stewart-Haas Racing. But his dirt background includes an Eldora Speedway victory at the Truck level (2018) and car owner Tony Stewart lives for this track type. Don't be surprised if Briscoe gets it together for a strong top-5 performance at Bristol.
2019 Eldora winner and Truck Series veteran Stewart Friesen is making his Cup debut with Spire Motorsports. If there's a dirt ringer that can make the most with inferior equipment, it'll be this Canadian star used to NASCAR equipment. Keep in mind simply surviving the expected carnage on Monday will deliver a top-15 finish for a driver whose salary is inexpensive in almost all types of fantasy formats.
What Vegas Thinks
As expected, Kyle Larson is trending as a heavy Bristol Dirt Race favorite with 5/2 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Christopher Bell is next with 11/2 odds while Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon sit at 9/1.
Plenty of good longshots out there. William Byron is sitting at 66/1 despite winning Wednesday on the online version of this track.
What I Think
Insert shoulder shrug emoji here? I'll go with Christopher Bell to earn his second Cup victory of this young season. But 20-25 names in this space wouldn't surprise me. Watch out for Chase Briscoe, Bubba Wallace as well as other drivers that know Bristol. This could be their best chance to earn a playoff spot.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.