The NASCAR Cup Series' dirt race experiment continues for a second straight year with an Easter Sunday special at Bristol Motor Speedway. The 2022 Food City Dirt Race marks just the second time Cup has raced on dirt since 1970, its experiment continuing by pouring the brown stuff over the .533-mile concrete high-banked oval in Thunder Valley.
The honeymoon is officially over with year two. Now, it’s time to figure out whether racing dirt here actually works.
After the first Bristol Dirt Race produced mixed reviews, NASCAR added a little more progressive banking the second time around. When dust and glare from the sun subsequently caused visibility problems, they moved the race to a 7 p.m. start under the lights. The hope is the new Next Gen chassis will take to the dirt, allowing for better tire wear and handling than the crash-filled event held here a year ago. At least Mother Nature is cooperating. Rain is not a factor in muddying up the track or threatening a Monday postponement like 2021.
But, as Stewart Friesen noted this week once he tested at Bristol, “They’re purpose-built pavement stock cars trying to put a show on dirt so there’s a little bit of work to do. There’s definitely a lot of differences with that [new] car.”
Among the biggest from a typical dirt race, regardless of what car NASCAR runs is keeping the windshields intact on these vehicles. That alone frustrates reigning NASCAR Cup champion and expert dirt racer Kyle Larson, making him feel the sport is hesitant to go all-in.
“With us having windshields, they really can’t make the track as moist and as wet as it needs to be,” Larson told NBC Sports’ Zach Sturniolo this week. “They’re going to have to make it dry and have to make it get dusty and slick and all that. And it’s probably going to end up single-file around the bottom like last year and take rubber at some point just because we have to have the track dry so we don’t clog up the windshields or whatever.
“So I don’t know, we’ll see. Who knows? It’s going to be better than last year. I just don’t know if it’s going to look like a real dirt race yet.”
To that point, a lot of last year’s pre-race favorites with a ton of dirt experience, like Larson and Christopher Bell, were caught up in early wrecks and never a factor throughout the 250-lap event. In fact, the trophies throughout the weekend went to Martin Truex Jr. (Trucks) and Joey Logano (Cup), hardly the first two names you’d think of when it comes to past dirt experience.
In the end, throwing curveballs here seems part of NASCAR’s goal with this one-off, regular-season event held at a track whose attendance had sagged for the spring race in recent years. The unpredictable conditions could allow for a surprise winner to sneak up and steal a postseason spot; rookie Todd Gilliland, for example, posted top-5 speeds in Friday’s final practice session.
But there’s a level of unknown here more ominous than what we’ve seen so far with NASCAR’s new Next Gen chassis. The superspeedway racing at Daytona exceeded expectations, along with the intermediate track races that followed. However, the early trendline appears to be, the smaller the oval, the more this new car struggles as drivers can’t find a way to pass after closing in behind another car.
The hope is driver slip-ups that happen often in dirt racing should provide more openings for people to scoot by. Strategy will also be a factor with a number of cautions expected to clog up the final stage.
It’s a rare Sunday prime-time moment for NASCAR, which has a formidable sports competitor competing alongside them in the NBA playoffs. Can Bristol rise above the fray and deliver the type of dirt race that keeps this track type on the schedule for years to come?
Food City Dirt Race
Date: Sunday, April 17
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: William Byron
All of a sudden, Byron has repositioned himself at the perfect time while negotiating a contract extension at Hendrick Motorsports. A dominant Martinsville victory made him the year’s first multi-race winner, also the first time the 24-year-old has won more than two races in a season during his Cup career.
482 laps led are a career high for Byron just eight races into the 2022 season. Since starting the year with back-to-back crashes, he’s gained 30 positions to move from 33rd to third in the Cup standings.
Who's at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The Dirt Race feels like an important moment for Stenhouse, who nearly pulled the upset last year over Logano down the stretch. He has six straight finishes outside the top 20 for a JTG Daugherty Racing team that slimmed down to a single-car effort this season to try and become more competitive. Instead, a 26.3 average finish is the worst of Stenhouse’s full-time Cup career eight races in.
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ty Gibbs was fined $15,000 after his post-race fight with Sam Mayer at Martinsville Speedway. Gibbs threw punches at Mayer following a post-race confrontation once the two banged fenders coming to the checkered flag. The incident kept either one from winning a $100,000 Dash4Cash bonus that instead went to Kaulig Racing’s AJ Allmendinger. It’s the latest in a string of early-season incidents for Gibbs despite posting three wins in the year’s first eight NXS events.
NASCAR explained the 100-point penalty assessed to RFK Racing once driver Brad Keselowski declined a Tuesday deadline to continue his appeal. The issue surrounded the repair of a tail panel, a single source-supplied part to the team NASCAR claims did not meet its specifications during inspection. “A strict deterrence model was asked for by the folks in the garage,” Miller said. “It’s our job to do that. We said we would. A key design element was not returned to its original specification and that’s what led to the penalty.”
Full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor Josh Williams is making his Cup debut this weekend for Live Fast Motorsports. Williams called it “every kid’s dream” as he slides behind the wheel of a No. 78 Ford co-owned by a driver, BJ McLeod, who he used to watch race around South Florida short tracks growing up.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-5 finish through eight races for points leader Chase Elliott. By comparison, each of his three teammates at Hendrick Motorsports has at least one win.
Full-time Cup drivers who have yet to lead a lap through eight races: Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie and Cody Ware.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You can go one of two directions here following Saturday’s qualifying races to set the field. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have some of the best dirt backgrounds (and success) of anyone in this 36-driver lineup. Larson won the pole last year only to wind up 29th, caught up in several incidents while Bell was 34th after getting swept up in a crash all his own. Both should be set for bounce-back performances the second time around.
If you want to rely on practice speeds? Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were 1-2 in Friday’s final practice session. Hamlin accounted well for himself in 2021, starting outside the front row and finishing a strong third behind Logano. As for Busch? His opinion of dirt racing this week was “cut the cord,” a reminder of his pointed Car of Tomorrow criticism after he won the first Bristol race on that chassis in 2007. What’s the keyword in that sentence, you ask? Won.
After Ross Chastain captured his first victory in Trackhouse Racing Team equipment, Daniel Suarez is eager to follow suit. The No. 99 Chevrolet was a disappointing 34th in Friday practice but don’t be fooled; he led 58 laps and ran a surprising fourth in this race last year.
How about Tyler Reddick on dirt? Fourth in final practice, he was seventh in this race last year running for Richard Childress Racing. Reddick has past success on the dirt in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, posting two top-5 finishes and an average result of 6.3 in three starts at Eldora Speedway.
Todd Gilliland, with those strong practice runs, becomes an intriguing longshot pick. The Cup rookie led 61 laps in the Truck Series event at Knoxville Raceway last year, winding up fourth in that dirt race and notched another top-5 finish a few years ago at Eldora.
Keep an eye on Gilliland’s Front Row Motorsports teammate, Michael McDowell, to move up in a possible war of attrition. 12th in the Bristol Dirt Race last year, McDowell has struggled this season, posting just two top-15 finishes in eight starts. FRM overall is due for a solid performance and focuses on track types where they can compete up front despite their financial disadvantage.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Kyle Larson head and shoulders above the rest with +550 odds to win the Bristol Dirt Race. Christopher Bell is next up at +800 with Joey Logano (+900), Chase Elliott (+1000) and William Byron (+1200) following close behind.
Do you believe in Gilliland pulling the ultimate upset? His longshot odds are +25000, which would pay you $250 for a $1 bet.
What I Think
I’ll go with Christopher Bell to put a rocky 2022 behind him and outduel Kyle Larson for a win at the Bristol Dirt Race. But if both men get caught up in accidents again? All bets are off and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a first-time winner wind up in victory lane.
— 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.
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