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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