How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags