On a hot September afternoon in 1969, Talladega Superspeedway hosted its first ever NASCAR weekend. Unfortunately, it came with a lot of setbacks and controversy. Shredded tires, unsafe track conditions, unfinished grandstands and suites, driver protests and even driver walkouts were all witnessed during that chaotic weekend in Alabama, making it one of the worst race weekends in NASCAR history.
A full 52 years later, we nearly came full circle. Fortunately, no driver walkouts or anything of that sort were included. But this past weekend on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway came with plenty of pains despite the amount of hype surrounding it. It was a big risk for NASCAR to take … and it almost ended horribly. But the racing product that followed proved to be quite fun to see in both events, and many fans have voiced their satisfaction with the end result.
In this edition of Frontstretch 5, we’ll go through five reasons why the Bristol dirt race weekend was so memorably bizarre and how it almost became a blunder in the valley of thunder.
1. The Racing Surface
Since this experiment was 51 years in the making, NASCAR knew they would have a challenge ahead of them with delivering a quality dirt surface on top of Bristol’s concrete base. They first applied a small layer of sawdust, followed by the same red clay used by the speedway for their World of Outlaws stint in 2001.
This red clay, used by many tracks in Tennessee and in surrounding southern states, is subject to greater tire wear than standard black clay used by racetracks in other parts of the country. It also has a reputation for being super dusty when dry. Low visibility became a real problem in the NASCAR Cup Series event, forcing a flurry of cautions in the second stage before finally being sorted out: NASCAR elected to stick with single-file restarts late in the race.
And with Bristol’s core surface being concrete, it takes extra work by the speedway to make sure the clay stays intact for 400 scheduled laps of racing. For example, when the 2016 Super Dirt Week Modified 200 was moved from the Syracuse Fairgrounds to the paved Oswego Speedway in Central New York, the event was plagued by deep ruts and exposed spots of asphalt in the track, causing many accidents. Props to Bristol for not letting the same thing happen to them and for providing a durable enough clay product for all the drivers to race on.
2. The Weather
It would be impossible to not include this one. The ultimate hype train derailment of the weekend was the massive amount of rain that fell onto the speedway Saturday and Sunday.
Rain first struck the track prior to heat race qualifying, packing the track with a lot of moisture. The Camping World Truck Series only ran two laps in their first heat before pulling off the track due to muddy conditions. More rain came shortly after, forcing the remainder of heat race qualifying to be cancelled. Just as the fans were shunned from a full night of racing, Jessica Friesen, Ryan Newman and Trevor Collins were shunned from the Truck Series main event.
The constant rainstorms also caused severe flooding throughout several areas of the speedway premises. Thankfully, fans were able to stay relatively safe during the stormy chaos, but the mood for the weekend was dramatically dampened by it.
3. The Racing Product
When the rain finally dissipated and cars got back on the track, the quality of racing stood as the next test for how the weekend was judged.
Fortunately, we were able to witness a well-executed display of good ol’ dirt track racing characteristics in both events. Vehicles sliding sideways in the corners, fender-bending battles, hair-raising crashes and a thrilling dash to the checkers all saved the entire race weekend from becoming a total flop.
With 5,000 ticketholders reserving admission for next year’s dirt weekend at Bristol, you could say this race weekend managed to resonate well with everyone who witnessed it.
4. Absence of Dirt Ringers
With both series racing on such a unique track format, you would expect dirt ringers to step up to the plate and excel. Unfortunately, that’s far from what happened.
Stewart Friesen led just one lap during the Truck race and finished 12th. However, he had a decent Cup debut, finishing one lap down in 23rd with hardly any scratches on his Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.
Tennessee late model star Mike Marlar had a rough go at Bristol. In his second Truck start on Monday, he suffered power issues, which caused him to get rear-ended by Kyle Larson in turn 3. Later in his Cup debut, he wrecked with four laps remaining, knocking him down to a 31st-place finish.
USAC sprint car standout Chris Windom also made his Cup debut, but only lasted 62 laps before finishing 33rd due to a blown engine. Shane Golobic completed 39 laps before significantly colliding with Aric Almirola’s Ford on the backstretch. He finished 37th.
And who can forget the lap 53 tangle between Larson and Christopher Bell? Both drivers’ days were ruined from the incident, along with many fans’ fantasy picks. Bell retired out of the race in 34th, while Larson struggled onward to a 29th-place finish.
5. Unexpected Dirt Talents
On the opposite side of the spectrum, many drivers that fans weren’t expecting to do well, ended up excelling the most.
Considering Joey Logano’s lack of dirt experience, his race-winning performance was stout. Same thing could be said for third-place finisher Denny Hamlin, who challenged for the lead on a couple occasions. Despite having not-too-stellar dirt backgrounds, Brad Keselowski and Michael McDowell put together respectable runs in 11th and 12th.
Martin Truex Jr. had a memorable Monday afternoon on the dirt. He put on a clinic in the Truck race, leading 105 laps and scoring his maiden series win in just his third start. In the Cup race, he led 126 laps and won the first stage. Unfortunately, he suffered a flat tire during the race’s overtime finish, falling from third to 19th at the checkers.
Finally, out of all types of tracks that you would expect Daniel Suarez to perform the best at, dirt would be at the bottom of the totem pole. But Suarez proved that idea wrong on Monday, leading 58 laps and scoring the first ever top-five finish for the Trackhouse Racing Team, placing fourth. It was a remarkable feel-good performance by Suarez and company.