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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Food City Dirt Race at Bristol

What happened?

Joey Logano won the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday (March 29) after surviving an overtime restart

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five finishers.

How did it happen?

Torrential rain from Saturday night into Sunday morning pushed the race to Monday afternoon. Pole-sitter Kyle Larson started at the rear due to an engine change after Friday’s practice, so Hamlin led the field to green and led the first Cup lap on dirt since 1970.

Kyle Busch got by Hamlin on the second lap and held the lead until lap 10. He was forced to pit due to overheating and lost a lap as Martin Truex Jr. took over. With a wet track, there was plenty of action throughout the field behind Truex. There was a lively battle for second between Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Alex Bowman that was cut short when the first caution arrived. Aric Almirola got too low exiting the corner and spun, then collected Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie and others. Truex barely avoided the wreck.

The restart came with five to go before the lap 50 competition caution, but they didn’t make it there caution-free. Newman and Byron made contact and the No. 6 spun without hitting anyone else. Chase Briscoe got the worst of it when trying to avoid Newman.

Everyone pitted during the competition caution for untimed pit stops. Truex held the lead again on the restart as things settled down until Christopher Bell got too high out of the groove and spun, collecting innocent victims Larson and Ross Chastain, who had nowhere to go.

Truex controlled the restart as Suarez moved into second place late in the first stage. The No. 19 held the top spot for the remainder of the stage.

Following another round of untimed pit stops, Truex kept the lead over Suarez. Suarez continued to chip away throughout the segment and ultimately used the bump and run to take over the race.

Truex fell to third at the lap 150 competition caution, with Byron taking over second. Suarez held the lead on the start, but chaos ensued behind him. It became nearly impossible to see as the track was dried out and dust kicked up deep in the pack.

Another quick caution came as Briscoe wrecked and NASCAR decided to pull the plug on double-file restarts. All starts for the rest of the race started single-file. Suarez kept the lead over Logano on the first single-file restart after some beating and banging. Then, on the final restart of the second stage (after a spin by Cody Ware), Logano battled past Suarez to clinch the stage win.

The track was moistened for the final 50-lap run and the outside lane came back in. Hamlin used the top groove to get around Suarez for second on the restart. He worked his way up to Logano and they had a few close calls, but Logano prevailed.

Bubba Wallace cut a tire and spun in the final laps while running seventh. He limped to pit road before a caution was thrown, and Logano appeared in control. Then, with four to go, Mike Marlar stopped on the inside wall and engaged the overtime finish.

Hamlin went high on the restart but wasn’t able to make it stick at all, allowing Stenhouse to get around him for second and Logano got away for the easy victory. It was Logano’s 27th career victory (third at Bristol overall).

Who stood out?

Raise your hand if you had Logano winning the Bristol dirt race. OK, now put your hand down because I know you’re all lying. In a field stacked with some of the best dirt racers in the world, Logano — with no dirt experience — surprised us all. He looked solid early, but he didn’t come on strong until late in the race. Once he got out front, he swiftly maneuvered through traffic like a dirt racing veteran.

Logano is the second “perennial contender” to win a race in 2021 (along with Truex). These two drivers have consistently shown the ability to win multiple races in a year. With so many unlikely winners already, these two have a huge edge over the other usual suspects (Hamlin, Harvick, etc.). They can take chances and go for checkered flags now that they have no points to worry about. Logano always seems to find a way to win early in the season, and 2021 is no different.

Stenhouse’s quietly solid start to 2021 continued with his second-place finish at Bristol. He finished between 11th and 18th in each of the first six races and is currently inside the top 16 in the standings. Seeing this type of performance isn’t much of a surprise considering the circumstances. Bristol has long been Stenhouse’s best non-superspeedway track, and he’s one of the more experienced dirt racers in Cup.

JTG Daugherty Racing as a whole has been much improved in 2021. Ryan Preece is holding steady despite not having a charter, and Stenhouse is firmly in playoff contention. The upcoming race at Talladega is a huge opportunity for one of the JTG teammates to steal another playoff spot in what’s been an unpredictable season.

Suarez and Trackhouse Racing look ready to compete for wins after just seven races. Before the season, all the talk was about another new team in 23XI Racing. While Michael Jordan’s team has had speed at moments, it certainly hasn’t looked as racy as the No. 99. Suarez had a legitimate shot to win at Bristol, leading a career-best 58 laps, and he did it without any dirt racing experience.

Suarez is 20th in the standings and could be in the mix at any upcoming track. He had a top-10 car at Atlanta before a speeding penalty ruined his day. The team has now proven they can contend at different types of tracks, and one can only assume they’ll only get better as they gather more data.

Who fell flat?

The so-called “dirt ringers” largely had a day to forget at Bristol. Stenhouse finished second and Tyler Reddick had a top 10, but you know who we’re talking about here: Bell and Larson. They both looked incredible in the early going. Bell worked to the front quickly after starting 15th, getting to second at the first competition caution. Larson was even better, coming from the back to fifth in the first 50 laps. Then, Bell got out of the groove, spun and effectively ended both their days.

It was a total shocker. I’m sure most of you had these two in your fantasy lineups — I know I did. If they didn’t wreck, it’s likely they would’ve been the class of the field. Instead, we’re left wondering what could’ve been. Maybe next year.

Austin Dillon isn’t necessarily a “dirt ringer” like Bell and Larson, but I expected a lot more out of him after his Eldora truck win. The No. 3 was largely out of the picture at Bristol after many expected him to contend for the win. Dillon seems to have a flair for the big moments (wins at Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600), so Bristol appeared to be his type of event.

Perhaps more perplexing was how Dillon ran compared to his teammate Reddick and de facto teammate Suarez. Those two ran in the top 10 and led laps, while Dillon couldn’t even stay on the lead lap. Strange day for a team that’s run well for most of 2021.

What did this race prove?

For the most part, the dirt race was a success. Sure, the race had some ugly moments. The middle stages, where the dust bowl was prominent and randomly switching to single-file restarts, wasn’t great. Still, credit NASCAR for adjusting on the fly and making necessary changes to the restarts and track surface.

The Bristol dirt race will return in 2022, NASCAR announced during the race. That’s good news because now they know what to change to make the race go smoothly.

Prior dirt racing experience wasn’t a prerequisite for success at Bristol. Logano, Suarez, Truex and Hamlin were among the four best drivers all afternoon. None of them have a dirt background. Having the dirt background definitely helped (see: Stenhouse, Newman). Still, so much of the race is out of the drivers’ control (see: Larson’s wreck). Even though some drivers felt more comfortable at first, it doesn’t matter too much when you have so much talent on the track.

Paint scheme of the race

Any time you put a Tide Ride on the track, it instantly vaults to the top of my list. Iconic paint schemes from Darrell Waltrip to Ricky Rudd to Ricky Craven cemented the sponsor in NASCAR history. The sponsor joined forces with Erik Jones and the legendary No. 43 for one epic paint scheme on the Bristol dirt.

Better than last year?

There’s obviously no direct comparison between 2020 and 2021 as the Cup Series has never run dirt at Bristol. However, the spring race on Bristol’s asphalt was phenomenal. There were tons of lead changes, and in the late stages, Elliott and Logano wrecked for the lead as Keselowski snuck by for the victory. It was one of the better Bristol races in recent memory because it had everything: great racing, a great finish and great drama.

Was the Bristol dirt a better show than last year’s spring event? I’m going to lean no. I loved what I saw on the dirt. It just wasn’t quite at the level of normal Bristol. That’s definitely not a knock of the dirt, because normal Bristol is usually pretty darn special.

Playoff picture

Seven races, seven different winners. I’ve been waiting weeks to retire that sentence and I just can’t shake it. Logano, Blaney, Truex, Larson, Byron, Bell and McDowell are now “locked” into the playoffs. With seven winners, we’ve filled almost half the field already. There are still five road courses and two superspeedways left. At some point, you have to think we’ll start seeing repeat winners. Hamlin, Harvick, Elliott, Keselowski and others might beg to differ.

What’s next?

After a wild race on the dirt, the Cup Series has its first off week for Easter. Cup cars will battle under the lights at Martinsville — the series’ shortest track — in the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 on Saturday (April 10) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

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7 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Food City Dirt Race at Bristol”

  1. I’ll admit that the race was entertaining but they need to fix a few things.
    1) Get better tires. No competition cautions should be needed.
    2) Switching to single file restarts during the race is not a good thing.
    3) Didn’t like the pit situation where no one could gain or lose positions. Make pit road speed 10 mph if you have to but get normal pit procedures back.

    If they can fix those 3 things I would be OK with having a dirt race. I also don’t like the fact that it takes away a normal race at Bristol, one of only 6 short track races. Either find a legitimate dirt track or stop at Bristol 3 times (two concrete and one dirt race). If California is indeed going to be a short track in the near future then maybe that won’t be necessary.

    I wonder who pays for the transformation of the track which I assume is quite pricey? It has to be NASCAR and Fox because there is no way the track didn’t lose money given the fact that they were limited on how many tickets they could sell (due to Covid).

    Reply
  2. For me the “race” ended with Bell taking out Larson. This had Chili Bowl written all over it and it was taken away. I don’t know if Larson could have kept up the same pace but it would have been interesting if he did. Truex and Hamlin looked like they burned up the right rear tire, which is what a loose car does. The Big Bock Modifieds running 200 laps at the Syracuse Mile changed right rear tires ONCE.

    Reply
  3. It was boring and that’s always the worst thing that can be said about a sporting event. When I thought, “My God, it must be nearly over,” I realized they hadn’t finished Stage 2 yet. And the stage breaks were long enough to make headway on War and Peace. When the car leading the race has to pit because dirt in the grill causes the engine to overheat, you know this is going to be a farce and it was. But NASCAR being NASCAR, they just double down on their mistakes. I can only imagine what the NASCAR “brain trust” will bring us next out of their sense of desperation.

    Reply
    • Agree. The race conditions were horrible. If you want a dirt track, go to a REAL dirt track and lord knows there are enough of those around like Eldora and the late, great Manzanita. Dust is to be expected but not to the extent of Bristol. Also, did you notice the very large holes in the race line on the track. Its a wonder they didn’t do more damage. Couldn’t believe that the Fox crew kept giving kudos to NASCAR all night for that crash fest.

      Reply
  4. I was so excited to get home & watch the rest of the race & for me, it didn’t disappoint at all! It was fun to see them sliding all over. Even the gal I work with, who used to be a race fan, but drifted away after Tony retired, couldn’t wait to see the race either. And she also liked it. For a 1st attempt at something new, I give it a B+.

    Reply

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