Last weekend was a big weekend for NASCAR as they held their first dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, it turned into a literal quagmire due to precipitation.
This ended up being the sixth spring race at Bristol for the NASCAR Cup Series in the last eight years to be delayed in some way, shape or form. Just brutal. Bristol just can’t buy a break. That’s why the attendance has fallen off a cliff for the race. I have no idea why they decided to move the race back up three weeks into March. Last year is an outlier because of COVID-19, but the race was two weeks later in 2019. For 2022, NASCAR needs to move this race weekend back into April. It’s like they forget sometimes that Bristol Motor Speedway is in the mountains. It’s not like Nashville or Charlotte. It can get cold there this time of year, and that’s far more critical with a dirt track than it is a paved track. It’s the same reason why they couldn’t do any of the action last weekend at night. Heck, it was the 30s Monday morning (March 29) before they ran the races.
In the case of Cup, NASCAR made a rare early call to postpone the on-track action. Trust me when I say that it’s rare for NASCAR to do that because they want to get a race in on the day that it is originally scheduled to run. Something like we saw Sunday tends to only happen when you have natural disasters. For example, NASCAR pre-emptively postponed the 2008 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond Raceway to Sunday afternoon a day in advance due to Hurricane Hanna. In 2011, NASCAR postponed the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway from Sunday night to Tuesday afternoon due to the effects of Tropical Storm Lee, which ended up being worse here in New York than it was in the Atlanta area.
NASCAR’s early move left FOX with a dilemma. What to do with their time on Sunday? The race slot itself was given back to the affiliates. Here in the Albany area, they aired a bunch of informercials.
However, they still chose to run the originally scheduled 90-minute edition of NASCAR RaceDay live. This show featured on-site reporting from Regan Smith and Jamie Little from Bristol. That reporting gave viewers a good idea of the overall impact that the heavy rains had on the Bristol area and why the decision to postpone needed to be made. Smith displayed to viewers that the underpinnings of the dirt surface was still solid, which was key to the track preparations that went on after the rains stopped. He also successfully avoided ruining his clothes by keeping himself upright. My understanding is that they worked on the track for over four hours Sunday night and again early Monday morning in chilly conditions.
There was also an explanation of the rule changes that NASCAR was forced to institute mid-weekend because of the high tire wear that was seen. NASCAR did not allow Goodyear to do enough prep for this race.
Basically, they needed to be allowed to do a test somewhere to prepare. If you go around to dirt tracks around the country, you’ll see the top classes running on Hoosiers or American Racers (formerly McCreary). Goodyear doesn’t even sell dirt racing tires most of the time. Basically, this is another reason why the race shouldn’t have been in March because there’s only so many dirt tracks you can run at this time of year to prepare for such a race. Just ask the drivers from the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. They had quite the time at Brownstown Speedway back on March 20 with ruts and multiple rollovers that forced them to postpone the A-Main to May 2.
Here in Upstate New York, most of the dirt tracks don’t start their seasons until mid-April. Lebanon Valley Speedway, where I cover the action on a regular basis, isn’t starting their season until May 1. If you started here now, you’d have to worry about the potential for cancellations due to cold weather and terrible track conditions.
Also, I don’t get the whole drinking at the dirt track through pantyhose thing. Did I miss the meeting where it was determined that everyone has to put their fluids at the track in Solo cups? That sounds ridiculous on paper and looks even sillier on television. Maybe Clint Bowyer did that at his local short track growing up, but I tend to drink from bottles or cups that have tops on them when at the track. These days, I also have a straw that I put up under the mask so I don’t have to take it off to drink. Heck, they’ve got fountain drinks at dirt tracks, last I checked.
When the broadcast started Monday, they had opening ceremonies prior to the race getting underway. Then, it was right to the action.
Naturally, given the weekend to that point, overheating was clearly going to be an issue. Even with the track being raceable at the start of the race, there was still more dirt and/or clay clumps flying around than at most dirt tracks. Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 2, but had already ruined his race by that point since he had clogged his grille and had to pit shortly afterwards. He never got back to the top 10. Going forward, NASCAR will likely have to increase the grille sizes even more and re-introduce the upper grills for future dirt races.
FOX did a good job explaining to viewers about the velcro’ed-on auxiliary grills that were installed on the cars for this past weekend. Just seems like they couldn’t hold up to the clay, though. Tough circumstances.
As compared to the Camping World Truck Series race, the Cup race ended up being the more competitive event, but that’s mainly because there wasn’t as much wrecking. There were 39 laps under yellow in the 252-lap race, as opposed to 56 in the Truck race. As a result, viewers got to see a good amount of side-by-side racing. The groove did move around during the race, but the first 40 laps had the most variety as the track was still moist. Once it dried, it became much more of a single-groove track. In addition, a “cushion” didn’t really form as the groove expanded. Sure, drivers like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick tried to expand it, but it just didn’t really work. Instead of a cushion, you had the dirt version of marbles. The result was the same if you went up there. It was curtains for you.
It was in Bristol that Bowyer clearly came into his own. While he clearly didn’t have a good time last week during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race on FOX Sports 1, he had a ball all weekend. You could just tell that he was in his element and could really add a bunch to the broadcast.
Of course, Bowyer comes to this discussion with a lot of experience. He got his start on dirt and raced late models before getting the call to move into the ARCA Menards Series in the early 2000s, followed by the NASCAR Xfinity Series (then Busch Series). He speaks with literal joy in his voice. He’s at home on dirt, possibly more than he will be for the rest of the year.
I found that FOX did have a little trouble following everything that happened in the various incidents. For example, I have no idea how Quin Houff, Chris Windom and Cody Ware got involved in the Larson-Bell crash knowing how far behind them they were. We looked up and there they were. Of course, since it’s so very difficult to stop on dirt, just stomping on the brakes would have been enough to wrap them into the mess. That simple fact makes Martin Truex Jr.’s escape from the lap 41 crash all the more amazing.
Daniel Suarez was legitimately impressive on Sunday. However, this is something that I thought could have been possible based on his form in practice. It’s rare that we get practice these days (for reasons that I find rather ridiculous), but you have to actually pay attention during the sessions.
Yes, Larson was the fastest guy over long runs during the sessions. That is something that was noted Friday multiple times. However, Suarez was showing good pace during the session. He was able to race toe-to-toe on merit with Bell during the session and turned in his best laps in the closing minutes of happy hour. That was definitely something that I noticed and stowed away in my memory banks. Having said that, he ended up running better than I even thought he could have on Monday.
Post-race coverage was about average on Monday. Despite the fears that the Food City Dirt Race was going to be a four-plus hour race, it ended up being 164 minutes. It was a little longer than the estimate of 158 minutes that NASCAR randomly threw out there, but fine. It was an hour shorter than the one Syracuse 200 I went to back in 2011.
Viewers got interviews with the top-five finishers (Suarez, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman), along with the current point standings. One of the biggest stories at the end of the race was Truex blowing a tire on the final restart, but it essentially wasn’t mentioned. Perhaps Truex didn’t want to talk about it. As it stands, we don’t really know what happened there. Truex described the situation thusly on Twitter:
It was going good until those last 2 laps. Just bad luck. ?? Awesome job by our whole team though. We had a great shot and thats definitely more than we expected coming into this. Now on to the off weekend! @AutoOwnersIns #TeamToyota pic.twitter.com/2QpVwOaBOO
— Martin Truex Jr. (@MartinTruex_Jr) March 30, 2021
Overall, you had a very excitable booth this weekend. Both Bowyer and Jeff Gordon come from dirt backgrounds, so they were able to incorporate their personal knowledge (especially Bowyer). What we saw was more or less what I expected (other than Busch’s day being ruined in the first minute). FOX billed this race as a big deal for them, and once again, weather killed their chance to make a splash. You can’t control it, but it just bites as the weather has driven viewers away from the two biggest races of the FOX portion of the season.
The racing on dirt was compared to a slower “Old Bristol.” I don’t really ascribe to that, but it was at least decent when people weren’t wrecking. The late caution issue was nowhere near as bad as it was for the Truck races at Eldora where the fans booed NASCAR multiple times. The action was enjoyable. I don’t think this should be more than a once a year thing, but they do need to make some changes to make the show better, both for the fans and for the teams.
That’s all for this week. This weekend is Easter Weekend. As a result, literally everyone is off. DIRTcar has two-day shows this week for the World of Outlaws NoS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series (Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55) and the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series (Farmer City Raceway). In addition, the brand-new Extreme E series begins this weekend in Saudi Arabia. FOX Sports 2 has premiered seven specials over the past few days to build up the new series. Qualifying for the race will be tape-delayed on FOX Sports 2 while the race itself will air on FOX Sports 1. TV Listings can be found in the Television tab.
With no major series in action this weekend, next week is currently up in the air. We’ll definitely have some content for you. Maybe I’ll finally splurge on Netflix and watch Drive to Survive if only because Lawrence Stroll is apparently a massive jerk on it. In the Critic’s Annex on Friday, we’ll have a look at FOX Sports 1’s broadcast of Monday’s Pinty’s Truck on Dirt.
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About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.