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5 Points to Ponder: Dirt & Road Courses Forever?

1: Bristol Dirt Experiment a Win (For Now)

First it took decades for the NASCAR Cup Series to return to a dirt track, albeit one that isn’t generally a dirt track but rather Bristol Motor Speedway covered with dirt. Then it took an extra day for the race to actually be run, since apparently Mother Nature isn’t as big a fan of dirt racing as you might imagine.

Eventually, though, the Bristol Dirt Race did get run, Joey Logano maneuvered his Ford into victory lane for the first time in 2021, and when the (copious amounts of) dust cleared, a good time was had by most. It wasn’t a perfect event by any means, what with the sudden restart rules change in the middle of the race and all, along with a few other small quibbles, but as a spectacle, NASCAR’s dirt return was a success.

It’s also already booked for a 2022 return, much to the chagrin of those who thought even one time was a mistake. NASCAR and Bristol have both promised to do whatever homework is necessary to have things go smoother next season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t succeed.

So what remains is the existential question of whether there needs to be a dirt race on the Cup Series schedule, given the fact that so many years went by without one — and considering the novelty is going to eventually wear off.

(There’s a related query worth pondering about whether Bristol should forego one of its two concrete races a year, but we can table that for the time being.)

For now, my gut says the dirt race should stay. From the most idealistic viewpoint possible, I want the NASCAR Cup Series champion to show off their mastery of as many different track types as possible: short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways, road courses, and sure, dirt. Of course it doesn’t really work that way with the playoffs anyway, but regardless of whether variety really is the spice of life, a variety of different tracks and surfaces does spice up a long NASCAR season.

Viva la dirt, at least for the next few seasons.

2. Dirt Track Experience Doesn’t Mean Much

It’s a good thing that reading too much into really small sample sizes is a staple of NASCAR commentary and sports commentary writ large, because we can now confidently say that a dirt racing background means absolutely nothing when it comes to the top levels of stock car racing on dirt. You know, based on the two whole races we have as evidence.

Noted non-dirt racer Martin Truex Jr. won the Truck Series race at Bristol with relative ease. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, two of the favorites for the Cup Series race, both wrecked, while Daniel Suarez slid his way to a fourth-place result in his first dirt race ever. Experience? Well, it didn’t turn into results.

And while I’m being intentionally flippant about it, the real takeaway is this: These are the best drivers and crew chiefs around. They learn quickly and adapt on the fly to any set of circumstances (see also: not practicing or sometimes even knowing where the next race would be run during the pandemic). Dirt presents an interesting challenge, but not one so devious that the top racing organizations in the business can’t solve it.

3. Carl Edwards, Ultimate Tease

Carl Edwards, you really know how to keep fish on the line as long as possible.

Just when we were finally getting to the point where fans stopped asking several times a season whether Edwards would come out of retirement to drive for their favorite team, he goes and does this:

There you have it, folks. Start speculating about when he’s going to make his return, even if it’s for just one afternoon.

The thing is, a one-shot road course entry makes perfect sense. There are more road courses than ever on the Cup Series schedule (which we’ll get to shortly), and there’s definitely a chance that Edwards could contend for a win on one of them in the right ride. The average speeds are slower, making it less likely he’d suffer a serious injury that would put a damper on his post-racing life.

It wouldn’t even take that much time out of the second favorite bit of speculation where it concerns Edwards, which is making a Senate run. Heck, he could do both of them next year if he wanted.

4. Road Course Concentration

Alternatively, Edwards could still make his Cup Series cameo in 2021, considering how many road course races are still left on the schedule. Somewhat lost in the discourse over whether seven road course races was too many was the fact that most of them ended up so close together on the schedule.

With the exception of the Daytona Road Course in February and the ROVAL in the playoffs, the other five road racing events all fall between late May and mid-August, including a summer stretch where there are three (Road America, Watkins Glen and Indy) in the span of five races. Summer is for road course races? Sure seems like it.

That could be good news for Chase Elliott, who is in the midst of a rather ho-hum title defense so far but rocked road courses en route to his 2020 championship. It could also make the “how many total winners will there be” question interesting again; we’re currently seven for seven on different race winners, but there figure to be some repeat victors as we head further into the spring.

In other words, if you’re, say, a Matt DiBenedetto supporter who really wants to see your guy break through, the mass of right and left turns looming in a few months can only be a good thing. For everyone else, we can discuss whether road course fatigue is a real thing about five months from now.

5. Could Bubba Wallace End Up the Only Full-Time Toyota Driver Not to Make the Playoffs?

You may have noticed there aren’t all that many Toyotas in the Cup Series. In fact, there are only five that make starts every week, and four of them belong to Joe Gibbs Racing. The other one is driven by Bubba Wallace.

That’s kind of a bummer for Wallace, currently 21st in points and on pace for his best season yet in the Cup Series, because the Gibbs bunch sets the bar so high. If the season ended today, three of the four JGR cars would be comfortably in the postseason field, and Kyle Busch, despite continuing to look nothing like his pre-2020 self, would also make it in.

It’s definitely unfair to expect Wallace’s first-year 23XI Racing bunch to operate on a similar level, but it also has to sting a little to think you could be considered the weak link in the Toyota chain. Desire is no issue, as you can tell Wallace desperately wants to grab that first Cup Series victory.

You figure he will, but expecting it to happen this season might be overly optimistic. Hopefully, Wallace will be able to look back on the 2021 campaign and laugh it off as a necessary step to future success in the very possible scenario that he’s the lone Toyota wheelman not chasing a championship this fall.

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2 thoughts on “5 Points to Ponder: Dirt & Road Courses Forever?”

  1. Great article and as is usual with Frontstretch, fresh and not harping on all the same things I read from the official NASCAR site.

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