Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty: 2022 Bristol Dirt Nationals Finale

The Headline(s)

Veterans Dale McDowell and Chris Madden score big-money wins for the “old guys” to close out the Bristol Dirt Nationals.

How it Happened

2022 Bristol Dirt Nationals (XR Super Series)
Where: Bristol Dirt Track – Bristol, Tenn. (streamed on RaceXR)
Winner’s Purse: $50,000 (nightly)

It took until 20 laps to go in the final of the Bristol Dirt Nationals’ four super late model features for a driver starting outside the front row to lead a lap. That driver was veteran Dale McDowell, who spent roughly 10 laps stalking polesitter Ricky Weiss before blasting by for a race lead he would never yield, scoring $50,000 Saturday night (April 2) while becoming the first driver to win on both iterations of the Bristol Dirt Track (McDowell won on Bristol dirt in 2000).

While McDowell’s victory was a story in itself, his third major win of 2022 after an offseason recovering from prostate cancer, the weekend’s major winner was Chris Madden. Madden, who led all 50 laps of Friday’s $50,000-to-win feature, rebounded from a technical infraction in inspection following his heat race Saturday that mired him 12th in the starting lineup, finishing second and winning the Bristol Dirt Nationals’ $100,000 points title.

Success Stories

We’ll discuss more about Madden’s winnings later, but one other note about Bristol’s big winner. During qualifying on Friday, Madden became the first driver to break the 15-second barrier in a dirt late model, setting a track record. Weiss would also break the 15-second mark Saturday but didn’t top Madden’s fast lap.

Kyle Larson was almost single-handedly responsible for making the second half of Friday’s feature race watchable. Committing to the high side of a bottom-dominant track for laps on end despite falling through the running order, Larson’s efforts to clean off the high line of the track created a second groove that scored him a top-five finish and created racing throughout the rest of the top 10.

Attica, Ind.’s Megan Erwin became the first woman to win a feature on the Bristol Dirt Track on Wednesday, taking the checkers in a street stock qualifier.

Mount Holly, N.C.’s Chris Ferguson was the only driver other than points champ Madden to score top-five finishes in three of the four Bristol Dirt Nationals super late model features.

Vexed, Villains & Victims

Home-state driver Mike Marlar suffered not one, but two violent crashes over the course of the weekend at Bristol. A harsh crash Friday night led his team to spend all day rebuilding the car for Saturday’s race, only to blow a right-front tire and destroy it again.

It wasn’t just veterans that found Bristol to be a nightmare on their equipment. Garrett Smith was the first driver Friday night to suffer a blown right-front tire, a wreck that saw him try his damnedest to knock the Bristol wall down. Said the driver, whose team did manage to race a backup Friday and to run Saturday’s program, the car was torn up so bad it was going to take major work just to put it on the trailer.

Tennessee hot-shoe Christian Hanger also saw his date with the Bristol high banks turn ugly during Friday’s last-chance qualifier; his No. 15 team didn’t opt to return for Saturday’s program.

On the one hand, it was cruel to see Jensen Ford’s car suffer a mechanical failure that prevented the team from even starting Friday’s racing program despite a week-long effort to rebuild the car from last week’s wreck at Bristol. On the other hand, given the damage the high banks were dishing out, maybe Ford and crew should be thankful the only thing they broke this weekend was in the suspension?

It wasn’t just the late models getting bashed to bits at Bristol. New Braunfels, Texas’s John Aramendia went for a wild ride in Friday’s factory stock feature that rivaled the worst of the super late model wrecks on the weekend. 

As far as drivers that didn’t endure crashes, Ricky Weiss had to be the hard-luck driver of the Bristol Dirt Nationals. Weiss was the only polesitter not to win a feature race across the super late model features, on Saturday losing the lead to Dale McDowell before cutting a tire down with 14 laps to go.

NASCAR Regulars

Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley was present in Bristol earlier this week in the open modified division, turning laps during Monday’s practice. However, Haley appeared to pull off the track prior to the start of Tuesday’s feature, and despite running a heat race Wednesday was not listed in the finishing order of Wednesday’s feature either.

Defending Cup champion Kyle Larson scored a top-five finish in Friday’s super late model feature, but failed to start Saturday’s feature thanks to a broken gas pedal. Larson would turn a couple laps later in Saturday’s feature before parking his No. 6 late model.

Fanning the Flames

It’s hardly surprising Chris Madden had some very effervescent praise for the XR Super Series after his win Friday night; between his two feature wins at Bristol and winning the Bristol Dirt Nationals points race, Madden cleared more than $200,000 in winnings over the course of two weeks. That’s more than winning the World of Outlaws Late Model series title would have cleared.

There’s no doubt that the money XR offered at Bristol was a big freaking deal for race teams. $2,500 to start a super late model feature is about as good as it gets through the field, and XR to their credit has made a practice of handling support classes honorably as well.

Having said that, I don’t know how the debut of the XR Super Series can be seen as anything but a massive disappointment and even possibly a setback for the series, all of which was self-inflicted by the continual insistence that simply putting dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway makes for a race worth watching.

Yes, the second weekend’s feature races were better than last week’s. That doesn’t change the fact that over the course of four races, 90% of the laps were led by front-row starters, with Madden’s two wins coming with the polesitter leading from green to checkers. Even in victory lane, the RaceXR crew acknowledged that unless another driver made a mistake, the speeds were too high for reliable passing or side-by-side racing. Watching Bristol’s dirt racing was less watching a race and more watching an oval-shaped engine dyno test. 

Given that this was the second weekend of the Bristol Dirt Nationals, it’s hardly surprising fans didn’t turn out for the event. Anyone that watched the first week’s races knew full well they weren’t likely to see a classic on the track. That’s not an impression the XR Super Series should want to leave, yet anyone that watched the Bristol dirt races last year and was being honest with themselves knew was coming. 

What’s more, this form of racing that put tremendous strain on engines and literally destroyed racecars that got into trouble impacted the entry list as well. 29 cars contested Saturday night’s feature race for $50,000 at Bristol, eight fewer than the week prior, and on a weekend where the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series was off and the WoO’s Farmer City 100 was canceled earlier in the week. Firepower in those 29 cars or not, that’s a shockingly low car count for a weekend program paying that well.

It seems the Bristol Dirt Nationals found a way to pin themselves between two extremes. Cars not in the very tip-top of the national super late model hierarchy didn’t bother trying to make the attempt, while the lower end of the regional entries also stayed away knowing full well the risks such an attempt posed to their equipment. Considering a super late model team could have cleared $5,000 this weekend just for qualifying for both features, that’s real avoidance.

And the last misstep I’ll speak on was making the Bristol Dirt Nationals part of the XR Super Series. By making Bristol, an event that turned off a number of race teams from even attempting it, part of the series points race, the XR Super Series has (unintentionally) created a situation where a lot of teams that could run competitively on the rest of the tour schedule have a lesser incentive to try, having missed the first four points-paying events.

I’m fully ready to bid adieu to the Bristol Dirt Track, but at a minimum, the Bristol Dirt Nationals should have been their own standalone event. Lord knows the points fund was big enough to justify that, and making it its own event would have been a real recognition of just how unrepresentative Bristol is of dirt late model racing.

Chris Madden obviously had a ridiculously good racecar and likely would have had the speed to win the points crown regardless on Saturday night, but I will say the decision to penalize Madden two spots despite his failing technical inspection after his heat race was a Formula 1-level of ticky-tack penalty. Failing tech after a heat should mean losing the heat race result and going to a B-main, period.

Longtime dirt racing veteran Kenny Wallace’s continued decline from valued voice in the sport to Internet troll continued with his attack on dirt racing fans for not showing up en masse at Bristol. If everything cited above wasn’t reason enough, I’m going to close with this travesty. This one’s not XR’s fault, but completely consistent with a Bristol racing community that’s never been shy to price gouge.

Just for comparison’s sake, since I was one of those race fans that spent the weekend at my local track in Winchester instead of driving to Bristol, I had three chili dogs and a Mountain Dew at the track that set me back $10.25. At Bristol, that would have set me back $23, without the chili. That type of math’s not hard to understand.

Numbers Game

12 – cars that finished Saturday’s late model finale at Bristol.

29 – late models entered for the second week of the Bristol Dirt Nationals.

90 – percent of the Bristol Dirt Nationals late model feature laps led by front-row starters.

Where it Rated (on a scale of one to six cans with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Week two of the Bristol Dirt Nationals gets a reluctant three overpriced Bud Lights. The racing was better this week when compared to last, and Dale McDowell’s continued return to form in 2022 was a feel-good story that made up for some of the on-track shortcomings.

Up Next: It’s been a long time coming. The (finally) rescheduled running of the 2021 Hillbilly 100 with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series is slated to go off Friday night at Tyler County Speedway in West Virginia. Coverage of the $30,000-to-win event can be found on MAVTV Plus.

About the author

Senior Commentator at Frontstretch

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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