Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: A Recent Re-Advent of Dirt Racing

The NASCAR Cup Series’ 2021 Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway marked the first time the sport’s premier division had raced on the surface in more than 50 years, with Joey Logano emerging victorious when the dust, smoke and debris cleared in a rain-postponed event.

Drivers like Lee and Richard Petty, Buck Baker and Herb Thomas held court on such tracks during NASCAR’s earlier decades, and that’s where the sport first began to gain traction, but the recent advent and return of dirt races at other tracks has presented us with a brand-new portrait of how the series take to a different kind of surface.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series factors into this a great amount, especially due to its races at Eldora Speedway being held under the lights as opposed to Bristol’s duo of daytime events last year. The Truck Series’ event was intended to be at night, but along with Cup was delayed to Monday, where Martin Truex Jr. secured his first truck win in his first series start in nearly 15 years.

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A total of seven dirt races were contested at Eldora Speedway from 2013 through 2019 with no repeated winners, and five of the seven now hold Cup Series rides: Austin Dillon (2013), Bubba Wallace (2014), Christopher Bell (2015), Kyle Larson (2016) and Chase Briscoe (2018). Granted, all but Wallace were in limited schedules with full-time rides in other divisions outside of Bell, who was making one of just a few starts prior to his first full campaign in the series, but so many of those with success at Eldora will be racing Sunday afternoon regardless.

This is where I pause to say I wholeheartedly miss the Mudsummer Classic, something I looked forward to every July (or, in the case of 2019’s edition, August). Every year brought something new, especially the inaugural race. That had plenty of novelty with the racing and venue itself, but it also brought us the infamous, phenomenal Norm BenningClay Greenfield battle and Benning’s subsequent one-finger salute to the No. 68 after the checkered flag waved.

In terms of those drivers who will be in Sunday (April 17) night’s Cup event, 19 — more than half of the 36 entries — have previous experience in the Truck Series on dirt under the lights.

Yet, last year, it seemed like those new to racing a NASCAR machine on dirt came out on top. Half of the top 10 — including the entire top four — had never competed on the surface in a stock car or truck: winner Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez made up the first four finishers, and 10th-place Chase Elliott also fell into the aforementioned category.

Even Truex, who had no NASCAR dirt experience of any kind ahead of that Bristol weekend and no in-race experience on dirt before March 29, 2021, period, dominated the afternoon as a whole. The Toyota driver led 105 laps in the Truck Series’ event, eventually winning, and added 126 to that total before fading late in the Cup event. All told, the 2017 Cup champ led 231 of the 403 circuits that afternoon, more than half, and could’ve easily swept if the No. 19 had held up to the track’s demanding conditions.

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Plus, don’t forget that two previous Eldora winners were huge Cup favorites heading into that weekend in Larson and Bell. Their days ended up resulting in finishes of 29th and 34th, respectively, after the two preeminent racers with dirt backgrounds collided on lap 54.

Familiarity breeds contempt? Nah. Dirt breeds unpredictability. That’s a stretch of a repurposed phrase, but it kind of works. Maybe contempt does factor in here, especially with drivers like Larson and Kyle Busch commenting on the use of dirt races of late.

With so many factors up in the air as NASCAR rolls into a dirt-covered Last Great Colosseum, that unpredictability could easily play into Sunday night’s outcome. And as long as it’s not a total caution-filled disaster like the Truck Series’ visit to Knoxville, it’s pretty much a success.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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