Imagine scouring northeast Tennessee for around 18 different samples of dirt, hiring a soil specialist from California nicknamed “Dr. Dirt” to analyze those samples, then dumping 2,300 truckloads of “the best three” types onto a concrete half-mile racetrack for stock cars to race on.
That’s exactly what NASCAR did in preparation for this weekend’s events at Bristol Motor Speedway. The weekend marks the first time the Cup Series will race on dirt since 1970, when it raced at North Carolina State Fairgrounds Speedway.
“It’s the longest dirt race in the history of mankind, so who knows what the race track is going to be like at the end of 250 laps,” No. 4 Ford driver Kevin Harvick said.
The 250-lap main event is indeed a marathon by traditional dirt racing standards and the longest Cup dirt race in sport’s Modern Era, so drivers are expecting to need considerable stamina. No. 24 Chevrolet driver William Byron won a race on a virtual Bristol dirt track Wednesday as part of NASCAR’s Pro Invitational Series, a 10-race, midweek, virtual racing series that features top drivers competing on iRacing.
Byron — a 23-year-old Charlotte native and 2021 race winner — was sweating in his sim rig after a 20-lap heat race and 70-lap main event.
“Honestly, I think it’s gonna be the hardest race ever ran,” Byron said. “Eldora was really tough and that was a night race. This is gonna be during the day. Two hundred fifty laps is gonna be very challenging.”
Byron referenced his 2016 race at Eldora Speedway, where the Truck Series competed on dirt from 2013 to 2019. The Truck Series will race on dirt at Bristol this weekend as well (Xfinity will not).
Seven full-time Cup Series drivers — Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suárez and Chase Briscoe — are entered in the 44-truck field that will be whittled down to 40 trucks after Saturday’ heat races.
The Cup race on Sunday will also use heat races on Saturday to determine the starting lineup, but all 39 cars will be in the main race.
How it will work
After a five-race stretch of no qualifying due to pandemic-era changes, NASCAR will return to the added track time, but with a twist at Bristol.
There will be four qualifying 15-lap “heats” for each series Saturday as a nod to traditional dirt racing. Only green flag laps will count. Drivers earn points based on where they finish (first place earns 10, second place earns nine, etc.) with additional passing points for each spot gained between starting and finishing position. Drivers will not receive negative points for losing positions.
The starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race will be determined by points in the heat races, with the most points starting at the front and ties broken by owner standings. Teams will use specially-grooved dirt tires.
“We just wanted to add some elements in setting the lineup for the feature that were from the roots of dirt-track racing,” NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said. “That’s kind of where we landed.”
The features will be formatted more traditionally. The Truck Series race Saturday will be 150 laps with stage breaks on Laps 40, 90 and 150. The Cup Series race Sunday will be 250 laps with stage breaks on Laps 75, 150 and 250.
There will also be two 50-minute practice sessions for both series Friday ahead of qualifying.
But as another change to typical race procedure, pit stops will be non-competitive at the stage breaks, meaning the order will be frozen at the conclusion of each stage and teams may elect to pit for fuel, tires and adjustments while on the clock. Teams that choose to pit will start ahead of teams that pitted, and the restart order is determined by the freeze at the end of the last stage, so teams aren’t able to gain or lose spots coming off pit road.
“You will be seeing essentially what you saw at Eldora,” Miller said of the pit stops. “ ... Honestly, with dirt cars on a dirty concrete pit road, having pit crews trying to run out there and do all of that, I just don’t think that would have been in our best interest, especially the first time around.”
Who’s the favorite?
It’s a new venture for NASCAR so it feels like anyone’s game, but dirt-racing experience is expected to prevail. Dirt experts No. 5 Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson (+250) and No. 20 Toyota driver Christopher Bell (+550) have the best odds, per BetMGM, but Larson has been humble about dominating the track.
“Bell and I have a lot of dirt experience, but I don’t really believe it to be that beneficial to us in a stock car because it’s so different,” Larson said, noting the 2,000-pound weight difference between stock and sprint cars.
Larson also named No. 3 Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon as a potential front-runner. Dillon was among one of a handful of Cup drivers to compete at the track last weekend. He won two features and a heat in a late model, and heads into this weekend with the next-best +1000 odds, along with No. 14 Ford driver Chase Briscoe.
“The good thing is that the dirt, I feel like, came from a track that I kind of grew up racing around and I know the transitions and what it takes to create speed throughout the transitions that it’s going to go through,” Dillon said. “If anything, maybe that helps me.”
Bell, who already has a win this season at the Daytona road course, was confident about the opportunity for a strong showing.
“I hope we can capitalize on that (opportunity),” Bell said. “Get some playoff points, get some stage points. Have a good solid points day and maybe come away with a victory.”
Bell said that he thought an exciting finish would make the event a success and that he expected a lot of “beating and banging” on Bristol’s precious dirt this weekend. Potential rain on both days of competition could also made for a long and muddy weekend. Bell said the moisture could actually help what will otherwise likely be a dusty event, but what would make it a bad race?
“I just hope it’s not a demo derby,” Bell said.