The dust — and there was plenty of it – hadn’t even settled on last year’s inaugural dirt-track race at Bristol Motor Speedway when the announcement came that the format would return for 2022. Track officials interjected the news on the public-address system during the Stage 2 intermission.
One year later, that second edition has arrived with teams set to load in before Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race (7 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). Teams learned plenty about the nuances of racing Cup Series cars on a packed dirt surface in the first go-around, but the amount of uncertainty remains high for the second running — especially with the new Next Gen car primed for its unpaved debut.
“I had fun last year,” said Joey Logano, who has good reason to say so since he won the inaugural Bristol Dirt Race. “You just kind of have to go with it. There’s still a lot of unknowns. We might know a little bit more than we did last year, but you have a whole new car now and there are areas I still want to be better at. That’s why I’m running the Truck race, so I don’t know. We’ll just kind of get up there and go racing like we do every other week.”
As new a concept as mud-slinging a stock car is, Cup Series drivers have sought out ways to sharpen their dirt skills, and the entry list of Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) is dotted with their names. Team DGR will field trucks for Logano and fellow Cup Series regular Harrison Burton, and Chase Elliott (Spire Motorsports) and Austin Dillon (Young’s Motorsports) also plan to participate.
Reigning Cup Series champ and dirt aficionado Kyle Larson isn’t on that list, but he has already tried his hand at Bristol’s surface this year. He won a qualifying heat and had a best main-event finish of fourth in two nights of Late Model competition at the Karl Kustoms Bristol Dirt Nationals on April 1-2.
“The entries of the corners seem to be a little more sweeping, so a lot easier to run wide open in the late model,” Larson said last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. “So I don’t know if that’s good or bad or what it means for the racing, I felt like the track needs some character, some bumps and stuff, but natural kind of bumps. But I think they’ve learned a lot with track prep and things. And I felt like the track was really close to being really good, the two nights I was there. So, excited to get the cars on there.”
Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen, an avid dirt-track racer, shook down the Next Gen P3 test car last week at Bristol as NASCAR officials tried multiple configurations – grille openings, windshield settings and diffuser adjustments among them — to dial the car in. This followed an initial dirt-track test for the car Dec. 10 at Lancaster Motor Speedway in South Carolina.
Another change in place for the 2022 edition is a shift to a nighttime event. The inaugural, which was pushed to a Monday start because of race-day rain and flooding, was run during sunny, daytime conditions. The shift is expected to help keep the track from drying out and stirring dust, aiding visibility for drivers and fans alike.
Covering Bristol’s concrete surface with dirt is still a novelty for NASCAR, but it has origins that predate this recent revival. World of Outlaws sprint cars and Late Models competed on Bristol’s dirt from 2000-01, something that stuck with Tyler Reddick.
“As a dirt racer myself growing up, just the thought of having dirt Bristol back just in itself and having other dirt cars out there in itself was a really huge deal for me, because that’s something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” Reddick said. “Just only able to hear stories about it from the drivers who got to do it. So again, to be a part of it was really cool, but it is really, really important for it to be a good race. From my perspective being more of the dirt background, we don’t want to make dirt racing look like, you know … we don’t want to make the racing product look bad. It’s always been really good.”
Whether Bristol returns in its current form for 2023 is still undecided, but the race – just the second on dirt in the modern era for NASCAR’s top division – furthers the recent trend of the sanctioning body expanding its palate for new venues.
Last season’s adventurous schedule tackled dirt and a handful of new ovals and road circuits – Nashville Superspeedway, Road America and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course among them. This year topped that cake with a kick-off Clash exhibition inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a revamped Atlanta Motor Speedway, plus race dates to come in St. Louis and – for the Xfinity Series – an expansion to the Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon.
So far, there has been an appetite for the newness – paved or not.
“The fact that NASCAR is going to different things … we just ran the Clash. I thought that was crazy, but it was actually pretty good and really big for our sport,” Logano said. “What’s next? We can race anywhere. We’ve proven we can put on a great race and an entertaining race for the fans, and a competitive race for the competitors out there. I don’t care where we go. Let’s do it. I think it’s great and if that’s on dirt, fine. If it’s at a local dirt track or Bristol, I don’t care. I’m gonna go race where they tell me to race and try to win and I think, honestly, it’s been pretty good here the last few years of the unknowns.
“When we go to those new tracks – Road America, the place packs out. Go back to Nashville after not going there for 10 years or so, the place packs out. So there’s something to that on bringing races to different markets that we haven’t gone to and bringing the races to the fans, whether it’s on whatever kind of track.”