For 60 years, the high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway, tucked away at the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has provided fans with unforgettable moments and spectacular racing. The first trip of 2021 to Thunder Valley is sure to live up to that standard, but it won’t be on the concrete surface fans know and love.
For the first time since Sept. 30, 1970, the NASCAR Cup Series will race on dirt. That’s right — the world’s fastest half-mile will be covered in dirt this weekend for the both the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series events.
The Camping World Truck Series has raced on dirt since 2013 when Eldora Speedway was introduced to the series, but there’s no comparison between the two half-mile facilities. Eldora is much flatter than Bristol, which means slower speeds than what we’ll likely see this weekend. As for Cup, this is a whole new experience. One-and-a-half-ton stock cars weren’t made for the challenge of low-grip dirt racing, and with many generations of Cup Series cars having come and gone since the ‘70s, there’s no telling what we’ll see this weekend.
It’s noteworthy that there will be a handful of NASCAR Cup Series drivers racing in the Camping World Truck Series event this weekend. Chase Briscoe, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex, Jr. and Daniel Suarez will all race in the Truck Series dirt race prior to racing in the Cup Series event, which could be an advantage for Sunday’s competition.
HOW IT WORKS
This weekend’s race will operate very differently from the usual race weekend NASCAR Cup Series fans are accustomed to seeing.
For starters, there won’t be the typical single-car qualifying that NASCAR used during Daytona Speedweeks. Instead, the Cup and Truck Series will each host four 15-lap qualifying heat races. The field size for each heat will be determined by the size of the series’ entry lists, so if the Cup Series has 48 entries, each heat will have 12 cars. A random draw will determine what drivers start in what position for each heat. Additionally, these 15-lap qualifying races will not count caution laps and there won’t be overtime, but wave-arounds and the free-pass will remain.
While these heats will set the starting lineup for the feature event, it won’t be the same as how the pair of Bluegreen Vacations Duel races set the Daytona 500 starting lineup. NASCAR will use a “passing points” system for the heat races that weighs both the finishing position of each driver and how many cars they passed in their heat. The driver who wins the heat will score 10 points, the second-place finisher will earn 9 points, third will get 8 points and so on. In addition, for every car that a driver passes during the race, the driver will earn 1 additional point. Points that are gained in the heats are strictly to set the feature starting lineup and they do not count toward the championship standings.
For both the heats and the feature, teams will not be allowed to change tires, add fuel or work on their cars. The one exception for this rule is during breaks between stages in the feature race. Teams will not be required to pit during stage breaks and if drivers elect not to pit, they will line up ahead of the drivers who did. We also won’t see a typical race off pit road — Drivers will leave in the order that they enter on pit road. These are referred to as controlled pit stops as opposed to what we usually see called live pit stops.
One last change for this weekend’s competition is the elimination of the choose rule. At most NASCAR events, excluding those at Daytona, Talladega and road courses, drivers can elect which lane they want to restart in. For Bristol’s dirt races, the drivers positioned oddly will restart on the inside and the drivers in even positions will restart on the outside. The leader will still be allowed to choose which lane they want to restart in, so the first-and-second-place cars won’t always restart in the proper lanes.
RACE AND TRACK STATS
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway — Bristol, Tennessee
Track Length: 0.533 miles
Race Length: 250 laps/133.25 miles
Pit Road Speed Limit: 30 mph
Defending Winner: Brad Keselowski*
Package: Dirt track package
First Race: 1961*
First Winner: Jack Smith*
Most Wins: Darrell Waltrip, 12 Wins*
Stage 1: 75 laps (ends on lap 75)
Stage 2: 75 laps (ends on lap 150)
Final Stage: 100 laps (ends on lap 250)
*These stats reflect races at Bristol on pavement because this weekend will be the first NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol with dirt.
FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON
Austin Dillon – 2013 Truck Series winner at Eldora
Kyle Larson – 2016 Truck Series winner at Eldora
Chase Briscoe – 2018 Truck Series winner at Eldora
Christopher Bell – 2015 Truck Series winner at Eldora
Darrell Wallace, Jr. – 2014 Truck Series winner at Eldora
Usually, this is the section where I explain why five drivers are a threat to win or why you want to watch them during the upcoming race. I like to include facts and stats about each driver at that track and from the current season, but I’m not doing that this weekend. The fact of the matter is that there’s no precedent for this weekend’s Cup Series race. No driver racing in the Food City Dirt Race has ever driven a NASCAR Cup Series car on dirt. There’s no prior races on this track surface to make inferences off of and their runs in previous races aren’t going to do them much good this weekend. This race is 40 drivers jumping into the unknown.
The five drivers listed above were named for the same reason: their experience and success on dirt racing in the Camping World Truck Series. These five drivers are five of the six former Eldora winners in the Truck Series who will be in Sunday’s race. The Trucks are the closest thing to Cup cars that have raced on dirt, so that experience they have could and should be extremely advantageous this weekend for Dillon, Larson, Briscoe, Bell and Wallace. Larson and Bell in particular are notorious for racing on dirt outside of NASCAR as well. During his suspension from NASCAR competition last year, Larson competed in a ton of dirt races in sprint cars and won nearly half of them. Larson has also won the last two Chili Bowl Nationals, one of the biggest dirt races in America. Bell is also another favorite — before Larson’s Chili Bowl streak, Bell won the event three times in a row from 2017 through 2019.
The Food City Dirt Race will air live on Sunday, March 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and PRN. The heat races for the NASCAR Cup Series will begin at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 27
There will also be two 50-minute practices for the race which will be on Friday, March 26 at 4:05 p.m. ET and 6:35 p.m. ET. All practices and heat races will air on FS1.