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Pavement Guys Ruled On Bristol’s Dirt Surface

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 31 2021

Joey Logano out-drove the dirt-track favorites to win at Bristol on Monday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Expect the unexpected.

That was the norm for the NASCAR Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. In the first dirt race for NASCAR’s Cup Series since 1970, the dirt track aficionados everyone expected to dominate the event didn’t. Most were involved in accidents and even though the majority continued in the event they never contended for the victory. Instead, it was Joey Logano, who had never raced on dirt until February when he entered an UMP Modified event at Volusia Raceway Park in Barberville, Fla., who emerged the victor. 

Logano’s 27th career victory means he now has won at least one race for 10 consecutive years. It also makes him the seventh different driver to celebrate in victory lane this year, marking the first time since 2014 that a season has begun with that statistic. However, those statistics pale in comparison to the surprise Logano experienced when he won the Bristol dirt race.  

“With this dirt racing, you just don’t know what you’re going to have next,” Logano said. “You’re forced to figure something out quickly. On the bottom, you can keep it straight, kind of go around kind of like asphalt … but up top, you have to have the car pitched out and running around; definitely two different styles of racing and of driving in the car.”

Drivers with dirt track backgrounds, such as Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe were expected to dominate Monday’s rain-delayed event, but that wasn’t the case. Larson was involved in two multi-car accidents that left him 29th in the rundown. Bell was involved with Larson in a multi-car accident on lap 53 of the scheduled 250-lap race and eliminated from the event. He was credited with a 34th-place finish. Briscoe was involved in three multi-car incidents but managed to continue. He placed 20th.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who possesses a Sprint Car background, produced the best finish among those who were expected to perform well on the converted dirt track. Stenhouse placed second, just 0.554 second behind Logano.  

“Hopefully, Goodyear is able to work on a tire that we can have a little bit longer run,” Stenhouse said. “I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. Hopefully, with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs.”

Tire wear was so severe on the cars’ right-rear that after Friday’s practice NASCAR changed the first two Stage lengths to 100 laps each and inserted competition cautions on laps 50 and 150. 

“I think the track crew learned a lot with these heavy race cars, what they need to do to be better,” Stenhouse continued. “They adapted well … with the rain. Those are things that are always changing with dirt race tracks. Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”  

In addition to Stenhouse, the only other top-five finisher with extensive open-wheel experience was Ryan Newman. Before moving to NASCAR, Newman won in USAC’s Silver Crown, Sprint Car and Midget divisions. His fifth-place finish was his first top five since October 2019 at Talladega. 

Daniel Suarez led once for 58 laps and admitted to Fox during a break that “I don’t know what I’m doing.” His first experience in a dirt car came just five days before the event. Yet, with Suarez’s fourth-place finish he provided his new team with its first top five. 

Denny Hamlin, who came from a short-track asphalt background, took third and maintained his lead in the standings even though he’s winless this season.

Logano noted the phrase of the week entering the dirt track weekend was “I don’t know.”

“You didn’t know what you had to work on in your car,” Logano explained. “You didn’t know how the race was going to play out. You don’t know how the track is going to change. It’s just watching and studying.” 

Intense dust resulted in NASCAR reverting to single-file restarts late in the event, creating an issue dirt tracks have always faced. In fact, the dust was so severe during practice for the inaugural NASCAR Strictly Stock (Cup) race in Charlotte in 1949 that the North Carolina Highway Patrol told then NASCAR President Bill France Sr. that if he didn’t solve the problem, he would have to cancel the race. Large amounts of red clay coated nearby Wilkinson Boulevard, which was then the main highway between Gastonia and Charlotte, and passenger car windshields. Buck Brigance, a Charlotte motorcycle racer, suggested France mix calcium chloride with the dirt since it had solved the problem at a recent motorcycle race. Mixing the calcium chloride into the red clay resolved the dust issue to the Highway Patrol’s satisfaction. However, on race day it still was incredibly dusty and many cars either broke or overheated.

Dust is normal at a dirt track and can’t be totally eliminated, but it has been suggested that perhaps running the race at night instead of during the day would help. 

There’s also a question as to whether the new Next Gen car, which will make its debut in 2022, should be used on the dirt or should this year’s car, which will become absolute at this season’s end, make a return appearance.

“That’s something to certainly consider,” Team Penske Competition Director Travis Geisler said. “We need to look at that, how that would impact what we’re trying to do next season with the new car. That’s things to probably consider over the next few weeks, months. Certainly, there will be a lot of this equipment around and we can decide what we want to do with it as we go.” 

 No matter which car is used it appears many fans will be happy. That’s because the dirt provides Bristol with the racing characteristic that made it a fan favorite prior to the installation of progressive banking in the late 1990s.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 31 2021
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