NASCAR plans to spark intrigue by bringing dirt to Bristol Motor Speedway
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
One of the most important weeks of racing for the 2021 NASCAR season won’t include any NASCAR racing at all.
Let me explain.
To add some intrigue and fun to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports decided to put 23,000 yards of dirt on the Bristol Motor Speedway surface, turning it from a 0.533-mile, 30-degree-banked concrete oval to a 0.533-mile,19-degree red clay oval.
"Your standard, traditional NASCAR guy that doesn't want to see any cars other than [at asphalt tracks such as] Darlington, go back to Rockingham, he's going to have to broaden his horizons a little bit and enjoy this," said FOX Sports analyst Clint Bowyer, whose dirt track racing roots laid the foundation for his Cup career.
"I think it's going to be pretty impactful with our sport – a lot of fun to do something new, try something."
For it to be impactful, the surface will need to work well. In order to know how the surface reacts to cars, how much moisture the track will need for good racing and any potential "cushion" (how high to build the dirt in the area up by the wall, as well as by the apron), BMS will have six days of racing March 15-20 with various types of cars.
Cars that are like NASCAR Cup cars won’t race, though some NASCAR drivers (including Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch) have entered in modifieds or other divisions to get a feel for the track. Most importantly, this will serve as an educational week for those preparing the track for the March 26-28 NASCAR weekend that will include Cup and truck races.
"It will teach us what the track is going to do, how much moisture it is going to hold and any soft spots," said Steve Swift, who heads track preparation for Speedway Motorsports. "We have plenty of time to prepare for what got tore up and how to get it back into operation for NASCAR weekend."
The red clay came from three sites within 30 miles of the track, including some clay that was used the last time Bristol had non-NASCAR dirt racing in 2001 to form the initial dirt layer for 2021.
A layer of sawdust underneath the dirt should help keep the concrete from being damaged.
But no one really knows if this is going to be a great dirt event or not. NASCAR doesn’t allow for the suspensions of the Cup cars to be altered, so they won’t race like a typical dirt model fans are used to seeing if they attend races at their local dirt tracks, with incredible slides for momentum and passes.
"The tire we race on in the stock car or truck [for dirt] is nothing like anything else," said William Byron crew chief Rudy Fugle, who competed in the seven Eldora truck races. "They handle really poorly. They’re slow. The tire doesn’t have a ton of grip.
"So any type of experience in different types and forms of racing doesn’t really, really help when it comes to getting better in a Cup car around Bristol."
NASCAR announced Wednesday its plans to attempt to make it much like some other dirt races:
1. There will be 15-lap heat races with the lineup set by draw. Drivers will receive points in the heat race on a 10-to-1 scale (anyone who finishes 10th or higher gets one point). Plus, a driver will earn a point for every spot the driver finishes that is higher than where that driver started the heat. The total number of points will set the starting order for the main event.
2. This will not be an impound race for Cup, compared to most other races in which there is qualifying and teams can’t work on their cars between qualifying and the race. Teams will be able to work on their cars after the Saturday heat races and will go through tech twice during the race weekend – prior to the heat race on Saturday and prior to the main event on Sunday.
3. There won’t be live pit stops. Teams can take tires and fuel only during a stage break (unless they have a tire issue). Drivers can’t gain or lose spots on pit road. Drivers who don’t pit and are on the lead lap will start ahead of the drivers who do pit and are on the lead lap. The stages for the 250-lap event – 75 laps, 75 laps, 100 laps – are way shorter than a fuel run, which likely would be 160-170 laps.
"We kind of toyed around with the idea of could we or couldn't we have pit stops like we normally see every week," NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said.
"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."
4. The cars won’t have front splitters, and the teams will be able to use some screen coverings over ducts to help keep dirt out.
5. NASCAR won’t use the "choose rule" for the event.
Bristol isn’t the only new track NASCAR has on its 2021 schedule. For the first time in any national series, it will visit Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, for races May 22-23. NASCAR got three of its best road racers – Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. – to conduct a Goodyear tire test Tuesday at the track, which is known worldwide because of its annual Formula 1 event.
The teams tested the regular road course aero package (750 horsepower with low downforce), and that is what they expect to use there in May.
"We’re about 185 miles an hour [top speed], and then you slow down to about 30," Keselowski said. "[Going from] 185 to 30 is a heck of a ride – you really, really have to finesse the cars down in the corners."
Keselowski said the first turn, going uphill and then a sharp right-hander will require a lot of braking, but it is so wide that drivers won’t be able to block going into the turn.
The COTA and Bristol races are among the two most anticipated of the year — and maybe the most worrisome because of the uncertainty about whether they will put on great racing. What is certain: They will create intrigue and will be must-see TV for avid NASCAR fans and potentially casual NASCAR fans.
NASCAR has to operate on the philosophy that it is OK to change things up. And, if things don't work, to not press the issue for future seasons.
"We want to make sure we put on a great event for all parties this year," Bristol GM Jerry Caldwell said. "Obviously, a lot of conversations with the sanctioning body afterward [will be had] to see how the racing goes and the response from the fans and the participants and see what makes sense going forward.
"Our focus right now is on 2021 and making sure we put on a great event this year."
Thinking out loud
A day doesn’t go by when I don’t get the question: What happens if there are more than 16 Cup winners in the season? How do the playoffs get set? For the record: The 16-driver playoff field is the regular-season champion, plus 15 drivers (must be top-30 in points) ranked by wins, with points breaking any ties. If there are more winners than spots, the tie would be broken by point standings among those with one win.
But here’s some advice: Don’t sweat this issue. Since this format started in 2014, there have been at least three drivers each year to make it on points. I won’t say there will be three this year, especially with the additional road courses, but even with three different winners to open the season, I wouldn’t predict more winners than spots available.
Teams get into a rhythm, and history tells us there will be at least a few drivers with three or four wins apiece and a few with at least two wins.
What to watch for
Matt DiBenedetto is mired at 31st in the standings and desperately needs a strong run. Las Vegas this weekend could be the place for it, as he was second in both Vegas races last year. Fans also should pay attention to Chase Elliott, as he had strong runs going in both races last year, but a broken valve stem on a tire doomed him late in the spring race, and a late tangle on a restart dropped him several spots in the fall event. Joey Logano? He has won the past two spring races at Vegas, which is a race of emphasis for him since the race sponsor (Pennzoil) is also his sponsor.
Plus, watch for the Vegas natives this weekend: Kyle Busch and fall Vegas race winner Kurt Busch in Cup and Noah Gragson (coming off the disappointing finish at Homestead) and Riley Herbst in Xfinity. Oh, and Kyle Busch will be running the Camping World Truck Series race, too.
The truck race will feature several trucks sponsored by Camping World, as CEO Marcus Lemonis has offered $15,000 to any track with his branding, $25,000 if it finishes in the top-10, $35,000 for a top-5 and $50,000 for a win.
They said it
"Is my racing career fulfilled? Is it complete? There are always those things that keep drawing any racer back. ... It’s left to your interpretation." – Kurt Busch on whether his recent Monster Energy video indicated that this is his last full-time Cup season
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.