The Daytona 500 is stock car racing’s biggest event, but the hot topic of conversation over the first couple days of NASCAR’s virtual media previews was the upcoming Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In what will be NASCAR’s first dirt-track race in over 50 years, the race on the converted BMS surface is just weeks away, scheduled for Sunday, March 28.
While the process of covering in sawdust and clay is known from races at BMS two decades ago, no one knows how the heavy stock cars will race 250 laps on a track with 19-degree banking.
The unknown even led to a word seldom uttered by a NASCAR driver — the word “scared.”
“I’m excited, but probably scared at the same time,” Cole Custer said when asked about the dirt race at Bristol. “It’s going to be one of those races where nobody knows what to expect. There’s going to be a lot of adapting when we show up and trying to figure it out because it’s going to be brand new for a lot of people — for everybody because we’ve never run Cup cars on dirt.”
Keep in mind that the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford isn’t a stranger to dirt racing. He began racing quarter midgets at four years old and he has driven a variety of race cars. His varied background includes the USAC National Focus Champion in small open-wheel cars in 2011 to the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the year in the bigger stock cars last season.
Still, he feels it’s important to test a heavy car on the unfamiliar dirt surface before coming to Bristol.
“It’s going to be a lot to take in, but we’re trying to get on a dirt track before,” he said. “We’re trying to get a feel for it because every track and every race matters.”
Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR champion and a six-time winner on the Bristol concrete, has done some testing in a dirt modified car at Friendship Speedway in Elkin, North Carolina. The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet doesn’t expect it to have much of an effect at Bristol.
“We went to Friendship Speedway just to, in all honestly, knock off the cobwebs of my dirt racing, which go back to the mid-’90s,” Busch said. “I’ve got a couple starts at the Prelude at Eldora Speedway. Mike Beam, who I worked with at KBM — he gave me call and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got some modifieds here, come on out.’ And that’s the same style of modified I drove on asphalt back in the ’90s, but it blended me back in with my dwarf-car roots.”
“But Bristol will be a whole different track, a whole different complexion. What I’ve done there in the past is irrelevant for the spring race.”
Ryan Blaney comes from a family of dirt racers. His father Dave was the 1995 World of Outlaws champion and his uncle Dale is a six-time title holder in the All Star Circuit of Champions. As for the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, the younger Blaney grew up coming up through the asphalt stock car ranks.
“Everyone thinks I grew up dirt racing and that’s really not the case,” Blaney explained. “It was dad, my grandpa Lou and my uncle Dale. I’ve honestly driven a sprint car only a handful of times. I’ve driven a couple of dirt modifieds before — way back, really before I got with Penske. So I didn’t really grow up with a lot of dirt racing. Growing up in North Carolina, I did asphalt late models.”
Despite his family history, Blaney said there is no extra pressure to post a good finish on the Bristol dirt. Still, that is a goal he has set for himself.
“Everyone expects me to do good because of my last name and it’s dirt. ‘You must run great on dirt.’ Maybe I have some genetic thing that’s supposed to help me run OK on dirt, but honestly I’m looking forward to Bristol,” he said. “No pressure. Just go out there and try to win the race like every other weekend.”
Blaney has asked his father for advice on what will make the Cup cars work best on the Bristol dirt. Of course, cars like Street Stock regularly race at tracks like Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap.
The ARCA cars, which are similar to NASCAR Cup Series cars, have raced for years at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Still, the fairgrounds track is a flat surface — unlike the 19-degree banking the Bristol layout will be.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion and Blaney’s teammate, likes the fact that NASCAR has shaken up the schedule so much for the upcoming season. He likes the additions of races at new road courses, the Nashville Superspeedway as well as Bristol, where he won the 2020 Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 last May on the normal concrete surface.
“There’s a lot of buzz. I look at the schedule changes and those are exciting,” said the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. “It’s great to see that kind of effort being put in with going to Austin, Nashville, Road America, Bristol Dirt. I can’t remember this amount of changes happening before, and I think it’s a nice shot in the arm.”