All eyes on historic Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway as NASCAR returns to its roots
By Lee Spencer
Special to Bristol Motor Speedway
What’s the most anticipated race of the 2021 season?
The Daytona 500? The Southern 500?
Not this year.
All eyes will be on the historic Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway as the NASCAR Cup Series returns to its roots for the first time in more than a half-century.
“At the end of the day, this is them answering the call to our fans and trying something new,” newly-minted FOX analyst Clint Bowyer said of NASCAR. “For me, that is all a fan and myself could ever ask for.”
Dirt racing has enjoyed a resurgence—particularly with many of NASCAR’s top stars getting their start in the open-wheel ranks. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne honed their skills on dirt-covered short tracks. More recently, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe have risen through the dirt ranks en route to Cup rides.
For Larson, who is coming off of a 46-win season in midgets, sprinters, Silver Crown cars and late models on dirt last year, Bristol was a favorite of his before the transformation. Now the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet wants the opportunity to add the inaugural Bristol Cup dirt event to his growing list of victories.
“It’s definitely a race I look forward to running just because of really the uniqueness of it,” Larson said. “There will be a lot of eyes on that event, and you want to be the first to win the NASCAR race there. I’m also excited to race other forms of race cars there. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do the World of Outlaw race (in April) there yet—I’d like to. I’m definitely going to do the late model race the week before the Cup race, so I’m excited about that."
The week before the NASCAR weekend, the track hosted the Bristol Dirt Nationals for a variety of late models, modifieds and stock cars. Several Cup drivers participated in the event, including Larson, who finished second in both Super Late Model feature races.
“It’s cool that Bristol is doing it and bringing grassroots racing also to the race track," Larson said. "I think there’s over like a thousand cars entered or something between however many classes of cars they have—(eight) divisions. It’s cool they’re doing it, and I hope I can win something there.”
Today, the Cup cars had two 50-minute practices during Bush's Beans Practice Day to get up to speed plus a random draw to determine the lineups for Saturday’s Bush's Beans Qualifying Heats. Passing points will be awarded during the heats to decide the starting position for the 250-lap feature on Sunday. The stages for the Food City Dirt Race will be broken down into 75-laps for each of the first two stages and a final stage of 100 laps.
Tomorrow's Bush's Beans Qualifying will feature 10 drivers in three of the heats and nine in the other. The first heat will include Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Anthony Alfredo, Quin Houff, Shane Golobic and Kurt Busch. The second heat will include Brad Keselowski, Mike Marlar, Daniel Suarez, Michael McDowell, Josh Bilicki, William Byron, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Christopher Bell, Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher. The third heat has Alex Bowman, J.J. Yeley, Ty Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, Cody Ware, Aric Almirola, Joey Logano and Ryan Preece. The final heat will have Corey LaJoie, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Windom, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe.
While NASCAR’s top tour abandoned dirt following the 1970 Home State 200 at North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, Bristol brought dirt back in 2000 for the first of two World of Outlaws shows. Tennessean Sammy Swindell swept both events.
“I was really happy to see that because I knew it would be a real high-speed place,” Swindell said of the inaugural Bristol dirt races. “They call that a half-mile, but really it seems a lot bigger than that. It may be a half-mile right around the inside but then with the banking there, it brings the speed way up. So the track was very similar to a lot of tracks we run on.”
With dirt, Swindell says the surface is always a gamble. He expects similar speeds since the track is reusing the same dirt.
Speedway Motorsports’ Steve Swift took nothing for granted while preparing for the biggest race of the year. The Senior Vice President of Operations & Development enlisted foremost experts in the field of dirt track preparation and tested 18 different local sites for dirt to find the ideal Tennessee red clay. They narrowed it down to three samples that were used over the original dirt, which formed the base.
“We had to do a lot of filling in the turns to get it away from 30 degrees, to get the track where we could use a motor grader to place it, keep equipment up on the track, because dirt doesn't allow or like 30-degree embankments,” Swift said. “With that, we used the old dirt as a base and the good dirt as a surface.
“The Cup Series has not been on dirt in a long time, so there’s nowhere to go watch to see how that reacts, what that does. So a lot of dirt races, a lot of late models, a lot of Sprint car races, visiting local tracks to get a feel for the type of dirt we'd be experiencing here in Bristol.”
The last time NASCAR raced on dirt was during the Camping World Truck Series' seven-year run at Eldora Speedway between 2013-2019. Austin Dillon won the inaugural event. Cup drivers Bubba Wallace, Bell, Larson and Briscoe also won at the half-mile dirt oval.
Larson warns of an early call—naming himself or Bell as favorites entering the Food City Dirt Race. The differences between a 1,400-pound sprint car with 900 horsepower and a bulky 3,400-pound Cup car are dramatic.
“I think it’s all really unknown until we get there,” Larson said. “Obviously, a Cup car is 2,000 more pounds than the race cars I’m used to running and have 200 less horsepower. Yes, Bell and I have a lot of dirt experience, but I don’t really believe it to be that beneficial to us in a stock car, because it’s so different.”
That didn’t stop two dirt regulars—USAC triple crown winner Chris Windom and 83-time dirt feature winner Shane Golobic from throwing their helmets into the ring. Meanwhile, the Food City Dirt Race provided the impetus for two Cup champions, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, to try their hands at the discipline. Elliott ran the Chili Bowl Nationals in January and raced in the USAC season opener at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla. Elliott also competed in last week's Dirt Nationals in a Super Late Model.
“I feel like I made a lot of gains over there,” Elliott said. “It may not show, but I feel like I’ve gotten better in certain aspects. The biggest one for me is the racecraft. I feel like there are times where I can make some decent lap times in comparison to some of the guys who are good.
“I’ve had fun with it. I’m not sure what will translate, but I do think there are things about these different types of racing that I’ve done throughout the winter that will help.”
Lee Spencer is an award-winning journalist. She’s covered racing for the last 29 seasons and is currently the senior NASCAR Cup Series reporter for RacinBoys.com. Spencer is also a freelance contributor to Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio.