Food City Dirt Race a perfect fit as part of NASCAR's 75th Anniversary
As NASCAR celebrates its 75th Anniversary in 2023, one race on the Cup Series schedule will serve as a gritty reminder of how the popular sport firmly planted its roots and has blossomed into a fan-favorite in the United States.
For most of the sport’s first two decades, the Cup Series’ races were held primarily on dirt tracks across the Southeast. NASCAR’s first Cup Series race, known then simply as “Strictly Stock,” was held in 1949 at a .750-mile dirt track called the Charlotte (N.C.) Fairgrounds Speedway and won by Jim Roper. Dirt was a prevalent option for track operators until the 1970 season. Starting in 1971, and for 50 years until 2021, all of the races in the Cup Series were held on either asphalt or pavement.
All totaled, the NASCAR Cup Series sanctioned 490 dirt races during its first two decades. In fact, the Food City Dirt Race on April 9 will be the 493rd dirt race for the Cup Series in its history. Lee Petty was the sport’s winningest driver on dirt, bringing home 42 career victories. Cup pioneers Herb Thomas and Buck Baker were right on his dusty heels, capturing 40 dirt victories apiece in the NASCAR Cup Series.
In 2021, the bold move was made by NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports executives to bring dirt racing back to the Cup Series to honor its roots in grand fashion by holding a race on the iconic high banks of the dirt-transformed Bristol Motor Speedway.
This April will mark the third time that Bristol has put down the clay for the NASCAR Cup Series (and fifth time overall including non-NASCAR dirt races in 2000 and 2001), and this time will be extra-special as it takes place during a season that is being celebrated in honor of NASCAR’s history. When the Food City Dirt Race takes the green flag on Sunday night, April 9 it will be a throwback to all those years of hard-fought battles on rough and tumble dirt bullrings of the 1950s and 1960s that were a bit more rustic than what today’s Cup drivers will face at BMS.
On Saturday night, April 8, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series also will make a return to dirt racing and will compete in its only dirt race of the season, the WEATHER GUARD Truck Race on Dirt.
Speedway Motorsports Sr. Vice President of Operations and Development, Steve Swift, says the dirt-transformation is nearly complete at BMS. After a few weeks of work by the team at Baker’s Construction Services and other vendors, the track is totally covered in Tennessee red clay, but Swift says there’s still some dirt to spread in both turns. A few rainy days have slowed progress but he says everything is on schedule – if Mother Nature will cooperate that is – to have the track race-ready by the end of March. Swift says the dirt layout will be the same as the configuration from last year, with 19-degrees of banking in the turns and a 50-foot wide racing surface.
Last year’s surprise winner, Kyle Busch, is with a new team in 2023 and will try to defend his title by ironically driving the car he beat for the trophy last year, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevy. At the time Tyler Reddick appeared on his way to taking the victory but famously got tangled up with Chase Briscoe in turn four on the final lap. The two drivers spun in different directions and Busch powered through to take the checkered flag just as Reddick got his car back on track and was approaching the finish line.
The intense closing laps of the 2022 Food City Dirt Race led to the race being named one of Bristol’s top 10 wildest finishes of all time.
“The guys in front of me were running hard, racing for the win,” Busch said in Victory Lane with his ninth BMS Cup Series trophy in hand. “On the final corner chaos ensued and then we were able to make it through and steal a win, back into one. It feels good to get one here in a Next Gen racecar. Also feels good to win on dirt.”
Busch said that Briscoe clearly had the fastest car all night and was charging hard at the end. As the cars saw the checkered flag waving in the distance, Briscoe said he was too close not to make a move as the cars charged into Turn 4.
“I didn’t realize until I went into that corner that a 3,400-pound stock car can’t pull off a slider like other dirt cars can,” Briscoe said. “As soon as I was in the corner I knew I wasn’t going to clear him like I thought I was. I tried to stay off him. I didn’t want to just go in there and wreck him, that was never my intention, I wanted to clear him. I just held it wide open. I barely nicked him on the rear quarter-panel. I was hoping he was going to get back to the finish line before anyone else, but that obviously didn’t happen…Kyle beat him.”
Reddick took some of the responsibility for the outcome on his own shoulders, saying he should’ve not let Briscoe get that close to him.
“Briscoe was able to run me down back there,” Reddick said afterwards. “Just looking at it, I should have done a little bit better job of just -- I don't know. I shouldn't have let him get that close. He ran me back down. Worked really hard to do that. I mean, you're racing on dirt, going for the move on the final corner. It's everything that as a driver you hope to battle for in his situation. Made it really exciting for the fans, so... It does suck, but we were able to finish second still. I'm being honest. I should have done a better job and pulled away so he wasn't in range to try to make that move. That's how I look at it.”
With the win, Busch joins the other modern-day dirt winner Joey Logano on NASCAR’s elite list of all-time Cup Series dirt winners, which is now at 78.
A year earlier, Logano proved that a driver doesn’t have to have a distinguished dirt racing resume to take the victory at the Food City Dirt Race and become the modern-era’s first Cup winner on dirt. He guided his No. 22 Team Penske machine to the win by leading 61 of the race’s 253 laps while noted dirt experts like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman had issues.
“How about Bristol on Dirt? This is incredible!” Logano yelled to the crowd after climbing from his car. “There is nothing like winning at Bristol, but putting dirt on it and being the first to do it is very special.”
Who will win the Food City Dirt Race in its third edition? There are a lot of good candidates, including the past two winners and the list of challengers from those races. Once thing is for certain, when the lights come on at Bristol Motor Speedway all kinds of crazy things tend to happen. Madness, chaos and unpredictability most always reign supreme.
The Bristol race weekend is highlighted by the NASCAR Cup Series returning to its roots with the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday evening, April 9 (7 p.m., FOX and PRN Radio). The WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt will see the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series take to the clay-covered track on Saturday (8 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio) and will be preceded by Bush’s Beans Qualifying, which offers four heat races to set the starting lineups in each series. On Friday, teams in both the Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series will be able to fine-tune their machines during Bush’s Beans Practice Day.
To purchase tickets for Sunday's Food City Dirt Race or Saturday's WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt and Bush’s Beans Qualifying please visit the BMS website, or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.