Friday 5: Dirt race at Bristol gets another chance but what comes next?

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Dirt racing in the Cup Series gets a second chance this weekend.

Whether it deserves another will be among the key questions after Sunday’s race.

Rain, mud, tire wear and then dust spoiled last year’s attempt at Bristol Motor Speedway. Even with a new time (at night) and date (Easter), this year’s race remains under a microscope.

If Sunday night is the last time Cup competes on dirt — at least at Bristol — that will be fine for some drivers. 

“The most exciting thing about the dirt race is it’s almost over,” former champion Kevin Harvick said last weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

“I don’t think we belong on dirt, still. It wasn’t near as bad as what I thought it would be last year. It was very tolerable as far as driving it and racing it and doing all the things that we do. I don’t agree with racing on dirt.”

Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch is more direct.

“It’s a mess … it’s not indicative of a good dirt show,” he said. “I’ve seen good dirt shows.”

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson raised questions about Cup cars on dirt this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. While he said on “Dailed In” that he thinks the racing will be “a lot better than what it was last year,” noting the night start and a tire better suited for the cars on dirt, he admits there remain “a lot of unknowns.”

One of Larson’s concerns is that the cars still have windshields. Last year, mud covered the windshields of Camping World Trucks two laps into the first heat race. NASCAR canceled the Truck and Cup heat races.

“We just shouldn’t race on dirt if we’re not going take the windshields out and actually have a dirt race with moisture in the track and being able to produce a real dirt race,” Larson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I feel like we’re wasting everybody’s time a little bit and not giving the fans and competitors what we all deserve. 

“So, in my opinion, if we’re not going to take the windshields out, we might as well just never put dirt on Bristol again — which I’m all for not putting dirt on Bristol whether we have windshields or not. I think the racing at Bristol is amazing just as normal.”

That leads to a bigger issue for Bristol, just as other tracks with two Cup dates have: How can each Cup race weekend be unique?

Bristol’s Night Race is a marquee event that serves as a cutoff event in the playoff. Last year’s race featured the confrontation between Chase Elliott and Harvick after the race on pit road. 

Bristol’s spring date, though, had seen declining attendance before the pandemic. Twice between 2017-21, the track’s spring race was moved to Monday because of rain. In 2018, rain interrupted the race three times.

Martinsville Speedway’s spring race also faces an identity crisis. The track’s playoff race is a highly anticipated and hotly charged event that often sees emotion spills over after the race. The spring race does not have the same cachet.

To make Martinsville’s spring race special, the event was moved to night, but an evening race in April can lead to cold temperatures that, among other things, turned last weekend’s race into a dud.

In some cases, new ideas work well immediately.

Speedway Motorsports came up with the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway when attendance and interest in the track’s fall race on the oval waned. 

A spectacular finish in that inaugural race in 2018 provided enough momentum to carry the event for a couple of years, helping the Roval build its own tradition.

Now, the idea of racing on the oval for the Charlotte playoff race would be viewed as a step back and something unthinkable. 

While the notion of dirt on Bristol is too different for some, former Cup champion Joey Logano says variety is a key element for NASCAR.

“I say this about our sport all the time, there are people that love short track racing,” he said. “There are people that love superspeedways and hate short track racing. There are people that love mile-and-a-half racing.

“We get to do it all, and some weeks you’re gonna see your favorite track and some weeks you’re gonna see something completely different. The fact (is) that NASCAR is going to different things.

“We just ran the Clash (at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February). I thought that was crazy, but it was actually pretty good and really big for our sport. What’s next? We can race anywhere.”

That goes back to the question of if there is a place for dirt.

“I think Bristol last year, I know (it) was a bit difficult with the rain and having Truck go back-to-back with Cup on a Monday,” said Ben Kennedy, who oversees NASCAR’s schedule in his role as senior vice president, racing development and strategy. 

“It was exciting racing for our fans. I think we learned a lot from that event as well. I think having that on the schedule as a one-off event, I think, is a good way for us to be able to test what dirt racing looks like for our Cup Series. We’ll see how this weekend goes.”

2. Search for rides

While much has been made about the abundance of races won by drivers 30 and under since late last season, it underscores another issue within the Cup Series.

The younger the series gets, the harder it will be for those in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series to get good, quality rides. 

With the Xfinity Series featuring young drivers such as 19-year-old Ty Gibbs, 23-year-old Noah Gragson, 24-year-old Sheldon Creed, 25-year-old Brandon Jones and 18-year-old Sam Mayer, and the Truck Series featuring young drivers as 24-year-old John Hunter Nemechek, 25-year-old Ben Rhodes, 19-year-old Chandler Smith, and 22-year-old Zane Smith, there’s the potential for gridlock in getting to Cup.

Of course, that doesn’t even count such drivers in the Xfinity Series as reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (age 31), Austin Hill (27), AJ Allmendinger (40) and Justin Allgaier (35), among others.

With Cup drivers so young, there will be fewer natural openings through driver retirement. More moves will have to be made by firing a driver or not signing them to an extension.

Hendrick Motorsports’ lineup seems set for years. Chase Elliott, who is 26 years old, has a contract extension through the 2027 season. The contracts for reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, 29, and Alex Bowman, who turns 29 on April 25, are each through the 2023 season. That leaves 24-year-old William Byron, the only multi-time winner this season. He’s due to sign a contract extension that will keep him at Hendrick for the next few years. 

Provided that are no significant performance drops, those four could remain at Hendrick through 2030. Larson, the oldest of the four Hendrick drivers, would be 38 then. Analytics expert David Smith, who once wrote for NBC Sports but now works for RFK Racing, calculated that a driver reaches their statistical peak at age 39. 

Team Penske’s lineup also could be set for years. Former Cup champion Joey Logano is 31 years old. Ryan Blaney is 28. Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric is a rookie at age 23. Team Penske is aligned with Wood Brothers Racing, which has 21-year-old rookie Harrison Burton. 

There may not be much opportunity for movement there.

Joe Gibbs Racing could have a spot in the near future. If so, it would seem as if Ty Gibbs could fill that spot. JGR has Martin Truex Jr. (41 years old), Denny Hamlin (41), Kyle Busch (36) and Christopher Bell (27) in its lineup. 

Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have combined to win six of the last seven championships. Those teams also have combined to win 109 of 152 Cup races (71.7%) since 2018.

Chevrolet’s lineup with two other top teams is relatively young. Trackhouse Racing has Ross Chastain (29 years old) and Daniel Suarez (30). Richard Childress Racing has Austin Dillon (he turns 32 on April 27) and Tyler Reddick (26).

Toyota’s lineup with 23XI Racing has Bubba Wallace (28) and Kurt Busch (43). 

Ford’s lineup with Stewart-Haas Racing has an opening after this season with Aric Almirola (38) stepping away from full-time Cup race. Kevin Harvick, who is 46 years old, has a contract goes through the 2023 season. Chase Briscoe, who is 27, scored his first Cup win earlier this season at Phoenix. Teammate Cole Custer, who is 24, is in his third season with the team. The team does have former full-time Cup driver Ryan Preece, 31, as a reserve driver.

RFK Racing has Chris Buescher (29) and team co-owner Brad Keselowski (38).

One can see that while there could be some movement, it likely will be teams below the Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs level. What opportunities there could be also may be limited. 

3. Winning season

Consider what William Byron has done since the start of the year.

Feb. 14: Byron won the Clyde Hart Memorial Super Late Model 100 at New Smyrna Speedway.

Feb. 19: Byron won the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing Super Late Model race at New Smyrna Speedway.

March 19: Byron won the Easter Bunny 150 PASS Super Late Model race at Hickory Motor Speedway.

March 20: Byron won the Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

April 7: Byron won the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

April 9: Byron won the Cup race at Martinsville.

Byron said after last season that he planned to race more beyond Cup. He called it a “hunger … to get better for our team.”  After seeing Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman run in other series, Byron, who has less on-track experience than those drivers, saw the opportunity to race more.

It’s made a big difference, according to NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte. He made that point to Nate Ryan on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast.

“I believe winning is not just a result of your talent and hard work, it’s something you have to practice,” Letarte said. 

Noting Byron’s success this season in NASCAR and beyond it, Letarte said:

“The concept of lining up on the front row of any race and getting it done, that means something. …  When William Byron lines up on the front row at a Truck race, he doesn’t think it’s a Truck race. He doesn’t think any more or less about the truck next to him or the truck behind him. He doesn’t think it’s a Sunday or a Friday or a Thursday or a Late Model.

“I think in that moment he’s using everything to win at that moment. I think that test of mental and physical and all of that together, there’s no simulator for that. You’ve got to step up and do it.”

Said Byron after his win last week at Martinsville: “I don’t know why I didn’t do more short track racing throughout the last few years, but it’s been a lot of fun to go back to the short tracks and be with great people on the Late Model side. There’s little things here and there that they’ve taught me that I feel like have helped me, and all those little tidbits pay off.”

4. Truck debut 

Toyota Racing Development driver Buddy Kofoid makes his Camping World Truck Series debut this weekend with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

The 20-year-old California driver won the 2021 USAC Midget national championship. He won his qualifying night feature at the Chili Bowl this year and finished fourth in the A main. He’s coming off a sprint car victory last weekend at Lincoln (Pennsylvania) Speedway.

Kofoid began racing on asphalt last year and finished third in the Pro Late Model division at the All-America 400 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

Kofoid will have Mardy Lindley as his crew chief. Lindley helped Martin Truex Jr. win the Truck race on the dirt at Bristol last year. Kofoid is scheduled to drive the same chassis Truex won with a year ago.

As for what Busch is looking to see out of Kofoid?

It would be nice to have him get in there and run well, but these heavy (trucks) on dirt are entirely different than what he’s accustomed to,” Busch said. “He’ll be with a good team with Mardy and those guys who won there last year with Martin, so would think that if he opens his ears and listens that should pay off.”

5. Unique training 

The prevailing thought is that those with dirt racing experience should have an advantage at the dirt track at Bristol.

Yet, that didn’t seem the case last year after Joey Logano won. 

He has a theory on why dirt experience may not matter as much among the Cup drivers.

“My honest opinion is that if you make it to the Cup level, you’re a pretty dang good driver,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Dirt, asphalt, anything in between you get it. … If you give somebody that’s pretty good a little bit of time to figure it out, they’re going to get going.

“I also think the other piece to it is that as the track got slicker and drier it became more like asphalt. Drove it a little bit more like a traditional car would. Not completely, but a little bit that way. 

“All these drivers, just because they don’t have dirt experience, doesn’t mean they’re not in their backyard driving a four-wheeler or a side by side. … I’m out every day riding my quad with my kid in his go-kart. … I’m still pushing something to the limit on dirt and understanding a little bit when it’s tacky and when it’s dry and those types of things and trying to figure it out.

“As goofy as that sounds, I believe in that. I believe it helped me last year.”