Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Christopher Bell Holds Serve for Bristol Dirt Win

Who … should you be talking about after the race?

Heading into Easter Sunday (April 9), the talk had been about how a driver from a dirt racing background had yet to win the first two Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt races.

That was finally put to rest this weekend, as Christopher Bell led the final 100 laps of the Food City Dirt Race and held off a hard-charging Tyler Reddick to score his fifth NASCAR Cup Series win and his first of the 2023 season.

Bell elected to stay out after the end of the second stage, and that proved to be the winning call as Reddick and all the others that pitted ran out of time to run him down on fresh rubber.

See also
Christopher Bell Survives Bristol Dirt For First Win of the Season

And after a 28th-place finish by Ross Chastain, Bell now finds himself in the regular season points lead after eight races of the 2023 season.

And don’t forget Austin Dillon. It had been a struggle to start the season for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as Dillon had recorded just one top-10 finish and sat 25th in points after seven races.

Dillon, who has plenty of dirt experience himself, first turned heads by qualifying second via Saturday’s (April 8) heat races. And although he was unable to lead a lap, he proved to be a thorn in the leader’s side for all 250 laps of the night.

In a much-needed showing of speed, Dillon scored 18 stage points, had an average running position of fourth and ended the night with a third-place finish. While it wasn’t a win, it was arguably Dillon’s best showing from start to finish in recent memory.

What … is the big question leaving this weekend in the rearview?

The hot topic before the race even started was the penalties levied against Alex Bowman and William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports.

The team previously had 100-point penalties against the louvers of its four cars rescinded on appeal, and the cars of Bowman and Byron were later taken back to NASCAR’s Research and Development center after the following race at Richmond Raceway.

The Nos. 24 and 48 teams then proceeded to get penalized again.

It seemed suspicious that Bowman and Byron’s cars were the ones randomly selected for R&D teardown last weekend, that is until the bombshell reveal that random selection had been discontinued at an unknown date.

With NASCAR now publishing the findings of the appeal board and reworking the ways that points penalties can changed by appeal, will the saga between Hendrick and the sanctioning body end after the next appeal? It’s anyone’s guess at this point.

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Where … did the other key players wind up? 

Dirt racers Bell and Reddick swept the top two spots for Toyota, and the top of the scoring pylon was a full of dirt racing talent, as Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe rounded out the top five.

Kyle Larson entered the race as the betting favorite, and it sure wasn’t a surprise given his dirt racing expertise and his hot start to the Cup season.

Larson scored the most points in the heat races and started on pole for the main event, and the No. 5 car looked stout early on as Larson led the 75-lap stage one wire-to-wire without any real threat for the lead.

Four drivers elected to stay out after the stage end, however, and Larson was starting to get challenged by the cars that he had easily kept at bay in stage one. That culminated in a race-long conflict with Ryan Preece after Larson put the No. 41 car in the wall out of turn 4.

Preece ran in the top five for the majority of stage one, and the contact ultimately damaged the right rear toe link on the No. 41 car.

Larson made his way back up to third to end the second stage, and while running ninth with 94 laps to go, he spun on his own and dropped outside the top 30.

And it was on his way back through the field that Larson made contact with Preece again; Larson was squeezed into the wall and the resulting spin and crash left him with a 35th-place finish on the night.

Both drivers saw great finishes go up in smoke, and neither had to be a happy camper after it was all over; Larson certainly wasn’t when speaking to the media afterward.

Defending race winner Kyle Busch led the way for the drivers with a pavement background, as he led six laps and was running top five for just about the entire race.

However, Busch began fading late in the final stage, and he retired with suspension damage after a spin with 14 laps to go.

Joey Logano, who won the 2021 edition and finished third last year, also had high expectations heading into Sunday, especially after leading 138 of the 150 laps in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race the night before.

But Logano’s race went bad in a hurry, as he was involved in the first caution and later went to the garage following another crash. He completed 96 laps of the race and finished dead last for the second time this season.

When … was the moment of truth?

Only two lead changes occurred on track throughout the night, and they were a swap between Busch and Reddick within six laps of each other in stage two.

With that in mind, track position was key, and it was Bell’s decision to not pit at the end of the second stage that ultimately won him the race.

Reddick, Busch, Dillon and all the other drivers that pitted after stage two struggled to get back to the front, and it was only 70 laps into the final stage that Reddick, the first car on fresher tires, got to second place.

Bell was able to keep Reddick at bay for most of the final stage, but he faced one last challenge from the No. 45 car with an eight-lap shootout to decide the win.

Bell established a gap, but Reddick was beginning to eat into his lead in the final two laps of the race; he might’ve gotten by if it wasn’t for Chastain’s stalled car ending the race under yellow on the final lap.

Would Reddick have gotten by had the track stayed green? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that it was shaping up to be a fantastic final two turns between the two.

Why … should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series’ next stop is at Martinsville Speedway, the final short track race on the schedule until the series’ return to Richmond in August.

The 400-lap Martinsville race last April was critically panned by just about everyone watching, and the 500-lapper in October was only marginally better until some final-lap heroics by Chastain stole the show.

With the poor racing product on short tracks last season, NASCAR created a brand-new aero package for road courses and ovals one mile or less in length. The package brought positive reviews last weekend to Richmond, a track that has been criticized in years past for a lack of action.

Will the aero package prove to be a success at Martinsville next Sunday (April 16)? It’s absolutely important that NASCAR delivers a home run at one of its most popular stops on the schedule.

How … does the future look for Bristol on dirt?

As of now, it’s on shaky ground.

While the race has proponents, there is a large section of fanbase, and even drivers like Larson, that are against running Cup cars on dirt.

Jonathan Davenport, making his Cup Series debut as the lone dirt ringer in Sunday’s field, also said that he viewed NASCAR’s race at Bristol Dirt as more of a show than a race.

The future of Bristol Dirt for 2024 is still up in the air, and while the attendance hasn’t been particularly great, it was a ratings success on Easter Sunday last year.

Television viewership has been a talking point at the start of the season, as nearly every race has seen a 10% decline or worse in viewership from 2022; not the start that NASCAR or its partners were looking for in its 75th anniversary season.

If Sunday pulls great viewership in a year that has had a ratings freefall, the dirt race will likely stick around. If the ratings flop, the dirt race will tread on uneven ground heading into year four.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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janice

my question answered was they asked stewart about the penalties and appeals process, he tapped dance around it and then surprise helton gives him an award that he’s now part of the top 75 drivers of all time.

Bill B

How could TS not be in the top 75 drivers?

janice

you know nascar……tony has drawn their ire more than once in his career. i was kind of shocked since they’re giving out special trophies that nascar didn’t hunt down dale jr.

DoninAjax

Who did he replace?

janice

no one when they had the 50 yr anniversary they did the 50 greatest drivers. so now that it’s the 75 yr anniversary they’re adding 25 to the original 50.

DoninAjax

I wonder who it might have been. Maybe NA$CAR is sucking up for a Cup event at Eldora?

Bill B

When the 50 yr. anniversary drivers were picked TS was just starting his NASCAR career. He hadn’t amassed the stats needed to be one of the “greatest drivers”. I wouldn’t read into it any more than that.

Bill B

Regarding that last sentence, NASCAR didn’t do itself any favors by scheduling the race on a Sunday night and a religious holiday. It’s almost like they sabotage themselves by their (and the network’s) bad decisions. There was a day where fans would forgo sleep and slug through work the next day. Those days are long gone. No one is losing sleep over a NASCAR race.

RCFX1

Bristol should have been on Saturday night. It used 500 laps and how the car would hold up and if you would survive. Also, remember when Nascar would take off on Easter and Mothers Day?

DoninAjax

Remember NASCAR before Brian got his new toy and came up with all these great ideas to improve his product?

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