BRISTOL, Tenn. – Christopher Bell stood his ground out front against fellow dirt racer Tyler Reddick long enough for a last-lap caution to end the NASCAR Cup Series Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race on Sunday night, April 9. Austin Dillon finished third with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Chase Briscoe rounding out the top five.
It’s Bell’s fifth Cup Series victory and his first in a NASCAR dirt race since his win at Eldora Speedway in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event there in 2015.
But What Really Happened?
With the dirt race’s future still undetermined for 2024 and beyond, some changes may be on the horizon for what was initially a one-year experiment.
But just what should those changes be?
Should we put an end to the dirt racing experiment altogether because of some of the groaning over this event? Or should NASCAR let it ride into next year and cross its fingers that everyone will magically start to love dirt racing? Spoiler alert: they won’t.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time to finally put a real honest-to-God dirt track on the Cup Series schedule.
The Truck Series did it for seven years straight at Eldora, which turned the race into a crown jewel fan favorite for the series. It also became a beacon for dirt racing veterans outside of NASCAR to give the big heavy stock cars a shot on their own turf.
But those days are past us now; the Trucks don’t have a place of their own, dropping Knoxville Raceway in Iowa off the schedule this year. So we’re left with Bristol, an annual dirt track visit that in 2023 felt more artificial than ever. Dirt ringers which used to flood the entry lists for both Trucks and Cup have been reduced to a trickle, at best.
And those that do show up don’t seem to be that impressed with it.
When it comes to schedule changes and new experiments that NASCAR has tried in previous years, the Bristol dirt race is a real hot potato among race fans.
Many wonder why the sport has decided to take away a race date from one of the most popular short tracks on the Cup Series calendar for the sake of having a dirt feature. Then, there are those that don’t see any need to have a dirt race at all.
And a few of them know a thing or two about dirt racing. Cue Kyle Larson.
So, with the swirling mass of controversy surrounding this race, and only a few of those outspoken voices actually being in favor of having the event, why are we doing it in the first place?
Well, the NASCAR schedule has become one of, if not the most, diverse racing schedules on the planet. There is no other racing series with short tracks, intermediate ovals, superspeedways, road courses, a street course and a dirt race all under one annual calendar. Not having a dirt event featured on that list takes away a little of that diversity. It also removes a connection to some grassroots, home track racing heritage that NASCAR is trying desperately to get back in touch with.
It leaves an argument that a dirt race was – and still is – necessary. Despite what Kyle Larson thinks about it, there is a plethora of dirt talent in the field that doesn’t get to showcase its talent as often without one. Dirt racing culture was once baked into the history of NASCAR, a major part of the sport’s formative years from its first ever race at Charlotte Fairgrounds Speedway in 1949 through the early 1970s. It’s addition back onto the schedule for Cup had a higher purpose.
Finally, let’s not forget why NASCAR chose the spring Bristol race to go toward the dirt chopping block.
With that said, Sunday night’s crowd wasn’t exactly sold out, either. So turning the surface back to concrete, year-round saves money and is at minimum a wash when it comes to attendance.
With a hemming and hawing fan base over the loss of a traditional Bristol race date, a to-be-determined future of Bristol dirt and a necessity for a dirt race on its schedule, the time has never been more right for the Cup Series to finally venture to a real dirt track – regardless of the potential reduced capacity it could accommodate.
Who stood out?
While the Bristol dirt race may not be a “true” dirt event to some, nobody seemed to tell NASCAR’s dirt drivers that.
The top six finishers on Sunday night all consisted of drivers that grew up, or are still, racing on the dirt tracks of America.
Big shock, right?
I’m not actually joking about that, especially when you consider that the last two Bristol dirt Cup events were won by non-dirt racers. Really, you could infer that being a dirt veteran gave little advantage to slinging the big heavy stock cars, if any at all.
However, it would be hard to argue that after Bell, Reddick, Dillon, Stenhouse, Briscoe and Justin Haley all found themselves sweeping the first six spots on Sunday.
Additionally, it was dirt veterans who led a whopping 244 laps out of 250 during the Easter feature. A total of 169 of those were the combined efforts of winner Bell and runner-up Reddick, who tried to run down his Toyota teammate in the closing laps of the race before being halted in the final corner by a last-lap caution.
There’s also the underdogs Dillon and Stenhouse.
After running near the front and challenging for the lead most of the race, Dillon earned his first top-five result of the year. It’s also the first top five of his career on Bristol Dirt, an event Dillon called “one of the coolest races I’ve ever been in.”
For Stenhouse, who has already won in 2023 after capturing the Daytona 500, it was his second top-five result. It’s just the second time in the last five seasons that Stenhouse has posted two top-five finishes in Cup.
It was a blessing of a night for Haley, too.
After being penalized 75 points by NASCAR, Haley was in dire need of a decent points haul heading into Sunday. The Kaulig Racing driver delivered with not only his first stage points of the year, but also his best finish.
Despite some great nights for the dirt ringers, however, not all of them ended their Easter nights happily.
Who fell flat?
Another year, another missed opportunity for Larson.
Out of all drivers in the field, the driver of the No. 5 is typically the first choice on anyone’s list to win a dirt race.
But his escapades at the Bristol dirt track haven’t backed up the hype. In 2021, Larson was caught in a crash with fellow dirt ace Bell and finished 29th after starting from the pole. Last year, he ran fourth, certainly respectable but still not the triumph expected from a winner of multiple Chili Bowl Nationals.
This year appeared to be Larson’s closest to victory in the Cup Series’ sole event on dirt. After starting from the pole, the No. 5 led every lap in stage one and had competitive speed running through traffic in stage two.
That is, until he ran into Ryan Preece.
It didn’t get better after that in-race gesture. Preece became increasingly frustrated with the Californian racer as a result of the incident, and when the two met again during the opening laps of the final stage, he “got loose.”
On a straightaway.
You know, as one does.
The resulting crash ended Larson’s night, and he was credited with a 35th-place finish – his worst on the dirt so far.
As for Preece, he kept chugging after the contact, but still struggled and wound up 24th after what was a strong run for the Connecticut native.
One would think Preece would have plenty to say, too. However, when it came time to talk post-race, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was tight-lipped.
Maybe Preece learned a couple things from Denny Hamlin‘s podcast penalty escapades and was looking to save 25 precious points in the standings.
Better than last time?
With no rain delays or confusion about who the leader is under a red-flagged, non-competitive pit stop this year, 2023 already had improvement.
On the other hand, we certainly didn’t see the same kind of wild finish we had in 2022, although it looked like we were about to.
This week, Ross Chastain actually helped Bell when a race by virtue of being stopped on the track in that last-lap wreck.
There’s also the matter of the inconsistent yellow flags we saw this year.
Some caution flags flew as a result of a single-car spin. Other times, they didn’t, and it left many frustrated as to what conditions race control were looking for to bring out the pace car.
Despite that, there were still the same amount of cautions this year (14) than in 2022. Additionally, there were only two fewer lead changes than last year, which had six exchanges for the top spot compared to Sunday night’s four.
The competition still left something to be desired when it came to comparing this year’s dirt race to last year’s, but not to the point where Sunday’s race was a dumpster fire. It very likely didn’t end without some enjoyment to many, and still showed how dirt racing isn’t a lost cause. Some fans will still probably mark the calendars for next year’s dirt race, too.
That is, if there is one.
Paint scheme of the race
For the last three years, the Bristol dirt race has brought out some of the best in paint schemes for Cup Series liveries.
However, one brand has trumped them all when it comes to design during that time period, and they did it once again in 2023.
That Tide ride has always looked good.
For the last two dirt races, Tide had partnered with what is now LEGACY MOTOR CLUB and Erik Jones. If you remember, they won last year’s Paint Scheme of the Race in Thinkin’ Out Loud.
Typically, Tide features their bright, almost highlighted, orange primary with yellow secondary colors on its livery. Unlike last year, however, Tide had blue – a complimentary color of orange – numbers on Haley’s Kaulig Racing ride.
To top it all off, the irony of having a laundry detergent brand featured on a car for a dirt race is genius marketing.
Along with the sake of schedule variety, NASCAR having a dirt race will likely continue bringing the Tide ride.
That makes it all the more necessary.
The NASCAR Cup Series goes paperclip racing.
The sport returns to Martinsville Speedway for its first of two visits to the shortest track on the points calendar. Qualifying for the NOCO 400 will begin on Saturday, April 15 at 5:20 p.m. ET and the field will take the green on Sunday, April 16 at 3 p.m. ET with television coverage provided by FOX Sports 1.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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