The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway dirt marked the series’ third time competing at the temporary dirt track.
Following Christopher Bell‘s victory lane, it remained uncertain if NASCAR will continue racing at Bristol dirt. Speedway Motorsports President Marcus Smith told FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass that no decision has been made on whether the event will continue in 2024.
Additionally, the ratings for the 2023 event were lower than the 2022 event, both held on Easter Sunday.
The Racetrack Isn’t the Problem
The Cup Series has its most diverse schedule in anyone’s lifetime.
It consists of superspeedways, intermediates, road courses, short tracks, a street course and a dirt track. So NASCAR shouldn’t abandon the Bristol dirt track. It should abandon competing on Easter.
Yes, Bristol isn’t inherently a dirt track. However, of all the dirt tracks in the country, how many could host the Cup Series? The two dirt tracks on the ARCA Menards Series schedule lack the infrastructure, including parking for the haulers, that Cup teams need. Eldora Speedway and Knoxville Raceway previously hosted the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, but neither track is on the schedule.
If the Trucks didn’t return to those tracks, why should the Cup Series go to either?
In addition to having the infrastructure, Bristol also has name-brand recognition.
“It’s Bristol baby” has been said many times. Yes, the excitement of those events came from its 0.533-mile paved oval surface. However, the Bristol dirt track still has the capabilities to produce great racing.
Admittedly, Cup regulars have won two of three Truck races there, but that doesn’t diminish Carson Hocevar’s outstanding runner-up performance in 2022 or when Martin Truex Jr. earned his first Truck win there in 2021.
Instead, the problem is racing on Easter. Yes, 12 million people tuned in to watch The Masters. But that’s a sacred golf tournament. Bristol dirt is not a NASCAR crown jewel.
Two of the three Bristol dirt events have also been plagued by poor weather. The date of Easter varies, but Easter is in the spring. Bristol’s spring race has also been plagued by poor weather, regardless of whether it was on concrete or dirt surfaces.
Toward the end of the spring race on concrete, Bristol wasn’t selling out. So the transformation into a dirt track tried to boost ticket sales. Clearly, it hasn’t worked, as the grandstands weren’t half full. NASCAR is faced with two options: either leave Bristol altogether, thereby losing a race date at one of the series’ few short tracks or move race dates.
I’ve been with Frontstretch since the start of the 2019 season, yet I didn’t watch any of the 2022 race on Easter and I watched about 25 laps on Sunday (April 9). Why? Because those two were on Easter. Rather, I, like many people in this country, spent the day celebrating the holiday.
If the Bristol dirt races were on any other weekend other than Easter, I would be more inclined to watch. But on Easter, my priorities are different.
Under its current TV contract, NASCAR must have 38 events for its TV partners. So if NASCAR doesn’t race on Easter, when should the Bristol Dirt Race be?
How about on Father’s Day weekend? Michigan International Speedway used to host the Cup Series on Father’s Day weekend, but Father’s Day weekend has been an off weekend both in 2022 and 2023.
Teams need a break, but NASCAR has many families who’ve raced in NASCAR — the Labonte brothers, the Petty family, the Earnhardt family, etc.
As a compromise, NASCAR could have the Bristol dirt weekend consist of the Friday and Saturday of Father’s Day weekend. Because that weekend falls in June, the likelihood of rain at Bristol would hopefully be diminished.
Then the Trucks could race on Friday night followed by Cup on Saturday night. Everyone would either be at home or en route on Sunday, allowing teams to spend the Sunday with their families. Additionally, with Easter off, people like me could go back to celebrating Easter without missing a NASCAR race. It’s a win-win situation.
NASCAR was right in its desire to capitalize on another holiday, akin to the Coca-Cola 600 pageantry. But it shouldn’t have the Bristol Dirt Race on Easter. Instead, make it synonymous with Father’s Day weekend, albeit still allowing families to spend the day together on the day itself. – Mark Kristl
Time to Look Elsewhere
In three attempts at the Bristol Dirt Race, this past one was arguably the best we have seen. There was drama, intense battles, cyclone-spins and no clear favorite. Dust didn’t appear to be as big of an issue as it has been in the past, and the surface packed together well.
However, that was one race. And despite the entertainment that stemmed from it, there are still calls to move on to the dirt. Even Cup drivers with dirt roots are not in favor of it after three years.
“I think we all really enjoy the concrete,” Kyle Larson told Frontstretch’s Dalton Hopkins. “I think the crowds are typically bigger it seems like at this point now on the concrete. … I would love to get back to racing on the concrete here.”
Larson was actually in favor of no dirt racing in Cup at all. No Eldora, no Knoxville, no transfer of dirt to other pavement tracks, nada. Bubba Wallace called the race “a gimmick.” Brad Keselowski said he would have to see Sunday’s crowd (which was not even half full) in order to make a judgment.
The question is, will NASCAR listen to the drivers? At times, the drivers are of main concern in decisions. In others, they are simply the performers who have to go with the flow.
“We were told last week that this is an entertainment business,” Wallace said. “So the concerns we have with certain racetracks doesn’t matter, because it’s entertainment.”
At the same time, from a business perspective, does Speedway Motorsports — which owns Bristol — want to spend extra money to lay down tons of dirt only to be cleaned up on an annual basis?
Then there is one of the main focal points of NASCAR and “entertainment”: television.
And once again, the ratings were down.
Being the number one or two sporting event in seven of eight weekends so far is a good statistic, but it isn’t unusual for NASCAR. The main concern here is that The Masters scored four times the amount of viewers as the race. Golf isn’t new to drawing large numbers, but outdoing a race meant for entertainment may point to going in a different direction for NASCAR.
Several factors could be argued in why the ratings dipped from four million viewers a year ago. But one main concern has also been the fact that the race has been run on Easter Sunday.
As many strong opportunities to promote an event as there are, racing on Easter should not be one of them. The only off-week that Cup teams get in 2023 is Father’s Day weekend. That leaves drivers with a whopping 20 consecutive weeks of racing. With the potential for athletes to suffer from burn-out, plus no opportunities to catch their breath, another off-weekend may do some good. Drivers also need the holiday to spend time with their families.
This extends to fans as well. NASCAR does have a past and current base of Christian fans or those who set that day aside to attend a service. So while there are fans who would watch or attend, that does factor into attendance and TV viewership. Given Easter’s history worldwide and in our country, as well as its importance, that day needs to be set aside.
Bristol itself should have concrete racing only. We’ve seen some fantastic racing in the spring race there. Just look at recent examples: Busch vs. Larson in 2018, the battle of the Busch brothers in 2019 and Chase Elliott and Joey Logano‘s feud in 2020. That latter example was a race that featured old-school Bristol, with bump-and-runs and drivers having to fight for every position.
That is the Bristol people love.
What happens to the Bristol date then? Bristol deserves two dates on the concrete, but even though Larson said the crowds have improved, the spring race has not been remotely close to sitting full in years. The racing is too good to take a date away, but NASCAR has to find a date and start time that will be intriguing. It doesn’t need to be a sellout, but at least getting it back to 75% full would be beneficial.
If NASCAR were to replace the spring Bristol race, tracks such as Iowa Speedway, potentially Rockingham Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway or maybe even a Kentucky Speedway revival would be options.
I do think NASCAR should keep racing on dirt, particularly at Eldora. But given the mixed bag of emotions and the drivers’ desires on what Bristol should look like, it is time to move on from that experiment. – Luken Glover
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