Race Weekend Central

Do You Miss the Dirt Race Yet?

If you’re an eagle-eyed viewer of this weekend’s NASCAR action from Bristol Motor Speedway, you might notice that The Last Great Colosseum looks a little cleaner than it did this time last year.

After three years, NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. have called it quits on the Bristol dirt race experiment, and for the foreseeable future, it looks as though both annual Cup races at the Tennessee short track will be held on the concrete surface we know and love — at least until Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s campaign to bring back asphalt gains ground. The Cup Series’ return to dirt was as temporary as the surface itself, as each year 2,300 truckloads of Tennessee clay was hauled in — and then, after the checkered flag fell on Easter Sunday, it was trucked back out again.

See also
2-Headed Monster: Head to Head at Bristol, Kyle Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt

But was three times the charm?

Last year’s dirt race saw 3.45 million viewers, down from just over 4 million the year before, and after Christopher Bell led the entire final stage, the mood on Twitter (as the micro-blogging website was then known) was dire.

Why was NASCAR forcing a Next Gen car so clearly developed for paved surface racing to compete on dirt? Why were they taking away a concrete Bristol date – one of the greatest days of the year in American motorsports! — for this? Why did they choose Easter Sunday? Why was it always raining?

But if there’s one thing you can count on with NASCAR fans, it’s begging for something to be replaced and then lamenting the fact that it’s gone: Chicagoland Speedway, the Car of Tomorrow, the Latford system. I’ll bet that, this time next week, tunes will have changed on the dirt.

Yes, concrete Bristol has locked out the all-time podium on Jeff Gluck’s “Was It a Good Race?” poll, but those three races have one thing in common: they were back in the Gen 6 era. Of the two concrete Bristol dates since NASCAR switched to the Next Gen car and its powerful rear diffuser, at most 61.6% of fans have approved of its racing action – and that was the 2023 race that saw Denny Hamlin lead 141 of the final 142 laps, a dominant enough performance to quip that he ‘beat your favorite driver … all of them.’

The problem lies deeper than (track) surface level. Switching from dirt to concrete isn’t going to fix the spring Bristol date so long as the Next Gen car produces this much downforce. And while Bristol doesn’t use the same short track aero package due to its high banking, its problems are much of the same.

To NASCAR’s credit, they’re on the case — or at least, they’re trying. The short track-specific aero package that I (and many others) have been asking for since 2022 made its long-awaited debut last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, but to mixed reviews. Hamlin described it as a “slight bit of change better … not worse.” Chase Elliott said that he “forgot they did anything until after practice.”  

Regardless, come Sunday afternoon at Phoenix, it was Bell that opened up the largest margin of victory the Cup Series has seen in the Next Gen era (5.465 seconds) to claim the first win of the short track aero package era. The race got just over 40% on Gluck’s poll, by far the lowest-ranked race of the young season.

See also
NASCAR Mailbox: Why Phoenix?

There are, unfortunately, no easy ways out. Certainly, none that would fit into 240 characters for circulation on X (formerly Twitter). I’d start with more horsepower, something drivers have encouraged, but NASCAR itself seems reticent to do. But it’s not just the diffuser, and it’s not just the motor. It’s going to be the tires, the gearing and fifteen other things, and still, sometimes Adam Stevens is going to give his driver an absolute weapon with which he can open a tallboy can of whoop-ass on the field.  

One more race on concrete isn’t going to change anything.

I might sound insane for suggesting Bristol cut back to a single date. The 2021 version of me would consider it sacrilege. But in a 2024 where North Wilkesboro Speedway looks a shoo-in for a points-paying Cup race next year, and the expansion-era intermediate tracks put on better racing than the short tracks of the Southeast, the spring Bristol date might not be as missed as it once was.

And if we’ve learned from Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway’s recent (and popular) returns to two annual dates, we could get spring Bristol back when NASCAR has developed a car worthy of the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.

When we deserve it.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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11 Comments
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wildcatsfan2016

Nope, not missing it at all. It was a dumb idea in the first place. If NASCAR wanted to race on dirt, there are REAL dirt tracks available. They didn’t need to truck dirt in and make a fake one at Bristol. Plus as noted, the regular NASCR cars were NOT designed to race on dirt. Simple stuff. Use dirt cars on a dirt track if that’s what they need but don’t try and force something that’s not necessary.

DoninAjax

I was at an ASA race on dirt in the Pontiac Silverdome. David Pearson was there. But they had real race cars.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30IWt6OvgiE

Here it is in 1983!
Check out the field!

Last edited 1 month ago by DoninAjax
David Nance

Kill two birds with one stone-move it to a 35K capacity track and viola-another sellout! Boy, we’re going fast now!

David Nance

PS-everyone seems to forget that Steve Phelps said in his post 2023 interview with Jordon Bianchi that Bristol Dirt was FOX’s idea and NASCAR and SMI was along for the ride. That’s what happens when you sell out everything for TV contract money.

Joshua

Just kill all progressive banking. That was when the track changed for the worse.

wildcatsfan2016

kill the “kit” car too. The IROC series doesn’t exist any more.

michael hornung

It very well come back to life very soon, since Ray Everham has bought the rights to IROC

Jeremy

That was my thought as well. It’s clear as day when the crowds went from selling out 130,000+ seats every race (AND having a huge wait list for tickets that rarely came available) to empty grandstands – and it was after the track was repaved. $$ talks, and in this case it is screaming at the top of it’s lungs that the changes to the track during the repave are NOT welcome.

sb

The introduction of the ‘chase’ had a big effect also. No one wanted to ‘interfere’ with a driver in the ‘chase’, so racing got very polite. I gave up my season tickets because Bristol wasn’t the ‘no holds barred’ that it used to be. Just another short track.

Bill B

NO!!

Sandeep

Honestly, Bristol has been s**t ever since the brainless modification in 2007. They made it a mini Michigan. WHO needs multigroove at a short track, for pete’s sake?! I want to see cars rooting and gouging over a single bottom groove. On top of that, they made the top lane too dominant and have had to resort to traction compound on the bottom groove to get it somewhat like it used to be pre-2007 fall race. So yes, I preferred the dirt version any day. So what if one driver led the last segment – like as if that doesn’t/can’t happen in this abomination version of Bristol we’ve had since 2007 fall…

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