It’s incredibly rare for NASCAR to make any changes that take the drivers, teams, and sport too far outside of their comfort zone.
Sure, they’ve made changes to rule packages and added new tracks, but those changes have always remained relatively close to what the sport has done for decades.
That won’t be the case in a few weeks, though, and drivers are currently looking for every possible advantage as they prepare for the historic dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On September 30, 1970, NASCAR legend Richard Petty won the Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds after leading the final 112 laps at the horse track turned dirt race track.
That race would mark the final time NASCAR’s top series would run on dirt for more than 50 years.
But on March 28, just under two weeks from now, the Cup Series will return to the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, and drivers are working overtime to prepare for a race that will require a far different skill set than many of the sport’s top talents are accustomed to.
For current Cup Series drivers like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick, dirt racing is second nature, as it was on the dirt that they first made a name for themselves as they began climbing the NASCAR ladder.
But others like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Kyle Busch have rarely raced on any surface other than asphalt or concrete.
No matter their dirt experience, most every Cup Series driver is going out of their way to prepare for the Bristol dirt race one way or another.
This week, more than 1,200 racers from across the country have descended on East Tennessee to compete in the Bristol Dirt Nationals.
And among the hundreds of competitors will be NASCAR stars like Elliott, Larson, Busch, Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Joey Logano, and Chris Buescher.
Larson, Busch, and Elliott will be competing in the Super Late Model division, while Dillon, LaJoie, and Buescher will run a 604 Late Model, and Logano will be behind the wheel of a modified.
When it comes to NASCAR drivers heading to the dirt, though, it’s Kyle Larson who always garners attention, as he’s one of the nation’s most prolific dirt racers with 46 dirt wins in 2020 alone, including his second consecutive win at the legendary Chili Bowl Nationals.
“I’m excited to get there,” Larson said of the Bristol Dirt Nationals. “I think we all are [excited] just because we don’t know what it’s going to be like. So, I don’t really know. I’m probably not going to learn a whole lot the week before [running the Dirt Nationals], other than just getting familiar with the banking and the track and stuff like that. A Super Late Model on dirt is going to be way different than a Cup car on the same race track. So, I don’t know what to expect for the Cup race anyway.”
While a driver like Chase Elliott didn’t grow up on the dirt like Larson, the reigning Cup Series Champion has made dirt racing a priority since the 2020 NASCAR season ended.
Over the offseason, Elliott ran his first ever dirt race at the Carolina Midget Showdown at Millbridge Speedway and competed in the Chili Bowl Nationals, while running several other races on dirt.
Throughout his time on dirt, Elliott has simply been trying to learn everything he can, and his newest teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson, has been instrumental in that.
“I’ve been trying to learn as quick as I can,” Elliott said over the offseason. “Kyle (Larson) has been great, he’s been super open and honest talking about midget and dirt racing in general. As much as he’s willing to share, I’m certainly going to lean on him at least to help me get going. I’m excited to talk to him and learn some things that might be second nature to him, but that are completely foreign to me.”
While many NASCAR drivers are actually hitting the dirt in real life, other drivers, like Ryan Blaney, are taking a slightly different approach to prepare for the Bristol dirt race.
“I just do Ford [simulator] stuff and we have practice there, which will be good and kind of relying back to the Truck dirt race I did at Eldora a couple times,” he said.
“I’ll kind of think back on that a little bit and rewatch that race, but Bristol will be totally different — bigger, high-banked track, and the Cup car is gonna drive a little bit different than the truck, so that’s the biggest thing.”
No matter how they’re preparing, it’s clear that even though they’re running a much more familiar race at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, most NASCAR drivers have focused as much of their attention as possible on the dirt race at Bristol.
Prior to NASCAR’s playoff era, having such a radically different race on the schedule might not have drawn the same level of attention from the drivers.
But with NASCAR’s current format, every race matters that much more, and drivers and teams will pull out all the stops to ensure they’re able to capitalize on every opportunity to earn points that will undoubtedly be critical to their success as the season goes on.
With so many unknowns, the historic nature of the race, and the preparation drivers are putting into the event, there’s no doubt that the Cup Series’ Bristol dirt race will be one for the ages.
Sports with Balls will keep you up-to-date with this ongoing story.