Turn 2 Blog: Is a Cup Series dirt race at Bristol really a good idea?

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

Richard: The rumor mill had been churning for a while but on Wednesday the official announcement was made that the NASCAR Cup Series will contest a dirt race for the first time since 1970. Star drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will test their skills on a clay surface that will be put down on the high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway on March 28, 2021. The track located in upper east Tennessee will continue to host its NASCAR Playoffs-determining night race on the standard concrete surface in September.

As promised, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule did indeed deliver the significant shakeups that had been discussed for a while. Adding the first dirt racing event in over 50 years certainly ranks among the biggest changes to be made. And before we go any further, I want to interject that I applaud the sanctioning body for not being afraid to do some different things with a schedule that had in fact gotten a little stale over the past couple of decades.

I will, however, say that I am not yet on board with this particular move. While it is true that you and I primarily cover dirt racing through our InsideDirtRacing.com website, I am initially of the opinion that NASCAR did not necessarily need a dirt track race for its top division and that putting dirt over the top of a concrete surface may not necessarily be the best option.

Granted, there is much we do not know. The type of format to be used, the length of the race, and the way the track is prepared will be just a few of the factors that will ultimately determine the quality of the overall show. For that matter, we don’t even know if all the health measures currently in place that do not allow for practice and qualifying will be lifted by next spring. So making a final judgement is not really fair at this time.

But all of that said, I can’t say that my first reaction is one of excitement. Rather, I have more of a wait-and-see viewpoint. How about you?

Bristol Motor Speedway was covered in dirt two decades ago

Michael: There are many questions to be answered before saying this is or isn’t a good idea. To do something completely different is intriguing on the surface. As you said, the schedule had become stale and needed some overhauling, something I have said on my Twitter account and message boards for a number of years.

I don’t know if NASCAR fans have necessarily been clamoring for a dirt race. It seems like that fan base was satisfied with the truck race at Eldora. Even that had seemed to lose some of its luster as fewer and fewer dirt racing aces were participating. So the sudden move to host a Cup race on dirt seemed a bit out of nowhere.

When I think of racing on dirt, I think of Dirt Late Models, Sprint Cars, or Open Wheel Modified cars. Cup cars will be much like your Street Stock or Modified Street cars on your local dirt track – big, heavy cars that will slide around more being hooked up. Some fans will really like that, others will find it boring.

For me, I’d rather see these drivers in actual dirt cars like Late Models when Tony Stewart used to have the Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway. But in the meantime, I will wait to see the format and how they will configure the track.

Richard: I think my biggest initial reservations about this announcement center around the fact that one of the sport’s better races at one of its more entertaining tracks is being taken away for what amounts to an experiment. If NASCAR was determined for its Cup Series to have a dirt race there are, I believe, better options on which to hold it rather than taking away one of the natural short tracks.

Of course, as you mentioned, Eldora Speedway already hosts the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series which would seem to make it a viable candidate to host the top tour. Also, Knoxville(IA) Raceway and Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway are among a few excellent facilities that could possibly serve as host. I would have preferred that the announcement would have named an actual dirt track as the venue.

I know external factors such as garage space and media centers play a role in deciding where a premier racing series will conduct an event. That, in turn, is likely what caused NASCAR to choose one of its current tracks rather than a true dirt track.

Would you have preferred a track specifically suited for dirt racing or is Bristol the better setting?

Michael: I would have preferred an existing dirt track, but something with some banking. Heavy cars on a flat, dirt track does not sound competitive.

I do find it interesting various reports have said Fox Sports was the driving factor behind the move to have a dirt race and it be at Bristol. I know Bristol has done it before, but that was 20 years ago. I suppose their idea was to see if more than 30k fans will show up for a dirt race at Bristol rather than a standard Cup race in the spring.

It’s apparent to me fans are more interested in seeing the beating and banging of the old concrete surface. If they are going to go to the expense of hauling in all of the dirt it will take to convert it to a dirt track, why not remove the progressive banking from the track? When they made that change, Bruton Smith was quoted as saying if that layout didn’t work, he’d put the track back to the way it was. They’ve done everything but do that.

Richard: To take this conversation in a bit of a different direction, you mentioned the weight of the cars. That is a factor that I think many people may not realize. A NASCAR Cup Series machine is far heavier than a standard Dirt Late Model, so much so that the difference in lap times would be several seconds. As you pointed out earlier, this will look more like a Street Stock or Modified Street race than a Late Model affair. Still, I expect it to be entertaining.

All that said, I guess my final concern would be that a dirt race will be used(provided the current system remains in effect) to play a part in eventually deciding the series champion. Someone could get into or be left out of the playoffs based on their performance in this race. I realize that is just part of it and that there is already a wide degree of variety, but the first NASCAR Cup Series dirt race held in 50 years is such an anomaly that I’m not sure it will make for a good fit.

Your thoughts?

Michael: We hear all the time about a driver getting into the playoffs for surviving and winning a restrictor plate race that’s not a normal front runner. They will say the same thing if one of those drivers wins at Bristol. But we see that when rain outs cut races short.

I will say the 2021 edition should draw a lot of interest from fans not knowing what to expect. The question will be how will interest, and attendance, will be in 2022 and beyond. I really wish the race was taking place at night. I think the racing would be better and there’s something about one of these short track, night races that makes it a bigger spectacle than usual.

Richard: Agreed, there is going to be a lot of interest generated by this race. As I said earlier, I applaud NASCAR for trying something new in an attempt to entertain its fans. While I may have my reservations, I see potential here and hope for success.

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