Few drivers have had as much success at the Bristol Motor Speedway as Kurt Busch. The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion has pulled into victory lane at ‘The Last Great Colosseum’ on six different occasions along with posting a dozen top-5 finishes over the course of his career on the high-banked track located in the upper northeastern corner of Tennessee. As a result of all that success, this is a driver who should feel quite comfortable whenever the series heads to the half-mile concrete oval.
However, the Bristol Motor Speedway that welcomes the NASCAR Cup Series on March 28th of this year will be very different from anything Busch or any other driver has ever experienced there.
During the off-season, the decision was made to cover the historic track’s surface with dirt so that NASCAR’s top division could stage a race on clay for the first time since September of 1970 when that tour visited the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. While the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has raced on dirt at the Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, OH for the past several years, this will be a new experience for everyone on this particular track in this particular type of machine.
Busch does have experience on dirt at a high level. The 42-year-old racer twice competed in a Late Model in the ‘Prelude to the Dream’ exhibition race previously held at Eldora as a precursor to the Tony Stewart-owned track’s crown jewel Dirt Late Model Dream event.
In order to prepare for the Food City Dirt Race, the elder of the two racing Busch brothers has done some off-season testing in a Modifed car on the dirt at Friendship Motor Speedway in Elkin, NC. That session was arranged an old associate from the days when he race for his brother’s NASCAR Xfinity Series team.
“For me, it was fun to get back in a car and just fire up a big engine with horsepower and then to go around the dirt track,” Busch declared in his recent Daytona 500 media availability. “We went to Friendship Speedway, in all honesty, to knock off the cobwebs of my dirt racing, which goes back to the mid-90’s- that’s a fun to say as a current Cup driver. I’ve got a couple of starts at the Prelude up at Eldora with Tony Stewart’s race. But in all honesty, it was Mike Beam, who I worked with at Kyle Busch Motorsports, he gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got some Modifieds here so come on out.'”
The Modified cars he used in the test session at Friendship reminded the Las Vegas native of a much earlier time in his racing career. But even with that test session, the veteran racer knows that the challenges NASCAR Cup Series drivers and teams will face at Bristol in the spring will be very different.
“That the same style of Modified I drove on asphalt back in the 90’s, but it blended me back in with my Dwarf car roots,” the 32-time Cup Series race winner explained. “Dwarf cars are very similar to Legends cars on the dirt. But ultimately, Bristol will be a whole different track, a whole different complexion. What I’ve done there in the past is irrelevant for the spring race.”
Busch says the challenge of doing something new and different has him energized for this event. It’s the same type of motivation he felt when NASCAR made another big change to its schedule.
“It’s just motivation to go after something new and to go after something different,” he stated. “It’s the same motivation when Bruton Smith, Marcus Smith, and everybody changed over the Charlotte track to the Roval. I attacked that whole sequence with practice and simulators and ultimately sat on the pole for the Roval and picked up a top-5 finish. I’m doing all I can to prep for this dirt race at Bristol because that’s what my team wants me to do and that’s what I need from them, to bring the best possible car to win this race.”
When asked if he had considered following other top NASCAR stars such as Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott to the annual Chili Bowl event for Midget Sprint Cars in Oklahoma, Busch indicated a desire to do so but also pointed out that the two types of racing have very little in common.
He did indicate that he would like to try some other form of racing on dirt prior to the Cup race at BMS.
“The Chili Bowl would be a fun factor ‘Bucket List’ item, but it’s not relevant for prepping for the big, heavy stock cars that we’re going to have at Bristol,” he said. “It’s sticking with something that’s in the space, the genre, of Cup cars. So Xfinity, Truck, that Modified was a good taste so the next step is researching what’s racing the week of Bristol and prepping to get into possibly one of those Sportsman style races.”
Busch also understands that the changes the track will undergo throughout the night will be extreme so adapting to those changes will be key to success.
“But again, nothing is going to simulate the heavy Cup cars,” he reiterated. “And our race is 250 laps at this race. The place is going to glaze over after 50 laps and there’s no dirt track anywhere to prep where you can get that type of experience so it’s a learn as you go and it’s doing it as a team at Chip Ganassi Racing to find all the proper sequences to prep.”
Busch has worked closely with NASCAR in developing the race car that will be used by Cup Series teams beginning in 2022. If racing on dirt is to become a regular happening for the top division, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner believes that car should be tested on dirt in the near future.
“They haven’t talked about dirt just yet,” Busch replied when asked if NASCAR had consulted with him about using the Next Gen car on dirt. “I’m sure that will be on the list this year to take the car to a dirt track and go run some miles.”
Such a test would help to answer some yet unthought of questions.
“Again, there’s all those little things that pop up that you can’t really quite forecast, whether it’s mud in the radiator for overheating, mud in the half-shafts and in the axles or bearings. The Next Gen car’s feel has a little bit of a Rally feel to it with all the independent suspension and with all the booties that protect the rotating pieces so I’m sure there are plenty of pieces that will help make the car as durable as possible for dirt racing. And yes, they should take it to a dirt track test and get some miles on it, but that hasn’t been discussed yet.”
All Photos except Bristol Dirt: Getty Images
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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