The NASCAR Cup Series schedule contains a few “oddities” on the 2021 calendar. There are more road courses slated for the tour than every before, a first-time trip for the series to the Nashville Super Speedway, a repeat of the double-header weekend at Pocono, multiple dates for the venerable old tracks in Atlanta and Darlington, and perhaps the “oddest” of all comes this weekend when the series races on dirt for the first time since the early 1970s on the clay covered Bristol Motor Speedway. Add to all of that the fact that NASCAR will, for the most part, continue with procedures put in place last year that call for no practice or qualifying on most race weekends.
All of that oddness opens the door for the possibility of odd things to happen within the races. Although the Daytona 500 was run in somewhat normal fashion, we did witness an unexpected win already this season by Michael McDowell and his Front Row Motorsports team. Could this weekend provide another such surprise?
It would stand to reason that the driver hoisting the winner’s trophy at the end of the the Food City Dirt Race this Sunday in Bristol Motor Speedway victory lane will be one who has at least a certain measure of dirt racing experience. With that said, there are some drivers who have spent more time on clay surfaces than others in their past.
Names such as Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. come quickly to mind as those who could be considered favorites to score a victory in Bristol. Two drivers who have a significant amount of dirt racing experience and are, at the same time, also in desperate need of good finishes, if not a win, are Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick.
Briscoe’s rookie season in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has been, through the first six races of the season, a near disaster. The Mitchell, IN native currently ranks 27th in the standings with a best finish to date of 18th at Homestead. He has posted four results outside the top-20.
The 2016 ARCA Menard’s Series champion finds himself 190 points in arrears of leader Denny Hamlin and 64 markers behind the all-important 16th position. However, the 26-year-old racer has an opportunity to turn his season around in one afternoon.
The driver who won nine NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2021 began his racing career on dirt in Sprint Cars at the age of 13. He has continued to compete in that form of motorsports on occasion but truly showed his ability on that type of surface in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Briscoe won the NCWTS feature race at the Eldora Speedway in 2018. That triumph was sandwiched by a third place result in 2017 and a seventh in 2019.
This SHR driver very much needs to replicate those performances when the Cup Series takes the green flag on Sunday afternoon in Bristol. While he is only a rookie at the Cup Series level, the expectations are high for every driver in this series no matter how much experience they do or do not have. And based on his current standing, Briscoe has almost reached the point of ‘must win’ if he is to make the NASCAR Playoffs this season.
With the exception of a second place finish in the race held at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Reddick has struggled every bit as much as Briscoe. The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has finished outside the top-20 in five of the six races held to this point. But like Briscoe, this weekend provides an opportunity for a turnaround.
The Corning, CA racer sits 28th in the standings fully 197 points off the lead and 64 out of 16th. Consider though, that the early days of Reddick’s career were spent on dirt with the now 25-year-old being the youngest to ever take a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series checkered flag when he pulled into victory lane at East Bay Raceway Park at the age of 15 back in 2011.
Reddick translated that dirt experience into NASCAR success when he earned two top-10 results in Truck Series races at Eldora during his time on that tour.
Coming off of a rookie season in which he finished 19th in the standings with nine top-10 finishes, Reddick’s sophomore campaign has been a difficult one to say the least. The two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion may also find himself in a ‘must win’ situation in terms of having any shot to make the NASCAR Playoffs in 2021.
Here are to drivers who have found the going to be difficult at best during the first sixth of the NASCAR Cup Series season. However, the chance is there for improvement. Not only does each of them have experience on clay, but this weekend will be one of the few times this season in which there will be a qualifying format rather than cars being assigned a position on the grid based on previous performance. As a result, these drivers might be able to start further up on the grid than has been the case throughout most of the season.
So not only could this race provide Briscoe and Reddick with an opportunity for success on this one weekend but it could set up a more complete turnaround. And both of them are in desperate need of that.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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