Less practice and qualifying for NASCAR stars means more dirt racing opportunities

The covering of Bristol Motor Speedway with dirt caused some NASCAR stars to race more on clay

Since the return by NASCAR from pandemic restrictions in 2020, there have been numerous changes to the way the sport goes about its business. Among the biggest of those changes has been an almost complete elimination in the areas of race weekend practice and qualifying. The result of those changes has been far reaching in that the impact has been felt in others forms of the sport.

Over the past 15 months or so, there have been multiple NASCAR drivers who have entered dirt track, short track, and road course races that might not have been an option had the weekends of those drivers been occupied with practice and qualifying.

A prime example occurred back in the spring when the NASCAR Cup Series raced on dirt at the Bristol Motor Speedway. It was the first time the sanctioning body’s top division had competed on that type of surface during the so-called modern era. But prior to that race, a number of Cup stars made their way to BMS for the Karl Kustoms Bristol Dirt Nationals event for Late Models and Modifieds held prior to NASCAR’s weekend on clay.

Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Corey Lajoie, Joey Logano, Austin Dillon and others hit the high banks to get in some practice for their points-paying event. NASCAR was racing that weekend in Atlanta and had it been a normal, pre-pandemic weekend there is little chance they could have spared the time to race in Bristol because of obligations to their teams in terms of practicing and qualifying.

Chase Elliott was among the NASCAR stars to race a Late Model in Bristol

But for some, there has been much more dirt racing than what they did in Bristol.

Larson has been the most prolific and the most successful outside of NASCAR having scored wins in such top events as the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series-sanctioned King’s Royal at Eldora Speedway and the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series-sanctioned Prairie Dirt Classic at the Fairbury American Legion Speedway in Illinois.

NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier also participated in the Prairie Dirt Classic weekend at FALS in the Modified division.

While the PDC did take place during a NASCAR off weekend, numerous other short track events have not. Larson and fellow NASCAR Cup Series racer Christopher Bell competed recently in Pennsylvania Sprint SpeedWeek during a time when NASCAR raced that weekend. Larson has entered several Sprint Car and Late Model events throughout the year.

Ryan Preece has been seen at several pavement Modified events during the past few weeks that might not have otherwise been an option. Throughout the season, as has been the case for some time, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series star Stewart Friesen has steered his Big-Block Modified as well as a new Late Model on dirt tracks in both the southeast and the northeast this season.

Kyle Larson meeting fans in the Smoky Mountain Speedway pit area

Another benefit to these free weekends has been the exposure of all forms of racing to new fans. Having Kyle Larson come to a dirt track not only increases the number of grandstand tickets sold but also causes more fans than usual to purchase the more expensive pit passes which allows fans to get closer to a NASCAR driver than would be possible at Daytona, Charlotte or Watkins Glen. And of course, that promotes a healthy balance sheet for the tracks.

At the same time, it stands to reason that a dirt racing fan who has had a picture taken with or an autograph signed by someone such as Larson, Bell, Friesen or Allgaier are more likely to watch a NASCAR race on television or even buy a ticket than they might have been before because they feel more invested.

These fans spent extra to buy a pit pass at Smoky Mountain in hopes of meeting Kyle Larson

Again, these opportunities would not have been nearly as likely if not for NASCAR’s change in policy regarding the way it goes about its weekend business.

Perhaps next season after NASCAR introduces the NextGen car there will be more practice and qualifying to allow drivers and teams to become more familiar with their new machines. And naturally, that might very well reduce the amount of outside racing its stars can participate in. But for now, it would seem as if fans and competitors alike are enjoying the opportunities they have been given engage each other at locales outside the norm.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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