BRISTOL, Tenn. — Christopher Bell knows Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race, the first race for the NASCAR Cup Series on a dirt surface since 1970, isn’t going to be a traditional dirt-track event.
It’s 250 laps on a high-banked, concrete oval overlaid with clay, with 3,400-pound stock cars doing battle as opposed to the purpose-built, lighter open-wheel cars Bell grew up racing on dirt tracks across the United States.
That’s a marathon in racing terms and the Norman, Okla., native believes because of that, Sunday’s Bristol showdown will be one of the more physically demanding dirt events he’s ever competed in.
“It’s definitely going to be a lot more back-and-forth on the wheel. We saw that [Wednesday] night on the iRacing deal,” explained Bell, referencing the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational event on the virtual Bristol dirt track. “Dirt racing with these stock cars, you have to really hustle them around the race track. Eldora was a very similar way, you’re far left to far right and eight times back-and-forth throughout the corner. It’s just a matter of who’s going to be able to repeat that the most and do the best job of being consistent throughout the course of the race. I think that’s going to be the hardest part.
“Physically, the G-forces are going to be down significantly from what they are normally at Bristol, but I think the physical demand on us will probably be similar to a normal race,” he added. “The [high] G-forces are the ones that typically make it hard for us. It’s [using] a lot of the same muscle groups, but definitely we’re a lot more active on the steering wheel. All of our crew chiefs know that we’re going to be back-and-forth on the wheel a lot more … so the steering will probably be a little bit softer than what it would be at normal Bristol.
“I think the crew chiefs will help us out making the steering softer, but it’s still going to be a tough race.”
With rain in the forecast in the Bristol area on both Saturday and Sunday, Bell noted NASCAR officials and the Bristol track preparation crew “may have their hands full” with providing the best possible surface for racing stock cars — and trucks — on the dirt.
“Basically, any rain is going to, what we classify as, lose the track. If the track gets wet at all, we’re going to lose the track, but we should be able to regain it pretty quickly with a little bit of track prep time,” he explained. “If we get a lot of downpours and heavy rainfall, it’s going to be harder for them to prepare the race track. The more rain that we get, the longer the time that’s needed to regain the race track. On top of that, the more water that they get in the surface … and this is something that I’m sure they’re really careful about, but we can’t really do rough race tracks. The more water content the dirt has, the softer the dirt is going to be and the more rough the race track is going to be.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how they handle the weather this weekend. I’m all for having a little bit of water in the dirt to make it a more true dirt track than what maybe we’re anticipating,” Bell added. “On the flip side, if the dirt has too much water content in it, either the track starts getting rough or our windshields get mudded up. [If] our windshields get mudded up, the front of our cars get mudded up and the engines are going to get hot.
“They’re walking a very fine line on how much water content can be in the dirt.”
Bell was one of 35 drivers who participated in Wednesday night’s iRacing Pro Invitational event who will be in the field this weekend as the NASCAR Cup Series hits the dirt at The Last Great Coliseum.
While he admitted the race had entertainment value for the fans, Bell doesn’t expect the virtual iteration of Cup Series cars on dirt at Bristol to resemble the real-life version come Sunday.
However, he’s confident in his skills — and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team — all the same.
“I feel really good about it. I think I should have an advantage over most of the other competitors, just because of my background and my experience on dirt tracks,” said Bell. “As far as the iRacing event being realistic, I just don’t see it. The track was really heavy on the iRacing simulator and if we get those conditions in real life, we’re not going to be able to see because the windshields will be mudded up. The radiators will be mudded up and we’re not going to be able to get air to the engines. We can’t have those conditions. Then if it gets super dry, it’s going to be really dusty. It’s a balance.
“I don’t think the track conditions were realistic, what we had [Wednesday] night, but I think some of the tendencies might be similar.”
As for the favorites to win, Bell knows he’s in that conversation, but he also has his eyes on a longtime rival from his dirt-track days — who already has one Cup Series win this year and nearly took a second victory last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“You definitely have to look at the (No.) 5 (Kyle Larson) car. He’s going to be probably one of the top guys,” Bell tipped. “Aside from Kyle, Tyler Reddick ran extremely well in the trucks at Eldora. I think you need to look at those races in particular to pick your favorites.
“There’s a handful of guys that could easily win the race. I think you look at your dirt racers, your people that have run really well at the Bristol truck event, those guys are going to be the favorites.”