Austin Dillon (3), battles Tyler Reddick (45), Christopher Bell (20) and Ryan Preece during the Food City Dirt Race. (HHP/Jim Fluharty)

Drivers With Dirt Backgrounds Thrive In Bristol Dirt Race

To the surprise of many, the first two NASCAR Cup Series winners on the temporary dirt track at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, did not cut their teeth racing at local dirt tracks.

Joey Logano (2021) and Kyle Busch (’22), grew up racing on asphalt tracks before graduating to NASCAR.

Though the 250-lap event at the .533-mile track on Easter Sunday had a different outcome than years past. 

Analyzing the finishing order, which included Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell scoring the victory, the top five all started their respective careers at dirt tracks. 

For starters, Bell’s dirt experience is as strong as they come. In 2013, the Oklahoma native earned the USAC National Midget title. Four years later, Bell notched a Chili Bowl Nationals triumph, which kickstarted three consecutive wins in the famed indoor midget event run annually in Tulsa, Okla. 

Behind Bell, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick ran runner-up in the No. 45 Toyota. Before his rise to NASCAR, Reddick cut his teeth in an abundance of machines, including midgets, dirt late models and sprint cars.

Christopher Bell after winning the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. (HHP/Chris Owens)

Third-place finisher Austin Dillon began his career racing dirt late models before transitioning to pavement, while reigning Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who placed fourth, has deep roots in sprint car racing.

Stenhouse also co-owns a World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series team. 

Rounding out the top five was Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, who grew up racing midgets and sprint cars across the state of Indiana. 

After leading 100 laps on Sunday, Bell felt the way Bristol officials prepared the track allowed for drivers with dirt experience to shine. 

“The track was most definitely a very tough surface to get ahold of,” Bell said. “It should have rewarded guys that kind of knew what to expect and how to get the car around the race track, which I think it did.

“It was a tricky surface. It was very tough to produce lap time. I think that’s what made it fun, too.”

Part of the difficult aspect of the track was the unforgiving nature of the top groove during the closing stages of the race. Bell felt the cushion, the preferred line to find speed, made it nearly impossible to stay mistake-free.

“The laps just felt like they were taking forever to tick by because it was so hard to get the car through the corner and not make a mistake,” Bell recalled. “Yeah, it was very tough from my seat.”

While the running order showed a dirt background masterclass, Stenhouse Jr.’s weekend on dirt was drastically different despite his skillset. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his third top 10 of the season. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“It honestly felt like I hadn’t run dirt cars much,” Stenhouse Jr. said after the race. “We just struggled a little bit yesterday. The guys worked really hard all night coming up with something different. We changed our No. 47 Irish Spring Camaro around and we were better. We still didn’t have enough to run up front there, but we methodically kind of picked and chose lanes. We got to running the bottom really well and made up a lot of time on restarts. They all just kind of fell our way there.

“Really good to get a top five and a bounce-back after last weekend. I hope that was a good show. I thought the race track was as good as it could be. You could run kind of all over the place, so hats off to the track.”

In the coming months as BMS transforms the Last Great Colosseum back to its traditional concrete surface in preparation for NASCAR’s playoff date in September, it remains to be seen whether or not dirt will return to the track for a fourth go-round next spring.

For Bell, the 28-year-old feels impartial, seeing a positive with both outcomes.

“I don’t know. I guess that’s more for the general public to decide,” Bell admitted. “From my seat, it seemed like it was a pretty good race.

“This is also one of the best short tracks we have on the schedule. I don’t know, maybe we have three Bristol races, and that’s probably not likely. Yeah, I’m good either way on it.”