Bristol Dirt
A general view of Bristol Motor Speedway's dirt track Monday. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images photo)

History & Drama Characterize Bristol’s Return To Dirt

Restarts weren’t the only change made during the course of the race weekend.

Weather aside, the Cup Series main event format was altered to, essentially, be run in five segments of 50 laps apiece after concerns about tire wear arose from multiple teams following Friday’s pair of practice sessions.

“There are always going to be some variables thrown at you, be it weather, tire wear or whatever it is. But I applaud Goodyear for bringing a tire that wore out,” said O’Donnell. “The drivers have always asked for a tire that wears. In this case we based that on what the trucks had done in Eldora. You saw the trucks were able to run upwards of 100 laps. That wasn’t the case for Cup.

“We made some adjustments to the format of the race, which I think everybody did a really good job with in terms of the industry, looking at those adjustments and making it happen. That’s another learning [moment] for us, is how do we work even closer with Goodyear [going forward]? Now that we’ve been on this track surface, what can we learn and continue to apply from a tire standpoint?”

What could, or should, be the first potential fix? Race winner Joey Logano had an immediate idea when responding to a question from SPEED SPORT after the race.

“I’m not a dirt expert by (any) means, but I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said.

“There were some fun moments out there, though,” he added later.

Some of those moments were cheered raucously by the limited crowd in attendance, including Daniel Suarez’s bump-and-run move on Truex just past halfway in the Cup Series race and Logano’s similar pass for the race win down the stretch.

Though he finished third, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin recognized that “trying something new” in terms of laying down dirt at Bristol and racing Cup Series cars on it created some net positives for the sport.

“I thought the racing was good. It really was,” said Hamlin. “It was almost like the old Bristol. If you got out of the lane, you got shuffled. That part of it was really encouraging. But for the fans’ sake, and for the visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and I hope we can work on that for the future. We couldn’t see anything [for a while]. But there were positives.”

O’Donnell agreed with Hamlin’s assessment and tipped that NASCAR’s desire to innovate and liven up what had turned into a largely-stagnant calendar led to what ultimately took place Monday at Bristol.

“The fans had asked us for years to look at innovation around the schedule. In fact, we’ve been taken to task for not making some moves. But we were bold and aggressive this year and I’m proud of the team for doing that,” O’Donnell said. “I’m proud of the industry for taking a chance here. (Speedway Motorsports’ Marcus Smith, his team … what Steve Swift did in putting this track together was incredible, the amount of hours he put into it all. We’re really happy with the work he did as well.”

Monday’s races felt like a flashback to the early days of the sport, when race tracks tested NASCAR equipment and only the strong survived to see the checkered flag.

It featured beating and banging at times, as well as unexpected contenders and spirited runs by drivers and organizations that needed them. In short, it was most of what anyone could have asked for.

As haulers began their parade out of Bristol’s dirt cathedral Monday night and back toward the team shops in North Carolina, O’Donnell and track officials began looking toward the much-anticipated renewal of Food City Dirt Race weekend in 2022 – and how to make it stronger than the first effort.

“We never go into something thinking it will be a one-off (event). Our hope was this would be a success, something we could repeat, and something that could really become a staple of the schedule going forward,” said O’Donnell. “There were certainly a number of things we learned throughout the weekend that will apply to 2022’s event weekend. Some of those things, like how much you race in a single day, are there other racing series that can be part of this … those things we’ll look at before next year.

“But we fully intend to be back in ‘22 and beyond and (look to) continue to apply those learnings and put on some (more) great races.”

Was Bristol’s return to dirt an ideal race weekend? It didn’t even come close to that designation.

But what Monday marked was a new chapter in NASCAR history, a dramatic page in the record books that fans will remember for years to come – and isn’t that what the allure of Bristol was for so long?

The Last Great Coliseum may just be back with more luster than it’s had in decades.

That’s something that everyone involved can agree is a very good thing all the way around.

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