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Another dirt race? Not at Bristol

by ALEX ANDREJEV THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER | April 21, 2022 at 2:07 a.m.

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Drivers were peppered with the question all weekend as NASCAR attempted its grand Bristol dirt experiment for the second straight year, this time at night on Easter, long considered a not-to-be-raced-on holiday.

Do they want to run this thing again?

The responses were mixed, but before Sunday, if the sentiment of top drivers could be combined and distilled into a single action when asked about Bristol dirt, it would look like an eye roll.

Kyle Busch told reporters before Martinsville that NASCAR should "cut the cord" on the race.

"As Richard Petty said, dirt takes our sport backward," Busch said.

After sliding into his first win of the season and 60th of his Cup career, matching Petty's record of 18 consecutive seasons with a victory, Busch wasn't as critical of the event in his post-race comments. He still pointed out some of the difficulties of fighting the heavy stock cars through every lap.

"If it's a good show, it's a good show," Busch settled on. "I think Bristol is fine with or without [dirt]."

I tend to disagree with Busch's comments. I like watching Cup drivers tackle the challenge of dirt on a slippery, sliding track in the Next Gen car that's proving to be extremely versatile. I don't think it takes the sport backward.

The final stage and race finish were exciting to watch as Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe battled approaching the checkered flag, only to crash as Briscoe slid under Reddick and spun them both out.

The drama was dispelled when the two had a calm conversation on pit road after the race as Briscoe interrupted Reddick's live interview on Fox to apologize. They left things with a handshake, but the lack of punches didn't diminish the conversations created.

Briscoe said he "had a blast" racing on Bristol dirt and that the track was "way, way better" from last year to this year, or from start to finish. Both applied.

"The banking, everything, was awesome," Briscoe said. "I thought there at the end you couldn't have put on a better race from a dirt track standpoint in these cars.

"So hopefully that sells more tickets for next year and gives it an opportunity to come back, because if we keep doing this at night, I think the opportunity to put on a really good race is there."

Kyle Larson, America's dirt racing poster driver, was of the opposite opinion prior to Sunday.

"I think everybody assumes my opinion would be, 'Let's race dirt every weekend,' but I don't think Cup cars should be on dirt," Larson said Saturday when asked about his preferred Cup Series schedule. "That's the only change I would make, is just not race on dirt."

But post-race, Larson called it "fun," saying that it "felt like a dirt race."

"I think there's some small tweaking that could be done to make it even better, but it was an overall really good race, I thought," Larson said.

The late-night timing noticeably improved track conditions by keeping in moisture, but rain led to multiple red flag delays, which meant that the event ran almost four hours, ending around 11 p.m. The Easter date, weather and second-year slump likely impacted turnout, too, since the crowd size looked smaller than last year. (Tracks don't usually make attendance numbers public.)

NASCAR should try another Cup race on dirt, but leave Bristol's concrete alone. I'm not sure whether that will happen. Plans were announced Tuesday for another dirt race at Bristol in 2023. There are realistic considerations for NASCAR's Cup Series racing at a purpose-built dirt oval, such as the smaller seating capacity. Eldora Speedway, the Ohio clay dirt track owned by Tony Stewart, boasts that it hosts more than 20,000 spectators at its events. Bristol Motor Speedway's full seating capacity is 150,000, according to the track.

But were all seats filled on Sunday? Definitely not. The lower levels were covered by signage and "The Last Great Colosseum" was about half-full in the half-hour prior to the race, with more fans filling in just before the green flag and leaving after the delays. Plus, while ticket sales are important, the Bristol dirt race was an event especially targeted at a TV audience with the holiday slot.

The spirit of innovation and short track spectacle of it reminded me of the Clash at the LA Coliseum, so why not lean into that and make an exhibition or All-Star dirt race (in seasons with typically less rain) at a venue like Eldora? Or, consider leaving North Wilkesboro an unpaved dirt track after its October race and eventually run a Cup race there?

If a goal is to connect to racing's roots, then a made-for-dirt track or one of the most historic venues in stock car racing makes the sense.

Bristol consistently delivers a show, and the latest race was no letdown. Busch was right when he said that Bristol is fine with or without dirt.

But it's better without.

Regardless of the surface, it's hard not to be excited for the next Bristol show in September.

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