By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
BRISTOL, Tenn. – NASCAR must be given credit for finally shaking up the status quo and trying new things, no matter how outlandish the ideas.
Progressive thinking is how the Cup Series found itself at the dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway for a second consecutive year, this time racing late into the night on Easter Sunday – a previously taboo date for a deeply entrenched sport in the Bible Belt.
The first edition of Bristol dirt last year had its challenges. The 2,300 truckloads of Tennessee red clay first turned to mud and blackened the driver’s windshields. When the dirt dried, it turned the arena into a blinding bowl of dust. Heavy rain also pushed the race back to the following day.
The drivers gave their best in strange and unfamiliar conditions, and before Bristol’s first dirt race even finished, Speedway Motorsports announced it would be doing it again in 2022.
It was the same vibe this weekend, except this time the drivers were not happy to have lost their annual holiday weekend and it contributed to their disdain to reconfigure a perfectly racy concrete short track in a dirt track.
After watching its spring race attendance plummet for the past 15 years, Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith was willing to splash the cash on the experience, which has become a made-for-TV event. when Fox Sports managed to make racing fill a vacation. prime time slot. A full day before the green flag even fell, Smith was confident the dirt would be back in Bristol in 2023.
“The dirt was voted on by the fans, and they told us through their ticket purchase that they wanted the dirt back in Bristol,” Smith said on Saturday of Sunday’s expected attendance.
Except the crowds weren’t all that spectacular – perhaps better than Bristol had gotten for its spring race in the years before the pandemic – and as veteran driver Kevin Harvick noted all weekend- end, all the effort will have been an incredible waste. of time if Fox Sports fails to provide a solid television rating.
It didn’t help that the race was delayed twice by rain, and Harvick was mortified when NASCAR had to call a warning so the drivers could clean mud from their windshields. “We all look like a bunch of bozos coming into the pits because we don’t know how to prepare the track,” he said.
Even the winner had mixed feelings.
Kyle Busch earned his first win of the season when he rounded the spinning lead cars of Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe heading into the final corner. Reddick would win before Briscoe spun him. Busch found himself tied with Hall of Famer Richard Petty in winning a race for the 18th consecutive year.
“You’ve seen what it’s like in the last corner, the last lap, to ride here every lap,” Busch said of the dirt win. “You’re just not breathing because you’re so tense not to crash. If it’s a good show, it’s a good show. I think Bristol is fine with or without (dirt).”
Adding a dirt track to the Cup schedule was initially an attempt to add variety to a schedule that had grown but not changed much since NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949.
But this year was clearly all about television. NASCAR had raced on Easter 10 times before, but all were weather-related postponements and never deliberately marked for a holiday. It was Fox Sports who said NASCAR should seize the day like the NFL does on Thanksgiving and the NBA on Christmas, even if it means cutting the Cup schedule from 38 races from February to November to just one weekend. .
The problem with making Bristol on land a televised event is that new viewers won’t see another race like this the rest of the year. It’s an anomaly, not even close to what NASCAR does every week.
Harvick said it was “ridiculous” and even defending series champion Kyle Larson, arguably the best dirt racer in the country, thought NASCAR should race on Bristol concrete. The track returns to asphalt for its fall playoff race.
“I think everyone assumes my opinion would be to race on gravel every weekend, but no, I don’t think the Cup cars should be on gravel,” Larson said.
At least half the pitch was also found to be unclear on the rules during the first rain delay. NASCAR had told teams in its pre-race rules video that, unlike all other races, scoring would be halted at the end of stages. Despite the warning, the teams were stunned at the end of the second leg when Briscoe came out of the lead and still scored the leader over Busch, who stayed on the outside to roll forward.
Winning team leader Ben Beshore said he watched the video but clearly didn’t understand the rule and “I’ve been in Xfinity or Cup for 18 years.”
It was never pretty on Sunday, despite the exciting finish and claims from some drivers that they really enjoyed the race. They’ve been there, done it twice now, and NASCAR’s gimmick tires quickly.