Bristol Dirt confirmed for 2022 NASCAR return

Bristol Motor Speedway will remain dirty in 2022. Before the final stage during Monday’s NASCAR Cup Series race on the short track’s dirt layout, speedway management announced the event will retain its dirt configuration for next season and potentially beyond.

Although traditionally a concrete half-mile short track, Bristol was transformed into a dirt course for the spring date with the Cup and Camping World Truck Series. While the Trucks have been racing on dirt since 2013, Monday’s Food City Dirt Race was the first non-paved Cup race since Richard Petty won at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds Speedway in 1970. It was the first time that Bristol became a dirt track since 2000 and 2001 for the World of Outlaws; WoO will return to the track in April. A week before NASCAR, the inaugural Bristol Dirt Nationals late model event was held to test its viability.

The weekend would hit snags with rain and flash flooding that resulted in both races being postponed to Monday, while the on-track racing encountered difficulties such as a dry track that resulted in dust accumulating on cars’ windshields and grilles (the opposite extreme of mud obscuring drivers’ vision occurred during the aborted Saturday Truck heat race), generating discussion on social media about whether the former should have been removed similar to standard dirt cars. During the second stage of the Food City Dirt Race, the situation prompted NASCAR to switch to single-file restarts for the first time since 2009. Despite the obstacles, the experiment was viewed as a success by NASCAR and BMS.

“Following the overwhelming response from fans, drivers and others throughout the motorsports world for the historic Food City Dirt Race weekend, NASCAR and track officials announced today that dirt will return to The Last Great Colosseum in 2022 as part of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule in the spring,” read a statement from the track. “The 2021 Food City Dirt Race and Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt both sold out of their available socially-distanced grandstand seats; the NASCAR Cup Series race reached capacity more than two months before the race weekend. The Food City Dirt Race was the first race in the Cup Series to be held on dirt in more than 50 years.”

“There has been so much buzz and excitement around the inaugural Food City Dirt Race weekend that with NASCAR’s blessing, we are thrilled to announce that we will be bringing back dirt in 2022 as part of the NASCAR Cup Series spring schedule,” track general manager Jerry Caldwell added. “The dirt experience is unlike any other for NASCAR fans and could become a must-see event every season.”

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NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell confirmed the news during a post-race press conference and commented that the sanctioning body “certainly learned a number of things in the race and throughout the week that we can apply as we go forward in 2022. All in all, I’d give it a thumbs up with some things to learn.”

A specific outline of the 2022 weekend was not provided, but O’Donnell added NASCAR would “never go into something thinking this would be a one-off. Our hope was this would be a success, something we could repeat, become really a staple of the schedule going forward.”

Among the lessons learned that O’Donnell raised were the amount of races that could take place in one day, which can refer to the original Saturday slate of four heat races per series followed by the Truck race or the Monday doubleheader, and the potential inclusion of other classes like late models. Various NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers have also issued their support for getting their series a weekend, such as Justin Allgaier tweeting he would be “one disappointed driver” if it did not occur; the second tier has never raced on dirt in its history.

Some Cup drivers also gave their input based on the results of Monday’s race. Winner Joey Logano endorsed switching to a night race like Bristol’s much-beloved summer/fall date, explaining that the nighttime would bring “some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two: you couldn’t see. You’re talking to someone that ran in third or fourth place, so I didn’t really get the real worst of it.”

“I think obviously I’m excited,” he added. “If they told me during the race, maybe I wouldn’t have much emotion because I had a bigger thing in my mind at the moment trying to win on this dirt track. Now, I’m excited about it for a lot of reasons. […]

“I’m excited that we’re going to do it again next year because, unfortunately, this year you look at the situation with COVID. Boy, when they announced this race, I thought it was going to be a sellout. I do think it will be a sellout once we’re able to have full capacity back at these race tracks. This is a crazy show. Being able to look at Bristol with dirt on it, everyone wants to see that in person.”

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The dirt track’s return also means the Next Gen car will get a taste of dirt racing when it débuts in 2022. The seventh-generation Cup vehicle has various features not in the current Gen-6 car such as an independent rear suspension, which Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler noted is not used in dirt racing.

“If (the Gen-6) car was a challenge, (the Next Gen car is) going to be a whole ‘nother set of challenges,” Geisler commented. “Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging.”

Some media members raised the possibility of reusing the Gen-6 cars instead of building a dirt-specific car, especially as Bristol is currently the lone confirmed dirt race. Runner-up Ricky Stenhouse Jr. expressed the belief that teams would favour the motion as “using the same car with the notes that we had” could produce better racing, but added that team owners might oppose fielding two different types of vehicles in a year.

“That’s not really up to us drivers. We get out and drive whichever one that we can. But I do think the racing could be pretty good if we brought these same race cars back.”

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