Food City Dirt Race Preview: NASCAR Goes Dirt Racing

Food City Dirt Race Preview: NASCAR Goes Dirt Racing

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

For something completely different this weekend, NASCAR is returning to the dirt at the Bristol Motor Speedway for the second consecutive season. The sanctioning body in combination with the speedway conceived this idea late in 2020. The idea was to bring in truck loads of clay and dirt and convert the historic half-mile oval into a dirt track. Normally, we would race 500 laps on the asphalt high banks of Bristol. However, for this event NASCAR shorted the distance to just 250 laps. 

This race one year ago on dirt was uncharted waters of sorts, so NASCAR shorted the length of the race accordingly. We will still go stage racing on the dirt surface. The 250-lap main event will be divided into stages of 75/75/100 laps. The inaugural event one year ago featured 10 caution flags due to the heavy contact nature of this form of racing, so the shortened length and stage breaks seemed to be the correct call.

There will be practice and qualifying this week. This unique event on this surface demanded some practice and qualifying laps, so NASCAR obliged to help the drivers and teams. There will be two practice sessions on Friday to help get drivers accustomed to the unique surface at Bristol. Additionally, there will be four qualifying heat races of 15 laps each on Saturday that will set the grid for Sunday's main feature event. Drivers will accumulate passing points in the qualifying races, and that will be the basis for determining the

For something completely different this weekend, NASCAR is returning to the dirt at the Bristol Motor Speedway for the second consecutive season. The sanctioning body in combination with the speedway conceived this idea late in 2020. The idea was to bring in truck loads of clay and dirt and convert the historic half-mile oval into a dirt track. Normally, we would race 500 laps on the asphalt high banks of Bristol. However, for this event NASCAR shorted the distance to just 250 laps. 

This race one year ago on dirt was uncharted waters of sorts, so NASCAR shorted the length of the race accordingly. We will still go stage racing on the dirt surface. The 250-lap main event will be divided into stages of 75/75/100 laps. The inaugural event one year ago featured 10 caution flags due to the heavy contact nature of this form of racing, so the shortened length and stage breaks seemed to be the correct call.

There will be practice and qualifying this week. This unique event on this surface demanded some practice and qualifying laps, so NASCAR obliged to help the drivers and teams. There will be two practice sessions on Friday to help get drivers accustomed to the unique surface at Bristol. Additionally, there will be four qualifying heat races of 15 laps each on Saturday that will set the grid for Sunday's main feature event. Drivers will accumulate passing points in the qualifying races, and that will be the basis for determining the starting grid of the main feature race. 

Since this is a one-of-a-kind unique race, we'll have to take a look at the loop stats from a different perspective this week. The statistics below are from last season's inaugural event on the dirt at Bristol. Hot streaks coming into this race will play a factor, but the drivers who performed well on this surface one year ago will certainly have a leg up on the competition. We'll take a look at who's hot coming into the Dirt Race as well as which drivers have a strong history of racing on dirt prior to coming to NASCAR. Those will be the biggest keys in developing our driver lists this week. The loop statistics in the table below are from the inaugural dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway last season. This will be good information to review to see who had success in this unique event one year ago. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Joey Logano1.0262061253128.5
Martin Truex Jr.19.01039126251126.1
Denny Hamlin3.020291253120.0
Daniel Suarez4.0192158253114.4
William Byron6.026210253110.3
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.2.03911021698.4
Ryan Blaney8.0286018895.7
Chase Elliott10.0331024790.6
Tyler Reddick7.0251020189.8
Erik Jones9.0145019984.6
Bubba Wallace27.0212018184.2
Chris Buescher14.0281022182.6
Kyle Busch17.010675677.6
Kevin Harvick15.0134011376.3
Brad Keselowski11.014109973.8
Alex Bowman22.0225013870.3
Michael McDowell12.07004567.8
Kurt Busch16.02002465.5
Christopher Bell34.021805164.2
Austin Dillon21.09103160.3

In this event one year ago, Martin Truex Jr. would start up front and dominate most of the event, leading 126 total laps. However, he would get shuffled out of the lead mid-race. From that point on it would be a duel between Daniel Suarez and Joey Logano for the win. The driver of the No. 22 Ford would come out on top by a half-second over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Logano didn't have a vast history or resume of racing on dirt, so the outcome was a bit perplexing. It was a surprising outcome to be sure, but a good look at the potential for the sequel to last season's debut on the Bristol dirt.

A number of Cup Series regulars make forays into the world of dirt racing. Whether it be sprint cars or late models, these drivers have piled up some major accomplishments in recent years, and we'll take those into account when forming our fantasy racing lists for this week. Another facet to consider this week is which driver's prospered on the dirt of Bristol last season. Those guys will have a leg up on the competition this weekend. We'll also layout the currently streaking drivers and the short track experts and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing league on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

William Byron – The first two-time winner of the 2022 season will look to carry that momentum into the Bristol Dirt Race. Will Byron's success thus far this season translate to the dirt surface? We believe it will. In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet started eighth on the grid and raced among the leaders the full event to capture a strong sixth-place finish in the inaugural Bristol race on dirt. For a driver who got his start iRacing and spent much of his developmental years before NASCAR racing on asphalt, it was a surprising outcome. This season we bring the new Next-Gen car to the Bristol dirt, so that's the big unknown and variable this weekend. One thing is for certain, Byron is one of the top drivers prospering in the new car right now. That might be just all the edge he needs to win Sunday night in the Food City Dirt Race. 

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star prevailed last season in NASCAR's debut on the Bristol dirt surface. He would race among the Top 10 early, but come on strong late in this 250-lap event. Logano would win stage 2 and hold off Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the closing laps to secure the first-ever victory on Bristol dirt. The driver of the No. 22 Ford didn't have a vast history or background racing on dirt, so it was a bit surprising to see. However, Logano would make the most of his opportunities that day, and survive the seven caution periods due to multiple pileups. This experience will be huge for him returning to Bristol this weekend. Logano is currently racing well and coming off a strong runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway this past week. He'll be a driver to watch closely on the Bristol dirt.

Martin Truex Jr. – Bristol Motor Speedway has always been track of struggles for Truex, so it was very surprising to see him dominate a large portion of last year's inaugural run on the dirt. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 126 laps and looked like a runaway winner for most of the race. However, like most drivers in last season's debut on the Bristol dirt, Truex ran in to trouble and wound up 19th-place at the checkered flag. We're willing to blow that off in lieu of the great performance and speed he displayed in this event one year ago. Truex has been a great short track performance in recent Cup Series seasons on asphalt and that seemed to transfer to the dirt. We believe that could happen again this season, even with the new Next-Gen car in the equation.

Ryan Blaney – The dirt racing blood lines run deep in the Blaney family. Ryan's father Dave was the 1984 USAC Silver Crown champion and 1995 World of Outlaws champion.  He was a very accomplished sprint car driver before transitioning into NASCAR. Ryan is a third generation racer in this family. The Penske Racing star didn't make a career on dirt before moving to NASCAR, rather he dominated the Quarter Midgets, Bandoleros and Legends before moving into late model stock cars. Blaney got rolled up in several incidents last season on the Bristol dirt, but he would persevere and finish a brilliant eighth-place in the Food City Dirt Race. If he can stay out of trouble this weekend and keep the fenders on the car, imagine what he could do. Coming off a Top-5 finish at Martinsville last Saturday night, we have high expectations for Blaney on the Bristol dirt.   

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Christopher Bell – Bell has an impressive resume of dirt racing under his belt. The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver from Oklahoma is a three-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner (2017-19), 2015 Eldora Dirt Derby winner, three-time Turkey Night Grand Prix winner (2014, 2017 and 2018) and the 2013 USAC National Midget Series champion. Bell cut his teeth on the dirt tracks of America before moving to NASCAR. He is the only three-time winner of the Chili Bowl Nationals in the history of that event. Bell was a big contender in last season's inaugural Food City Dirt Race, but ran into trouble carving his way through the field and was rolled up in a crash. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota will be eager for another crack at the Bristol dirt.   

Denny Hamlin – The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is two weeks removed from his big win at the Richmond short track, and he'll hope for more success this weekend at Bristol. While he doesn't boast a big background of racing on the dirt, Hamlin is not completely unfamiliar with this style of racing as he claimed a pair of Top-5 finishes between 2006 and 2012 during the Prelude to the Dream series at Eldora Speedway. Last year he was a surprise Top-5 finisher in the inaugural Food City Dirt Race. Hamlin started on the outside pole that day and led 1 lap before finishing the wreck-filled contest a brilliant third-place. That experience will serve this driver and team well heading into our first Next-Gen race on the Bristol dirt track.  

Tyler Reddick – The Richard Childress Racing youngster was a prodigy on dirt long before he made his move into NASCAR in 2013. Reddick cut his teeth in Outlaw Karts as a child, and he raced every form of dirt racing from there up to age 16. Among his many accomplishments: He was the youngest driver to qualify for the pole position at the Eldora Speedway World 100, youngest winner at the East Bay Winter Nationals, youngest winner in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, and he's the youngest driver to qualify for a feature race in the World of Outlaws.  Reddick put those dirt skills on display winning two qualifying heat races for the Eldora Dirt Derby NASCAR race in 2015 and 2016.  He would go onto finish a strong third- and fifth-place in those two main features.  Reddick peddled to a strong seventh-place finish in this event one year ago and he could do so again.

Kyle Larson – Larson has a lot to prove after crashing out of last season's Food City Dirt Race. The Hendrick Motorsports star is one of the most decorated dirt track drivers in the field. Larson owns multiple titles across Sprint Car and other dirt track racing which include: 2016 Eldora Dirt Derby winner, two-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner (2020 and 2021), 2020 Hoosier Hundred winner, 2020 Pennsylvania Speedweeks winner and 2020 Indiana Midget Week winner. All combined, Larson had 43 victories on the dirt in 2020 alone, for a winning percentage approaching almost 50-percent. That campaign was one of the most prolifically successful seasons in dirt racing history. If any driver in the field can quickly adapt to these new Next-Gen cars on the dirt, it will be Larson.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Bristol & solid upside

Austin Dillon – While Dillon doesn't have the major dirt racing accomplishments of some drivers in the field, he still has an impressive dirt racing resume. At a young age Dillon transitioned from Bandolero cars to late model dirt racing. For close to three years he traveled the country in pursuit of racing the late models on the dirt tracks of America.  Dillon collected many wins during this three-season run. Once his NASCAR career got rolling, the Richard Childress Racing driver took the win in the inaugural 2013 Eldora Dirt Derby. That victory is by far his biggest accomplishment in this style of racing. Dillon has been one of the more consistent short track performers of this season in the new car. He's grabbed 10th- and third-place finishes the last two weeks at Richmond and Martinsville.

Chase Elliott – Elliott's background is on asphalt, but he didn't let that deter him from finishing a respectable 10th-place in this event one year ago on the Bristol dirt. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet stayed out of the worst of the accidents and prevailed to register a head-turning Top 10. Elliott won the pole last weekend at Martinsville and led 185 laps before finishing 10th-place in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400. We don't believe Elliott will be a major contender or face among the leaders in this race Sunday night. However, the Hendrick Motorsports star should be good enough to hustle to a Top-10 finish in the Food City Dirt Race.    

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has deep roots in dirt track racing. Stenhouse started out at a young age racing go-karts and then quickly graduated to sprint cars at the age of 16. During his time in this form of racing, the Mississippi native earned rookie of the year honors and won many races across USAC and midgets. By the time Stenhouse moved into NASCAR, he never forgot his dirt racing roots. He co-owns a World of Outlaws team and still participates in that to this day.  In this event one year ago, he fought his way to the front and earned a stellar runner-up finish in the inaugural Bristol dirt race. Stenhouse is a great sleeper play for this exciting race under the lights Sunday night at Bristol.

Erik Jones – Jones started racing quarter midgets on dirt at the age of 7 and he continued for several years before eventually moving to the asphalt at age 13. While the Petty GMS Motorsports driver moved away from dirt, he never forgot his racing roots. Jones has become an accomplished stock car driver since moving to NASCAR, and he's shown a particular skill at short track racing. We would credit his racing roots for this trait. Bristol is a track where Jones has had a lot of success. His nine-career Cup starts have yielded four Top-5 finishes and a strong average finish of 12.4. The high banks of Bristol really appeal to his talents. As Jones showed in his couple starts in the Eldora Dirt Derby, he's capable of winning heat races, and he even cracked the Top 5 in the 2015 installment of that event at Eldora. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet finished a respectable ninth-place in this event one year ago.

Ross Chastain – Chastain largely has little to no experience on the dirt. Until last season's crash and 35th-place finish on the dirt at Bristol, we hadn't witnessed him in action on this racing surface. However, we're willing to buck that bad optic and go with Chastain as a good sleeper pick this week. He's been one of the quickest drivers to adapt to the new Next-Gen car and his short track exploits of 2022 have been a part of that success. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet claimed a surprising runner-up finish at Phoenix and he's fresh off a strong fifth-place finish at Martinsville this past weekend. Historical and past records go out the window with this pick. Chastain is on fire, and should stay that way in Sunday night's Food City Dirt Race.    

Daniel Suarez – He was one of the surprise performers in last season's inaugural Food City Dirt Race. The Trackhouse Racing veteran would start 18th on the grid that day in Bristol, but would methodically race his way into the lead on lap 135. Suarez would lead the next 58 laps of the dirt-covered Bristol oval and contend for the win before finishing an impressive fourth-place. The driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet is back at the Bristol dirt track for his encore performance. Suarez hasn't been stellar on short tracks this season, but we're expecting to see this driver and team come to life when they hit the dirt surface this weekend. He's a good sleeper bet for a Top-10 finish in this 250-lap battle on the dirt.   

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with eight total victories. However, those eight wins came on the pavement. Busch will have to adapt quickly if he wants to make his ninth Bristol win on the dirt. Last season's inaugural dirt race saw him lead laps early but eventually fade to 17th-place. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has Top 10's in the first three short track events of 2022, but he's not led any laps nor really been terribly impressive in those starts. Busch is still trying to figure out these new Next-Gen cars and it shows. Heading to the Bristol dirt is not likely to boost his fantasy racing value this weekend. Instead, it's probably another long frustrating battle for Busch to finish mid-pack at the end of the night.    

Cole Custer – The young Stewart Haas Racing driver has not had a good start to the season. With no Top-10 finishes through the first eight events, Custer is a distant 24th-place in the driver standings coming to Bristol this week. The driver of the No. 41 Ford hasn't been a world-beater on the short tracks this season with a 19.7 average finish. The transition from asphalt to dirt won't likely help Custer this weekend. His start in this event one year ago saw a lackluster qualifying effort combined with a distant 24th-place finish, 1 lap down to the leaders. Frankly, consider how poorly things are going for this driver and team right now, we'd be surprised if Custer eclipses that mark Sunday night.                                                                                                                  

Aric Almirola – The driver of the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Ford is coming off his first short track Top 10 of the season this past weekend in Martinsville. However, we have to fade Almirola this week as we return to the Bristol dirt. In this event one year ago, Almirola found trouble early and crashed out on lap 39. The veteran driver didn't qualify particularly well, and that put him back in some dangerous traffic early in the first Food City Dirt Race. His lack of dirt racing background is another concern. Despite Almirola's decent start to this season, the change from asphalt to dirt this week is likely a deal-killer from a fantasy racing perspective.

Bubba Wallace – With just one Top-10 finish to this point and ranking a distant 22nd-place in the driver standings, things have not gotten off to the best of starts for Wallace and the No. 23 team eight races into this season. The new Next-Gen car has been slow to figure out and outside of Daytona it's been a weekly struggle. Wallace is a 21.3 average finisher on short tracks thus far this season, and that's likely where he'll slot Sunday night on the Bristol dirt. In this event one year ago the 23XI Racing driver qualified mid-pack and raced his way into the Top 10, but would earn a distant 27th-place finish, 2 laps down to the leaders. That's not very encouraging heading into the Bristol dirt race sequel.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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