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 third-consecutive season of racing on dirt at the historic short track. 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 two years ago on dirt was uncharted waters of sorts, so the sanctioning body 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 two years 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. NASCAR would return to the dirt surface on Bristol last season and post 14 cautions for a whopping 82 laps, so things didn't get better the second time around.

There will be practice and qualifying this week. This unique event on this surface demands 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 dirt surface at Bristol. Additionally, there will

For something completely different this weekend, NASCAR is returning to the dirt at the Bristol Motor Speedway for the third-consecutive season of racing on dirt at the historic short track. 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 two years ago on dirt was uncharted waters of sorts, so the sanctioning body 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 two years 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. NASCAR would return to the dirt surface on Bristol last season and post 14 cautions for a whopping 82 laps, so things didn't get better the second time around.

There will be practice and qualifying this week. This unique event on this surface demands 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 dirt 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 very unique race in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, we'll have to take a look at the loop stats from a brief standpoint. There have only been two prior Bristol dirt races, so the loop stats in the table below reflect those events. Hot streaks coming into this race will play a factor, but the drivers who performed well on this surface for the past two seasons 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 last two dirt races at Bristol Motor Speedway. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Joey Logano2.0602461503122.4
Tyler Reddick4.5672899450111.0
Kyle Busch9.066198305104.4
Daniel Suarez8.03728122351101.2
Kyle Larson16.546332724597.6
Chase Elliott9.0844039696.6
Ryan Blaney6.5858039295.1
Christopher Bell20.56722029695.0
Martin Truex Jr.20.0104012625290.3
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.15.58017033489.6
William Byron12.04921033587.5
Justin Haley14.0500015587.0
Alex Bowman14.0616032986.2
Ty Dillon18.0587021385.6
Chris Buescher14.5721040680.0
Ryan Preece18.0253015379.6
Brad Keselowski11.0626023577.6
Denny Hamlin19.02029125476.7
Chase Briscoe21.057315923275.0
Bubba Wallace27.5402028173.8

In this event two years ago, Martin Truex Jr. would start up front and dominate most of the race, 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. NASCAR would return to the dirt surface last season and it would be Kyle Busch who would overcome a dominant Tyler Reddick with a thrilling last-lap pass to capture the win. Again, Joey Logano would be in the mix at the end finishing an impressive third-place. While the sample size of two races is small, we can still take a lot away from the first two Bristol races on dirt that can apply to this weekend.

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 drivers prospered on the dirt of Bristol the last two seasons. 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

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star won the inaugural Food City Dirt Race in convincing fashion. Logano led 61 laps and took the checkered flag first two seasons ago. To prove that performance was no fluke, the driver of the No. 22 Ford returned last season to the Bristol dirt and collected an impressive third-place finish. By most measures, Logano is our top performing driver across the first two races on this oval with this racing surface. The veteran driver is coming off a solid seventh-place finish at the Richmond short track this past Sunday and that should set this driver and team up pretty well for Sunday's dirt action. Logano is a driver to roster in almost any weekly lineup or salary cap based fantasy league format this weekend.

William Byron – The first two-time winner of the 2023 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 two years 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. Byron wasn't quite as impressive in last season's dirt race, finishing 18th-place in 2022. However, this driver and team are hot right now and should have little trouble to adapting and excelling on the dirt surface this Sunday. 

Tyler Reddick – The 23XI 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 posted a strong seventh-place finish in this event two seasons ago, and he returned last year to lead a whopping 99 laps on the Bristol dirt and collect an impressive runner-up finish. Don't discount the driver of the No. 45 Toyota in the Food City Dirt Race.

Kyle Larson – Larson 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. Larson is coming off the big win at the Richmond short track this past weekend and he nabbed a Top-5 at Phoenix a few weeks ago. He'll be a top contender to win on the Bristol dirt.

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

Kyle Busch – The Richard Childress Racing star is the active wins leader at Bristol Motor Speedway with eight total victories. However, those eight wins came on the pavement. Busch added to that Bristol total with his victory last season on the Bristol dirt. He would start 11th on the grid and race to within contact of the leaders late and pull off an amazing last-lap pass of both Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick as they spun in turn 4 battling for the lead. The surprising finish gave Busch an equally surprising win on the dirt surface. However, he had a well-earned Top-5 finish up to that point anyway, so it makes the RCR veteran a driver of focus heading into this weekend. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet is off to a great start with his new team and has four Top-10 finishes to this point, including an eighth-place finish at the small Phoenix oval a few weeks ago.     

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. As for the Bristol dirt track, he qualified on the outside pole in last season's race and earned a strong seventh-place finish after 250 laps. That was a rebound performance after his heart-breaking crash in the inaugural Food City Dirt Race two years ago. Bell is off to a fantastic start to the 2023 season with four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes to this point. He'll be one of the heavy hitters this weekend in Tennessee.   

Alex Bowman – With a series-leading six Top-10 finishes to this point in the season, Bowman has been easily the most consistent and excellent driver in the field to this point. He's coming off Top-10 finishes at both short tracks (Phoenix and Richmond) of the early schedule and poised to do great things this weekend on the Bristol dirt. In this event one year ago, Bowman would shake off the notion that he couldn't be strong racing on this type surface. He'd qualify a strong sixth-place and pilot the No. 48 Chevrolet to a somewhat surprising sixth-place finish in last April's Food City Dirt Race. Bowman qualified just as well in the inaugural Bristol dirt race, he just didn't finish as well as last year. It really demonstrates that he's learned a lot about racing on dirt over the past two seasons.

Ryan Blaney – The dirt racing bloodlines 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 has demonstrated those family bloodlines on dirt with his eighth- and fifth-place finishes in the Food City Dirt Race the last two years. The young driver has been dealing with some minor inconsistencies thus far this season, but he should really welcome a return to the Bristol dirt this Sunday.   

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Bristol & solid upside

Daniel Suarez – He was one of the surprise performers in the 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 would return to the Bristol dirt track for his encore performance last year. Suarez would lead another big chunk of laps with 64 total before eventually settling into a 12th-place finish. After two events, he's one of the top lap leaders on Bristol dirt with 122 total. He's a good sleeper bet for a Top-10 finish in this 250-lap battle on the dirt.   

Brad Keselowski – The veteran driver of the No. 6 Ford is a three-time Bristol winner on the pavement, and he boasts over 1,000 laps led on the non-dirt surface of this short track. It really wasn't that surprising to see him put up two good performances in the first two Food City Dirt Races. Keselowski qualified reasonably well in both and finished 11th-place in both, across two different race teams. The owner/driver at RFK Racing is off to a good start this season with one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes so far. It's a big contrast from the struggle-filled season he had last year. Keselowski is coming off a strong 10th-place performance at Richmond Raceway this past Sunday and he looks like he'll be a Top-10 challenger on the Bristol dirt again this weekend.

Josh Berry Chase Elliott's No. 9 Chevrolet team is one of four outfits to capture Top 10's in both Bristol dirt races to this point. We believe Berry will tap into that experience this weekend in upper East Tennessee. The rookie driver has been doing exceptional relief driver duty to this point for Elliott, who's still sidelined with a broken leg. Berry owns one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes in his four starts so far. The most impressive of those was his shocking runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway this past Sunday. Berry would lead 10 laps on that small oval and finish runner-up to Kyle Larson at the checkered flag. While this will be his first start on the Bristol dirt surface, we really feel the massive team advantage he has will tip the scales in Berry's direction.      

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 two seasons ago, he fought his way to the front and earned a stellar runner-up finish in the inaugural Bristol dirt race. While his experience in last season's sequel was a tough affair, he should rebound solidly this weekend. Stenhouse is a great sleeper play for this exciting race under the lights Sunday night at Bristol.

Chase Briscoe – Last season's ending to the Food City Dirt Race was unforgettable. Tyler Reddick would be in the lead and Briscoe would be battling hard to catch him over those final laps. However, he'd drive too deep into turn 3 and 4 and clash with leader Reddick within sight of the checkered flag. Not only did Briscoe lose the race, but he lost the runner-up finish he had in the bag. Still, he performed admirably on the Bristol dirt and showed a real skill at mastering the cornering. Briscoe has some roots in dirt as well. He owns a World of Outlaws sprint car team and he began his racing career in 410 sprint cars. That experience showed in last season's Bristol dirt race. With seventh- and 12th-place finishes so far at Phoenix and Richmond, the short tracks appear to be an early-season favorite of this driver and team.

Michael McDowell – The driver of the No. 34 Ford has not been the best Bristol performer over the years, but he's been fantastic on it since they started hauling truck loads of dirt into the track two seasons ago. The Front Row Motorsports driver has logged 12th- and ninth-place finishes on the half-mile track on this surface. The 38-year-old veteran doesn't have a background in dirt racing. McDowell cut his teeth in karting and then advanced into open-wheel and sports car racing before entering NASCAR. This jump in performance was not really recognizable nor predictable given his background. Still, McDowell has been a strong performer to this point on the Bristol dirt.  

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin – The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is off to a somewhat inconsistent start to the season. With just two Top 10's to this point and his uncharacteristic 20th-place finish at Richmond Raceway this past week, questions abound about this driver and team coming to the Bristol dirt. Hamlin loves the paved version of this track. He's a two-time Bristol Motor Speedway winner and cracks the Top 10 here at a very respectable 50-percent rate. However, his first two starts on the dirt have been a real mixed bag of performance. In the inaugural Food City Dirt Race, Hamlin earned a surprising third-place finish. He would return last season and struggle tremendously with the qualifying heat race and suffer an engine failure in the main event. Hamlin is a suspect driver for all fantasy racing formats this weekend. 

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 the 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 the inaugural race on the Bristol dirt, Truex ran in to trouble and wound up 19th-place at the checkered flag. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota returned last season and qualified very poorly (30th on the grid) and struggled to a 21st-place finish in last year's Bristol dirt race. With this season off to somewhat of an inconsistent start, it's difficult to recommend Truex for fantasy racing use on one of his worst short tracks and on the dirt surface.  

Ross Chastain – Chastain largely has little to no experience on the dirt. While we love him on the intermediate and big ovals that are paved, but we advise to take an approach of caution with him on dirt this weekend. His first two starts in the Food City Dirt Race have not gone well. He crashed out of the inaugural event and finished 35th-place. Chastain would return last season and seek redemption, but would suffer an engine failure and finish an equally disappointing 33rd-place. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet is off to a good start this season and is coming off back-to-back Top 5's at Austin and Richmond. However, the uncertainty of racing on dirt makes us leery of suggesting him for this weekend.

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 seven races into this season. The Top-10 at Las Vegas has been the outlier so far, and he's struggled with consistency everywhere else. Wallace is a 22.0 average finisher thus far this season, and that's likely where he'll slot Sunday night on the Bristol dirt. Over the past two seasons, the 23XI Racing driver has posted 27th- and 28th-place finishes in the Food City Dirt Race. Those would seem to be a big predictive sampling of where Wallace will end up after the checkered flag this Sunday night. 

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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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