The last time there was a lot of anticipation for such a different and new event possibly came three years ago. Charlotte decided to turn it’s playoff event from being on the traditional quad-oval and instead maneuvered it’s way to make it a road course, introducing the “Roval” to the masses.
That event had it’s intense, crazy moments, including how it finished. It has since become a major event on the schedule, and gave way to including over double the amount of road courses on the schedule compared to what it normally entails.
But, this weekend is unlike anything any of these drivers have done before. THIS could ultimately be the must-see event of the season, eclipsing the Daytona 500. Yes, it is that big of an event.
We’ve all seen the moments at Bristol that have made it famous, from Dale Earnhardt’s two bumps to Terry Labonte to Jeff Gordon’s bump-and-run to Rusty Wallace. Of course there’s Ward Burton’s foot shield toss, and Tony Stewart’s hurl of a helmet. Then there’s Kevin Harvick, who leapt right into a crowd around Greg Biffle to confront his actions. Carl Edwards even got in on the act, “love-tapping” Kyle Busch after a race, even after Edwards already won.
Now, take all those moments, and forget about the light grey concrete that they all happened on.
This track is so different that the hype began even before 2020 came to a close. The track itself has been working on this event since January, and has already seen action on the surface. The dust is flying, the tear-offs are used more than the 600-mile event at Charlotte, and the tires themselves are unlike anything used in NASCAR in the last 30 years.
It has been 51 years since the premier series has kicked up dust, and had dirt on the tires…that ends on Sunday.
I have been waiting for the moment the Cup Series to go racing on the dirt since the first Prelude to the Dream. It was then that we saw the Cup guys get in a late model, some with no prior dirt experience, and try to adapt to running in a car they weren’t familiar with, on a surface many hadn’t seen since they were kids. It is the same feeling this time at Bristol, except the only familiar thing to all these drivers are the cars themselves. Some teams are taking the cars from this race, cleaning out all the mud and grime, and putting it on an asphalt track later in the season.
Nothing about this race is like anything we’ve seen in the last 50 years. Even the oldest drivers in the field were not born when the last Cup race was held on dirt.
But the fact is this race already has so much anticipation and anxiety, it has become “must-see television.”
Seeing these heavy cars sliding sideways and developing an actual cushion is something many thought we’d never see. At the same time, as I stated last week, the time in Atlanta could have been the best way to prepare for running on the dirt. Atlanta is slick, worn, and drivers were fighting the wheel for 500 miles. Despite being only 250 laps, drivers will be fighting the wheel the entire time to find that cushion, and fight for grip. Sounds a lot like what Atlanta was a week earlier.
If the dirt holds together in the early stages of the event, it could be fast, yet slick, fighting to get traction. That sounds a lot like Atlanta on every run of tires.
As the laps click off, as the moisture gets packed in, and the track begins to take on rubber, every driver then will have to find the grip on the wider groove. Some may hunt the bottom, trying to slide up in front of their competitors. Others will play chicken with the cushion, hoping to not jump over and collect the wall. That is something drivers did on three occasions last year, at Darlington. Difference is, they were flirting with a wall hoping to not earn a heavy “stripe” that will make them retire for the night.
I have not been this excited, or anxious, for a race in a long while. There is no notebook to use that will help prepare anyone for this race. The simulator can only do so much, but as the drivers have already said, until they are actually on the track to feel how the surface reacts, they won’t know how to drive the dirt.
Grab those goggles, or for the hardcore fans just grab the safety glasses, and we all can literally dust off the next race, because this time we are truly dusting off…dirt, dust, and grime.