Kyle Busch was blunt last week when asked about NASCAR’s dirt racing experiment. “Cut the cord,” he said heading into the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol. That echoed comments by Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who called dirt racing “a mess.”
Opinions can change, of course, when that mess rewards you with a trip to victory lane. Busch was a surprise Bristol winner after another wild last-lap NASCAR finish in which the top two drivers, Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe, took each other out.
Reddick recovered quickly after the slide job gone wrong, jumpstarting his car, but he simply lost too much ground. Busch snuck ahead to snap a 25-race winless streak, putting lipstick on a pig of a season for his Toyota team to start 2022.
“We got lucky,” Busch said afterward, comparing it to a similar finish at Fontana in 2013 where Busch slid by a crashing Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to take the win. “Just … in the right position at the right time.”
Did the Bristol dirt experiment just get lucky, too?
The phenomenal finish still happened well past 11 p.m. on Easter, the second straight year this event’s been affected by rain. In between two red flags were 14 cautions, drivers racing on the ragged edge, almost wrecking virtually every turn. The first few minutes saw so much dirt clog up the grilles NASCAR had to throw a yellow 15 laps in so cars wouldn’t overheat.
By then, several drivers had already pitted, including polesitter Cole Custer, losing track position he never got back.
“We all look like a bunch of bozos coming in because we don’t know how to prep the track,” Kevin Harvick said later in frustration before adding, “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re doing what we’re doing anyway.”
Drivers got even more agitated with a scoring snafu after stage two. Several teams stayed out while others pitted, a strategy call as rain threatened to end the race early. But with the dirt racing format, NASCAR made a rule you couldn’t gain or lose spots on pit road.
That meant, according to the rules, the stage two winner (Briscoe) would have stayed in first even though he wasn’t in first on the track. It was a confusing series of events that had drivers criticizing the sport from the sidelines in real time.
What a mess, indeed. But last-lap finishes like the one we saw Sunday have a way of cleaning it all up. It leaves the future of NASCAR dirt racing looking optimistic for 2023 and beyond.
Was it enough to save the night? If the experiment stays, it removes a race from the concrete-based track at Bristol, a place whose night race is so good it’s considered one of the sport’s crown jewels. Remember Kevin Harvick vs. Chase Elliott?
So perhaps the dirt experiment, while well intended, is better off somewhere there’s actually dirt all the time, like Knoxville Raceway out in Iowa or Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway. Whatever happens next, this much we know: NASCAR’s bad boy Busch stole one and can call himself a dirt race winner.
“If it’s a good show, it’s a good show,” he said on the topic before cracking a smile. “I think Bristol is fine with or without. I’ve won on them all, so I think I have the best say.”
Green: Toyota — During a year where they’ve chronically underperformed, Toyota has put two of its stars, Busch and Denny Hamlin, into victory lane (and presumably the playoffs) nine races in. That gives time to tinker a bit, fixing speed issues and closing the gap with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports.
Yellow: Tyler Reddick — Reddick’s 99 laps led is the most in his Cup career. But the only one Kyle Busch led is a heartbreaker for a young driver who’s come oh-so-close to winning more than enough times. The first win has to happen soon for the No. 8 team, right?
Red: Stewart-Haas Racing — Briscoe’s failed bid on the final lap was the cherry on top of a disastrous day for this four-car outfit. Polesitter Custer spent much of the night a lap down, Aric Almirola was a nonfactor in 23rd and Harvick got swept up in a wreck after that unscheduled grille stop left him stuck in traffic.
Speeding Ticket: NASCAR Officiating — I understand dirt track pit stop rules need to be different. But NASCAR was caught with its pants down when rain after stage two threatened to end the race in the middle of pit strategy. I often look at rules like an eye test… if what you see differs from what the call is, fans are going to be angry with the result. Awarding the win to Chase Briscoe when he had already pitted, based on a rules technicality in that moment would have been disastrous. Kyle Busch wasn’t the only person who got lucky Sunday night the race resumed.
Kudos to both Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe for how they handled themselves after the Bristol event. Reddick was gracious in defeat while Briscoe immediately came up and apologized face-to-face for his mistake.
“When you’re racing on dirt, you’re going to go for the move on the final corner,” Reddick explained. “It’s everything that you hope for as a driver in his situation, to be able to battle for the lead in the final corner. I shouldn’t have let him get that close. He ran me back down.”
Briscoe was ready for Reddick to be upset.
“If he punches me, he punches me,” Briscoe said before going over to make his apology. “I get it… I ran him down so fast and I knew it was gonna be hard with lap traffic, so I tried throwing a slider and it was the wrong move.”
It’s Athlete 101 in how role models should behave.