PREVIEW: Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway

By: Ashley McCubbin

The NASCAR Cup Series has raced at a restrictor plate track, an intermediate track, a short track, and a road course. Now that we’ve covered all types of tracks through the first seven races in 2023, it’s time to get dirty – with a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway.

The decision to cover the half-mile bullring has been met with praise from those who enjoy the concept, as well as the racing that evidently has been witnessed. However, there has been frustration and disappointment in the decision. Some people enjoy Bristol Motor Speedway the way it naturally is, while others believe this should be the chance for the premiere series to showcase some of the best dirt facilities in the United States.

Either way, given the crowd each year and the praise overriding the negativity, this is not a fade that seems to be disappearing anytime soon.

Hendrick Motorsports has been the team to beat this season, as evident by three trips to victory lane and placing drivers up front on a weekly basis. Oh, and they are on top of the standings courtesy of Alex Bowman. Bowman is no stranger to getting dirty as evident by both midget and sprint car experience, and placed sixth in last year’s edition so seeing him continuing the trend of just a single finish outside the top-nine in 2023 seems likely. Now if he can become more a factor in challenging for the checkered flag, rather than just consistently in the mix, a checkered flag may be in the future.

His teammate Kyle Larson knows what a checkered flag looks like, as evident by collecting one of his own this past weekend at Richmond Raceway. With William Byron challenging for wins weekly and Bowman’s consistency carrying him to the top, a lot of people had not factored the No. 5 into the equation – something that changes now, right? After wrecking out the first year, he was up front throughout the 2022 edition en route to placing fourth. So you have to consider him as someone with a chance to grab the win.

It’d be totally wrong to not mention Josh Berry after a career-best performance in placing second at Richmond to Larson on Sunday. However, the jury is out on what to expect as the late model veteran does not have any dirt experience to his name – bringing forth a whole new learning experience.

So who is going to challenge them in their quest? A foursome of drivers that have been doing so all year to date.

Joey Logano won the inaugural event in 2021 by pacing 61 laps, and backed it up with a third last year to have the best average finish (second) of all drivers. He has kept Team Penske on the map through 2023 thus far, with four top-10’s, pacing 181 laps across five of the seven races, and a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After winning his second championship in 2022, taking him out of the conversation is non-negotiable.

Kyle Busch was victorious last year, capitalizing on late-race contact between Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick to lead the only lap that mattered. He also came out strong with Richard Childress Racing this year in victory at Auto Club Speedway, and has placed in the top-15 in the five races since including a runner-up at the Circuit of the Americas.

Tyler Reddick also swapped teams in the off-season, moving to 23XL Racing but has not slowed down. He repeated the road course speed he’s been known for at COTA with a dominating performance, and has three top-five’s in the last four races on the schedule. Beyond the aforementioned battle that almost had him victory lane should he timed the move differently, he led 99 laps last year to place second, alongside a seventh in 2021.

Christopher Bell is doing what we witnessed him do last season – quietly make his way into the playoffs with consistency. After all, he enters the weekend ranked fourth in points with four top-five finishes to his credit. He also knows how to run well on dirt, given his midget and sprint car experience. After crashing out the first year, he was able to rebound with a seventh in 2022.

On the flip side, you have a couple individuals who need to turn their luck around at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ross Chastain has been a thorn in everyone’s side for the past year and a bit – pun intended if you go back and forth and watch the several confrontations that have happened. While his year is going great currently ranked second in points, he has not been able to replicate that success on the dirt the past two years. Both events he has finished worse than 30th, courtesy of a crash and engine failure. At least he enters with momentum following a third at Richmond.

Ryan Blaney will hopefully have forgotten about the day he had in Richmond, placing 26th following an incident on-track and a pit road penalty for leaving his stall with equipment. It marked his second straight finish outside the top-20, as well, despite starting the year with three top-10 performances. He has proven to have star power with popularity on his side, but yet the break-out moment in being a true championship contender is something everyone still remains to wait and see happen. A strong performance at Bristol could build the necessary momentum, following finishes of eighth and fifth in the first two years.

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