BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Kyle Larson learned his racing on dirt, cherishes every dirt race he’s in and is known for his extraordinary car handling on the slippery surface.
Still, Larson’s not sure he’ll hold any edge over his competitors this weekend on Bristol’s dirt surface.
“Listen, I race a lot of dirt stuff and that is a lot of fun,” he told The Associated Press by phone this week. “The Bristol dirt stuff, that’s not really dirt racing, or at least what I’m used to.”
Bristol Motor Speedway will show off its dirt surface for the third straight season with another year’s experience to draw on. The first year, 2021, racers drove through a terra-cotta colored cloud of dust with limited visibility and wrecks galore before Joey Logano outlasted the field for the win.
Last year, the race was moved from day to night and delivered on the anticipated excitement at the when when leaders Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe slid on the damp dirt right before the finish line as Kyle Busch swept past for the victory.
“I can win on any surface here at Bristol. Bring it on, baby,” Busch said to the crowd soon after crossing victory lane.
Larson thinks it’s hard to compare racing at Friday night dirt bullrings like the famed Eldora Speedway in Ohio or Knoxville Raceway in Iowa to what NASCAR’s top drivers deal with at Bristol. Cars are heavier, he said, and the tire grip that’s the essence of winning on hard surfaces can’t always be found on dirt.
“It’s a different challenge,” he said. “It’s also so different from what I do that I don’t really feel like I have that much of an advantage.”
Briscoe grew up racing dirt tracks and, like Larson, isn’t sure he’s got anyone beat because of it.
“I sometimes feel like having a dirt background can be a disadvantage at these races, you drive it so different,” he said.
Early on when the track is tacky and more muddy, that’s when those with dirt experience can shine, he said, because they understand how to get their machine through the corners on Bristol’s half-mile layout.
Once things get going, Briscoe believes it’s anybody’s race — much as it is on the Cup Series week-to-week.
Ross Chastain has a modest goal when he arrives for the Bristol dirt: Just finish the race.
“I’m used to asphalt and concrete, but the two years we ran it, we got in a wreck with two of the best dirt racers in this sport,” he said.
An accident ended his day in 2021 while a failed engine — “we actually sucked dirt into the intake and it actually collapsed the air cleaner into the motor and blew it up,” he explained — took him out of contention last spring.
Michael McDowell, like Chastain, is edgy about his chances on dirt. He’s a hard-surface racer and, coming off a top-10 finish last week, sometimes wonders if he’ll lose some momentum trying to navigate around the Bristol dirt.
“There’s a part of me that wants to get through the weekend, not do anything stupid and get as many points as I can,” said McDowell, who’s finished a respectable ninth and 12th at Bristol the past two seasons. “But there’s also the other part that says, ‘Man, anything can happen in this race. You can steal a win.’ So you’ve just got to approach it with an open mind.”
Larson, coming off his first win of the season last week at Richmond, ended fourth behind Kyle Busch last April. He’s confident those setting up the track better understand what makes a strong dirt race.
“Last year was fun. The year before when we ran in the daylight, it was bad,” Larson said. “But they learned from it, they race at night now and the track’s much better.”