How NASCAR drivers prepare for dirt racing

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As the laps wound down, Friday, Kyle Larson set his sights on race leader Chris Ferguson. To catch him, he all but banzai’d his way through the turns. To the point he about hit the Turn 4 wall multiple times.

Alas, Larson ran out of laps and finished runner-up in the Super Late Model A-main of the Karl Kustoms Bristol Dirt Nationals.

Of course, given the tear he went on in the dirt racing world last year, he performed as advertised. Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott, however, faltered in the same race.

With the NASCAR Cup Series’ return to dirt, next Sunday, multiple drivers found ways to prepare for the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

How NASCAR drivers prepare for dirt racing

BRISTOL, Tenn. – March 19: Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Super Late Model, drives during the Karl Kustoms Bristol Dirt Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 19, 2021, in Bristol, Tennessee. Photo: Tucker White/

In just eight days, the NASCAR Cup Series will run a race on dirt for the first time in over 50 years at Bristol Motor Speedway. It headlined the much hyped changes to the 2021 Cup Series schedule, though not to everyone’s delight (I, myself, wasn’t thrilled with the idea).

Regardless, it’s happening, and many drivers found ways to prepare for it.

Running the Bristol Dirt Nationals

Some — like Busch, Austin Dillon, Elliott, Larson, etc. — entered the classes running the Bristol Dirt Nationals.

“I don’t really know what else to do from that front,” Elliott said. “Just go up there and give it a shot. Lean on some help from friends who have been around those cars for a long time and hope I can get going and pick up on it quick. That’s about all I can do.”

It was a mixed bag for each driver, in terms of results.

Larson finished second in the Super Late Model A-main feature. Elliott, however, was caught up in a multi-car wreck with 11 laps to go and finished 17th. Busch, an eight-time Bristol winner in the Cup Series, won his last chance qualifier race to advance to the feature. But race winner Ferguson lapped him and he finished 13th.

Dillon won his 604 Late Model feature to qualify for Saturday’s A-main, which he also won.

Other dirt races

Some drivers, like Martin Truex Jr., will run the Camping World Truck Series dirt race at Bristol to gain dirt experience.

“I feel like all of the other vehicles that race on dirt are so different, (that) we felt like this was the best way to go,” he said.

Others, like Erik Jones, don’t think you can prepare that much, given the nature of Cup cars.

“Our cars aren’t dirt cars,” he said. “They’re not really made to handle dirt. So, you just have to do the best you can. Looking at Eldora, and how those truck races work, it’s about being patient and kind of picking your time to go and the times to make the moves and just being easy with it and try to make the most of it.”

Though that didn’t stop Jones from running micro sprints (mini sprint cars).

Bottom line

ROSSBURG, Ohio – AUGUST 1: Stewart Friesen, driver of the #52 Halmar International Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway on Aug. 1, 2019, in Rossburg, Ohio. Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

On paper, a race like next Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race favors those with extensive dirt racing experience, like Larson.

“Honestly, I think if you look at the field, there’s a small handful of guys that have a lot of dirt experience and are very talented on dirt, but I think for the most part, most of the field is going to be trying to figure it out,” Truex said.

“I think really, the dirt guys are going to have a little bit of an advantage just knowing how the lines move around and kind of what lane to be in, but I think that’s all as far as driving it, that’s going to be totally different for everybody,” Jones said.

In practice, this proved largely true with the Eldora Dirt Derby. Four of the seven races were won by drivers with dirt racing backgrounds.

Whether or not this plays out at Bristol, time will tell.

TOP IMAGE: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images