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Bristol Dirt Race could expose a familiar problem with the NASCAR Cup playoffs

The Bristol dirt race represents one of the most unique ideas NASCAR executives have had in many years. It’s generally fun and different from a typical race weekend, but it also raises an integrity dilemma that plagued the sport due to other unique tracks until recent years.

Many fans have long complained that the Cup Series schedule is outdated. That hadn’t changed much in two decades for a variety of reasons, including multi-year agreements with the sanctioning body and the fact that most leads were owned by publicly traded companies that required investor approval to take large decisions.

Both of these factors have changed over the past five years, and now NASCAR is mostly free to adjust the schedule as it sees fit. This led to an explosion in road racing from three in 2019 to seven in 2021. It also provided a pathway to try something new at one of the sport’s most historic short tracks.

The NASCAR Cup Series has brought dirt racing back to Bristol in 2021

#22 Shell Pennzoil Ford driver Joey Logano competes in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Bristol dirt race | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series had held one race a year at Eldora Speedway’s dirt track from 2013 to 2019, but Cup Series trucks and cars took to the high banks of Bristol with the concrete of the half mile track covered in dirt for the first time. Last year.

As with any new experiment, the predictions covered a wide range of possibilities on race quality. Some people said it would be a disaster to have vehicles as heavy as Cup Series cars on a dirt track, while others thought it might be one of the most exciting events in recent memory. .

The actual weekend settled somewhere in the middle. Rain hampered track activities throughout the weekend. NASCAR had to push back both races to Monday because of rain, and mud on vehicle grilles and windshields was also sometimes an issue.

Otherwise, the competition was tight and intense, making for a quality race. The track proved successful enough for NASCAR to overtake and put the dirt race back on the schedule for the 2022 season.

Bristol’s dirt race faces the same questions as road events once engaged

The problem with the Bristol dirt race may not be the quality of the event, but what it means for the calendar and the overall championship battle.

One of the most frequently cited complaints about the long-running NASCAR schedule was its two road races during the season, one at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but the lack of inclusion during the 10-race playoffs that determine the champion.

The idea was that a road racing specialist could win one of the road events and qualify for the playoffs and therefore stand a chance of winning the championship despite the driver’s ability on the variety of oval tracks that made up the rest of the program. .

Additionally, the series had a situation where drivers were tested on road courses during the regular season but not in the playoffs. Somehow it didn’t fit.

NASCAR addressed those concerns in 2018 when it moved the playoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway from the oval to a road course that incorporated portions of the oval and ran through much of the track’s infield. Drivers would then have to excel at all types of NASCAR tracks throughout the year to have a chance of winning the title.

The same problem now exists with the Bristol dirt race. It is the only dirt race on the program and requires a very different style of driving than on a tarmac track.

Several drivers nearly turned last year’s race into a playoff berth

Joey Logano won the race and probably would have made the playoffs regardless, although it was his only win of the season. But others have had almost their entire season of success in this single race. Ryan Newman scored one of his two top five finishes in the dirt race a year ago, while third Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and fourth Daniel Suarez did not finish in the top five the rest of the season. .

If any of these drivers had won, they would have qualified for the playoffs despite a level of success far from achieved elsewhere throughout the season.

The fun Bristol dirt racing brings to drivers and fans alike is great, but NASCAR has put itself back in the same box it had with road courses for so many years.

Perhaps the playoff format is too fancy to rightfully crown a champion anyway. But, if championship integrity really matters, maybe NASCAR should consider either adding a dirt race in the playoffs or keeping the dirt for an exhibition event that can still be fun but won’t distort not the playoff picture of every season.

All statistics courtesy of Race reference

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