Bristol provides dirt racers a chance to shine, turnaround season

Possibly Kyle Larson will be right. Maybe after 250 laps Sunday on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, the results will look similar to many other Cup races.

Then again, maybe the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 will be a wildcard as some suggest, and fans will see a different winner for the seventh consecutive race.

Larson and Christopher Bell, among the favorites, already have won this season. But there are others whose dirt background could help them win and eliminate the stress of trying to make the playoffs by points. Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe are among those who could be contenders.

MORE: Starting lineups for Cup qualifying races at Bristol

MORE: What drivers are saying about racing on dirt at Bristol

Dillon, who has extensive dirt late model experience, is 11th in the season standings. Stenhouse, whose background is with sprint cars, enters the weekend 17th in the standings. He’s six points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Briscoe, who won his first 410 sprint car race at age 13, is 27th in points. Reddick, who won a Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model race at age 15, is 28th in points.

“Obviously, we need to turn it around quick or we’re gonna be in a must-win situation fairly early,” Briscoe said. “We’re almost already to that point, so we’ll see how this weekend goes.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 Qualifying

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 Qualifying

This season already has proved challenging for Briscoe after he won a series-high nine Xfinity races last year.

Adding to the difficulty has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles. Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer each have yet to score a top-10 finish and have combined to lead one lap. Teammate Kevin Harvick has five top 10s in the first six races but has led only 17 laps.

“It’s no secret, I feel like we’re off as a company a little bit right now … it seems like our cars don’t have the raw speed of the other cars, and they just don’t drive very good right now, either,” Briscoe said. “I know there is definitely a concern. Our competition meetings have been very intense the last couple of weeks.”

Briscoe’s best finish this season is 18th at Miami. The Cup rookie has placed between 18th and 23rd in all but one race this year.

“I just try to keep in perspective that Chase Elliott is last year’s champion and it took him (99) races to get (his first Cup) win, so just trying to remember it’s not gonna come right away,” Briscoe said. “Every rookie, I feel like, struggles a little bit, and it just takes time to get your feet underneath you.”

Briscoe shared that sentiment with Austin Cindric before last weekend’s Cup race at Atlanta. Cindric was making his second series start.

“The Cup deal is just no joke,” Briscoe said. “Everybody is so good from a driving standpoint. Everybody’s car is really good, and I was telling Cindric a couple hours before the Atlanta race I said, ‘This is gonna be the most frustrating day of your life. You’re gonna race as hard as you can. You’re gonna run a great race and you’re gonna ask them at some point during this race what position you’re in and they’re gonna tell you you’re in 25th place, and you’re not gonna believe it.’

“And he came up to me right after the race and said, ‘Man, you weren’t kidding. I asked them about halfway through what position I was in, and I was in 25th.’ It’s just crazy how you race so hard and you’re 20-25th place. It’s just really tough in the Cup Series for sure.”

This weekend’s race offers hope for Briscoe and others with a dirt background, although no one really knows what to expect.

Some suggest that top teams will remain at the front and the track will become similar to a worn paved track. Others think the dirt experience will prove helpful in understanding how the track changes throughout the event.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby

Six of the seven drivers who won the Camping World Truck Series race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway will compete in Sunday’s Cup event: Dillon (won Eldora in 2013), Bubba Wallace (2014), Bell (2015), Larson (2016), Briscoe (2018) and Stewart Friesen (2019).

Briscoe said instead of asking Harvick for advice, as he often did when in the Xfinity Series, Harvick is asking him questions.

“It’s definitely been weird for me to be the guy that Kevin is coming to,” Briscoe said. “Typically, it’s me going to Kevin. We actually talked on Monday for probably 20-30 minutes on the phone just going through the different things of what I felt like the car is gonna need to have, things that he can expect to see, feelings he can expect to feel and just kind of where he needs to try to get his car during practice. … Hopefully, I didn’t steer him in the wrong direction, and hopefully, he can have a good run.

“I told him that it would not surprise me at all for him to go run really, really good there, just the throttle control and all the things that it takes to go good on dirt is something that he’s really phenomenal at on pavement, so I think he’ll be just fine at it.”

2. Team Penske Future

Car owner Roger Penske says “I think we’re moving in the right direction” to sign Brad Keselowski to a contract extension.

The 37-year-old Keselowski signed a one-year extension last season. He has been at Team Penske since 2010. Keselowski won the Xfinity title in 2010 and Cup crown in 2012. He scored Team Penske’s 500th win in Sept. 2018 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“With COVID, we haven’t been able to get together, but we’ve had conversations with Brad before,” Penske said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure.

“I guess it’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together, but with everybody not being able to move around, you don’t do that over the phone and you don’t do it by Zoom, so we want to do that face-to-face.”

Keselowski is the most successful Cup driver whose contract expires after this season. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each signed contract extensions in February.

Penske also plans to have a face-to-face conversation with his drivers before next month’s Talladega race to discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Keselowski and Joey Logano wrecked racing for the lead on the last lap, allowing Michael McDowell to win the race.

“I think we’ll talk about a number of subject matters,” Penske said. “What’s the right thing, because at the end of the day if you have three or four cars in the race, only one is gonna win. But if one wins, the whole team wins, so we cannot forget that.

“These guys are contracted with us. They’re part of the success we’ve had, and I think after the situation at Daytona, we’re gonna have some good, solid conversations, and I think we’ll hopefully come up with something that will be meaningful.

“I can’t talk about what the other teams do. The Fords want to help Fords. The Chevys want to help Chevys, so there’s a lot of give-and-take in parts of that race. I’ve always said in the past, ‘Let’s go for it in the last 10 laps, but let’s take care of ourselves until we get there.’ Now, I might have to change my tune based on what I saw at Daytona.”

3. Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing making progress

Back-to-back 16th-place finishes are a sign of progression for Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing. Just as meaningful could be the next four races.

While expectations have been high for the new team because of its alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, it’s easy to overlook that this is a new operation. The team didn’t receive its first car until early January.

“From the beginning, (co-owner Denny Hamlin) was big on progression, just getting everything underneath us,” Wallace said. “We’ve had some things not go our way but been quick to capitalize on that and make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’ll just continue to go on.”

NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

One area of progression has been in the communication between Wallace and crew chief Mike Wheeler.

“We had a really strong debrief (after Atlanta),” Wallace said. “Just communication is the biggest thing. What I’m feeling, what I need, the number scales, everybody is different. Making sure I provide the right feedback is crucial for making our program progress.”

The next few weeks could see Wallace and his team top their best finish of 16th.

While not necessarily viewed as a favorite for Sunday’s race at Bristol, Wallace won a dirt race at Eldora Speedway in the Camping World Truck Series in 2014.

After Bristol, the series takes the Easter weekend off. The season resumes April 10 at Martinsville, April 18 at Richmond and April 25 at Talladega.

Wallace won Truck races in 2013 and ’14 at Martinsville. He’s finished in the top 15 in two of the last three Cup races there. He placed 12th at Richmond in 2019 fall race.

Talladega will be the first Superspeedway race since Daytona. He finished second in his qualifying race at Daytona in February. Wallace ran toward the front in the Daytona 500 before a loose wheel after what was to have been his final pit stop. That forced him to make a green-flag stop and he fell off the lead lap and eventually finished 17th.

4. Family affair

Stewart Friesen racing against his wife, Jessica, is no big deal. They’ve done it often in dirt late modifieds and finished first and second last August.

But they’ve never raced against each other in the Camping World Truck Series. That could happen Saturday night at Bristol if Jessica Friesen finishes well enough in her qualifying race.

She’ll get this chance after some encouragement from the team.

“There has been a truck that (Halmar Friesen Racing) acquired when they went on their own,” Jessica Friesen said. “It was an older speedway truck that has been sitting in the corner of the shop for quite some time collecting dust. They talked about the best option for that truck was to turn it into a dirt truck (because) it was too much work to try to turn it into anything else.”

Soon the team began to call that second Truck her ride.

“I’m up for it and would love to do it,” she told the team. She gathered some sponsors and the ride was her’s.

Today’s practice sessions will be Jessica Friesen’s first time in a Truck. She spent last weekend racing a dirt late modified and finished fourth, placing a spot behind Stewart at Port Royal (Pennsylvania) Speedway.

She’ll face a challenging field in her qualifying race Saturday at Bristol. Jessica Friesen will start eighth. Her 11-truck race will feature former series champions Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton and former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr.

“It’s just amazing to have this opportunity at all and race as a family with Stewart and (son) Parker,” Jessica Friesen said. “This will be our story for our grandkids someday.”

5. Driver Academy Debuts

The Bill McAnally Racing Drivers Academy debuts this weekend at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.

The acadmey is scheduled to have 40 races at five California tracks. Drivers will compete in full-sized stock cars utilizing a 625-horsepower NASCAR Yates Spec Engine and the same chassis components as ARCA and the NASCAR Truck Series. Speed Sport TV will stream the events.

Along with seat time is the chance to race in other series. Each time a driver wins, they are entered in a drawing to drive the No. 19 McAnally-Higemann Racing Truck at Phoenix in November.

The points leader after race Nos. 14, 24 and 32 will be awarded the opportunity to drive a Bill McAnally Racing car in an ARCA event.

The program supplies equipment, crew and training. McAnally says it costs $800,000 to run a full ARCA season but to run the academy’s full 40 races, a driver needs $268,000.

“The idea of this came knowing that we need to find a way to get drivers moving forward in the bigger heavier race cars,” McAnally said. “There are just so of them many that want to, but there is not an affordable way.”

Amber Balcaen is among the drivers set to run the full season with the academy. She says the costs, offset by sponsorship she secured, is worth all the racing.

“This is the absolute perfect opportunity for me to get seat time,” Balcaen said. “That’s something I’ve really lacked in the last few years. Forty races, I haven’t raced 40 races in the last five years combined. To be able to run 40 races this year and get what it feels like to be in that ARCA car with a good crew, with Bill, I don’t think there can be anything better that can set me up for success in the future.”

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Friday 5: Bristol provides dirt racers an opportunity to shine, turn-around season initially appeared on NBCSports.com

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.