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Bristol Cup dirt race is another milestone for Chris Windom

NASCAR drivers Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Tyler Reddick, Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace, and Kurt Busch preview what they think they'll encounter on dirt at Bristol.

On dirt and asphalt, with and without fenders, Chris Windom has competed on some of racing’s biggest stages.

There’s the Chili Bowl Nationals, where he finished sixth this past January. At fabled Eldora Speedway, he’s a past winner in USAC competition and raced twice in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He’s tackled Daytona International Speedway’s high banks in an ARCA stock car. And he’s crossed the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an Indy Lights car.

Now, Windom - the reigning USAC national midget series champion and the seventh driver to win a title in each of USAC’s top three series - is making his debut in NASCAR’s premier division, as it hosts its first race on dirt in over half a century.

Where will this rank among his adventures?

“I think it’ll be right there near the top,” Windom told NBC Sports on Tuesday, before he made his way to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday’s race.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to race on Sunday with the Cup guys. To get that opportunity - and for the first opportunity to be on dirt, where I’m more comfortable on - makes it even cooler.”

Windom is driving the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. After meeting his RWR crew for the first time earlier this week for a seat fitting and weekend prep, he turned his first laps in a Cup car on Friday.

He was 34th fastest in the first practice session, then 28th fastest in the final session.

While many Cup Series regulars have prior dirt experience or have been building theirs up recently, Sunday’s race is still an opportunity for Windom and other dirt regulars to showcase their skills on a relatively level playing field.

Along with Windom, sprint car driver Shane Golobic (No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford) and past World of Outlaws late model champion Mike Marlar (No. 66 MBM Toyota) will be in the field.

“I’m sure there’s hundreds or thousands of (dirt) guys who’d love to get the opportunity to do it,” Windom said. “I definitely want to have a good showing for all the dirt racers out there that I’m sure will be watching. I’m looking forward to carrying that badge and hopefully make everybody proud.”

Two of Sunday’s favorites also plan to keep tabs on the dirt regulars.

Kyle Larson, himself an accomplished dirt racer, has competed against Windom and Golobic for years. Christopher Bell has also been a teammate of Windom’s in midget racing.

Larson said this week that he’d love to see them competing for a win, but that such a prospect is a tall order.

“I think that will be really hard, just because even though it’s a dirt track and we’ve never done it, a team like Hendrick Motorsports has way more knowledge and experience of setting up a car to go to Bristol than the teams they’re racing for,” Larson said.

“I still think that they’ll be kind of fighting an uphill battle, but I think with their driving talents, hopefully they can crack inside the top 20 or if it is really even, maybe into the top 15 or 10 and have an awesome day.”

As for Bell, he named Windom and Golobic earlier this week as among a list of drivers he expected to run well.

When asked if Windom had asked him for advice going into the week, Bell said he hadn’t, but that “he’s going to be fine” while referring to Windom’s past ARCA experience on the Illinois dirt miles at Springfield and DuQuoin.

“The ARCA cars are probably going to be really similar, at least on the miles, to what we’re going to do this weekend,” Bell said. “I think he’s got as much experience as any of us, so I think he’ll be a competitor for sure.”

Before Sunday, however, come four, 15-lap qualifying heat races Saturday. Points accumulated in those heat races, from both finishes and positions gained from their starting position (passing points), will determine the starting lineup for Sunday.

Windom will be part of the fourth heat race, where he’ll race against the likes of reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch. While he expects the heats to be “pretty intense,” he also recognizes the importance of avoiding problems.

“Going off where I ran the Truck race at Eldora, it seemed like a lot of guys ... spin out and get themselves in trouble in the heats,” he said. “You don’t want to bury yourself, but you also have to be aggressive. I think there are going to be guys that go for it - and it might work out or it might not.”

As for Sunday, Windom doesn’t have a goal in mind as far as finishes go. But he’s aware that RWR, a team that usually runs toward the back of the field, is looking to give him a good car that can get them closer to the front.

If he can give them a run to be proud of while fulfilling one of his childhood dreams, so much the better.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “It took quite a few people to put this deal together. I’m sure it’ll become more surreal once I’m actually there, in the car. I don’t have any expectations (about finishes). But once my helmet goes on, I always turn into a racer.

“I’m there to win the race, but I’m there to also enjoy it.”