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Dr. Diandra: Bristol dirt race demands drivers develop different preparation techniques

Kim Coon, Kyle Petty, and Dustin Long preview what to expect when the Cup drivers take to the dirt for the third time at Bristol, with Petty saying he expects to see aggression and Long predicting chaos.

This weekend marks the third year of the Bristol dirt race. NASCAR’s history started in dirt, but today’s dirt races are nothing like those of long ago. They’re also nothing like the other 35 races on the schedule.

The Bristol dirt race is the only points-paying Cup Series race that sets the starting lineup via heat races rather than qualifying. A random draw determines heat race starting positions rather than a statistical metric.

Drivers earn points not just for where they finish their qualifying race, but also for how many cars they pass. The passing points are important because four drivers will win heats. Passing points decide which of these drivers earns the pole.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Bristol

While some drivers came of age driving in the dirt, others have little to no experience.

“Dirt challenges me,” Austin Cindric said, even though he’s raced rally cars on dirt. “I think being able to show up and be prepared and have some things to already work on is pretty important for me.”

But the preparation techniques most drivers rely on are of much less use this week.

The limitations of simulators

Simulators provide little help to drivers preparing for this weekend’s one-off Bristol dirt race.

“They do have it on there,” Christopher Bell said of the Toyota simulator. “I don’t think many of the drivers will utilize it. I think it’s moreso just to work on setup stuff for the crew chiefs and engineers.”

“Truthfully,” Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe said, “I don’t think the simulator does the greatest job on the dirt stuff.”

Even simulation engineers would agree. Bristol dirt simulations require new car and tire models. But the biggest challenge is dealing with the complexities of a dirt surface.

“You know with dirt, it’s constantly changing: The grip level, the moisture level, all that, so I don’t think it’s a huge advantage when it comes to simulation yet,” said Michael McDowell of Front Row Motorsports.

Even if one could model how a dirt track changes throughout a race, it’s impossible to physically create the same dirt track twice. The final course condition depends on many variables, including track prep three or four days before the event.

Especially if there’s rain in the days before the race. And the forecast calls for rain Friday and Saturday.

Rain will wet only the surface of a well-packed dirt track. When the drivers wear off the top layer during the race, they’ll find dust underneath. If the dirt is well tilled when it rains, the water soaks in and provides a more consistent structure.

Drivers who do use simulators (or iRacing) mainly do so to get into the “dirt mindset.”

“I think it helps with the surface,” McDowell said. “Being in that dirt mindset of constantly counter-steering and working the throttle. It’s just a different approach. I think it helps just kind of getting into that routine.”

Dirt Bristol is a different kind of dirt racing

“It’s nothing like when I race on dirt,” Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson said of the Bristol dirt race. “The surface is dirt, but the cars don’t react the same or anything. I think it’s shown the last two years that a dirt guy doesn’t have an extreme advantage as everybody might think.”

In addition to two Friday practices at Bristol, some drivers will prepare by running other dirt races.

The 4/10-mile high-banked dirt oval of Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap, Tennessee, will host the Kyle Larson Presents: FloRacing Late Model Challenge Thursday night. Briscoe, along with Busch and Larson, are among those set to race.

Briscoe will also run the No. 22 AM Racing Ford in the Craftsman Truck Series Saturday evening. Even though the truck drives very differently than the Next Gen car, Briscoe sees advantages.

“Running the Truck race,” Briscoe said, “will give me a read on how the dirt is different this year — how it’s prepped and how it changes throughout the race.”

Should NASCAR race on dirt?

When asked if having more than one dirt race on the schedule would help, McDowell laughed.

“I would prefer we did none,” he said. “Zero. You know, it’s actually gone decent for me, but I’m not a dirt racer and don’t do a lot of dirt throughout the year.”

Briscoe makes the most passionate argument in favor of the yearly excursion. He notes that the one-off Bristol dirt race exposes dirt-racing fans to NASCAR and vice versa.

Then there’s the issue of equity and representation.

“For me,” Briscoe said, “I feel like every single driver in the Cup series has grown up either short track racing on pavement, late models … we have some road course guys and a lot of dirt guys. But the dirt guys don’t have any opportunity to go back to their roots.”

But even Briscoe wouldn’t advocate for a second dirt race.

“I don’t think we necessarily need more than one,” Briscoe says. He adds that it doesn’t have to be at Bristol, either.

“But,” he concludes, “we definitely need to have at least one, just from the side of being able to tie it all together.”