Alex Bowman was the fastest Chevrolet driver in both practice sessions Friday on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, and said he had a blast taking on the track.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Bowman said. “The tire wear is a little concerning, but other than that, everything went great, I thought. These cars are a lot of fun. They’re really driveable on dirt. It got a little rough, but it’s just character in the racetrack. I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
NASCAR Cup Series teams had two 50-minute practices for the inaugural Food City Dirt Race. It is the first time in 50 years that Cup Series teams have competed on dirt.
Bowman has some dirt experience from competing in sprint cars. On the other hand, Denny Hamlin, who was the fastest Toyota driver in final practice, said the last time he ran on dirt was when he was in a go-kart at eight years old. But Hamlin also enjoyed the experience.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Hamlin said. “It’s a lot of car control and just kind of throttle control, steering wheel patience—things like that. Absolutely from my standpoint, it was a lot of fun and interesting to see when you get off line where you need to go to try to salvage the lap and search around for different color in the racetrack. Yeah, a little different bumpy, but overall it was a fun day.
“It kind of felt like a slow asphalt race or an asphalt race with less grip. You’re not really slinging it sideways. You can, that’s one technique, but it just seems like I just drove it like I normally would, and other than the visibility, it wasn’t that much different.”
The fastest driver overall in final practice was Ryan Blaney from the Ford camp. But Blaney didn’t think it meant much, and his team focused on getting the car right for the long run. As for the track, Blaney said it was rough and slick.
“Really rough, actually,” he said. “The track is kind of coming up and just crazy big divots. It’s definitely not smooth. It’s rough, but you just run through things that you think will work, and there wasn’t really much lane changing going on. [Kyle] Larson and [Tyler] Reddick could kind of run the top for a little while, and then it kind of went away after a handful of minutes, but just seeing how straight and smooth you can be and trying to keep tires on it.”
For as much fun as drivers seemed had though, there were also concerns on pit road. The word of the day? Tires.
“We’re seeing a lot of tires getting corded pretty quickly, especially right rears,” Blaney continued. “Even right fronts started to go pretty quick, so that’s something that’s going to come into play is saving your tires when the track is probably going to be like this come race time.”
In addition to two Cup Series practices, there were also two Truck Series practices on Friday. As the day wore on, the dust did cause visibility issues, but the biggest talk and concern was tire wear.
Sunday’s race will be 250 laps without live pit stops and only five sets of tires. The final stage is 100 laps, and teams can only change tires at the stage breaks.
“It’ll be a challenge, but it’s the same for everyone,” Hamlin said. “I’d be surprised if they don’t change some sort of rules between now and then, either give us another set of tires or a caution lap around. But if they don’t and they run on bald tires, then we all run on bald tires. You just have to make sure you do it better than everybody else.”
Chase Briscoe mentioned how red clay seems to be more abrasive than other dirt surfaces. The Stewart-Haas Racing rookie said he’d like to see NASCAR do something for the race but understands officials are in a tough spot.
“There are no pit crews here, so if you did have something happen under green, it’s just a tough situation,” Briscoe said. “Personally, I’d like to see something halfway through the final stage, maybe split it down the middle at 50 laps. I don’t think that would necessarily change the complexion of the race, but I think it would be better for the teams.”
Rudy Fugle, William Byron’s crew chief, hopes that NASCAR reviews things before the green flag.
“If we don’t get any more tires, it’s going to be really hard – you’re going to have to choose to ride and just maybe try to stay on the lead lap and have some tire left,” said Fugle. “Just not have a flat. I expect, hopefully, that they’re going to add another caution and another set of tires, and that’ll at least let you survive a little bit, but it’s still (about) saving some tire and having tire for when you need to.
“I think that’ll be is manage your stuff. That’s a little bit of the hard thing, and kind of coaching the driver and helping him with lap times and make sure you don’t go too hard, but obviously don’t go a lap down or anything like that. So, you just try to manage the race that way, which is difficult.”