Kurt Busch has seen many things in NASCAR, from rules changes to track introductions to the closed fists of rivals accelerating toward his face.
But the 42-year-old representative of the sport’s old guard has no idea of what dirt racing will look like next March as part of the 2021 Cup Series schedule.
Amid outrage from some fans at bringing stock car racing away from pavement, Busch is one of several drivers willing to play in the mud. He even speaks with a trace of boyish excitement about the upcoming experience.
“It’s tough because you can’t please everybody,” Busch told Sporting News. “I think it’s a nice sprinkle and a show of respect to the past, and that’s not maybe appreciated as much right now in this day and age.
“There’s people who are like, well, then let’s go back to Rockingham, or let’s go back to North Wilkesboro. Hang on, people. Those facilities haven’t been touched in years. The parking lot, the restrooms, the amenities, it’d be a hot mess. . . . I mean, wow, Bristol put in the Colossus TV. They’re wiping out different seating areas to put in bars and high-top tables and creating a cool atmosphere. So I hope people can can tune into or to show up for this race. Just put your goggles on and your ear plugs in because it’s going to be dirty. Let’s go.”
NASCAR’s last foray into stock car dirt racing came in 1970. Cars are not traditionally built to handle on the surface, and pro drivers are not trained in maneuvering the powerful vehicles in that terrain. There is a lot at stake during the regular season. Experimentation risks financial consequences.
At the same time, NASCAR is fighting viewership slippage and on a quest to engage younger viewers. It feels the potential payoff for a fun event similar to the Truck Series’ Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway outweighs the possibility of failure.
The 2021 dirt race will take place at a reconfigured Bristol, which will also host a September playoff competition with a normal layout.
Chase Elliott, who comes from a storied racing family, doesn’t want NASCAR to remain beholden to traditions of the past few decades.
“It’s not the norm, and some people have a really, really hard time getting over that,” the 24-year-old Elliott told Sporting News. “But it’s a change, and I think we should all be thankful NASCAR right now is willing to do things different. That’s not something they’ve done a lot of. So I think it’s exciting. It will be a show.”
Exact details have not been hammered out for the Bristol dirt race. Busch pointed out that dirt races are usually much shorter than Cup Series events because the surface can’t withstand the same beating as concrete. He’s curious how NASCAR will handle the length of the competition.
Those specifics might not be announced for a while — the 2020 season, after all, is far from completed.
NASCAR visits Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, capped by Sunday’s YellaWood 500 Cup playoff race. Busch has already advanced to the next round of the postseason, having won last weekend at Las Vegas. Elliott still needs to solidify his position.
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