By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — NASCAR’s second attempt at running a Cup race on dirt turned into a wet and muddy mystery when rain paused racing Sunday night at Bristol Motor Speedway and most of the drivers seemed clueless about the rules.
Bristol dumped more than 2,300 truckloads of Tennessee red clay onto its beloved concrete 0.533-mile bullring to help NASCAR add variety to the schedule at a time the stock car series is experimenting with radical changes. Fox Sports then convinced NASCAR to take the prime-time television slot on Easter Sunday, the first time since NASCAR’s 1949 inception the Cup Series deliberately chose the date.
NASCAR had held 10 previous Cup races on Easter Sunday in its history, but all because of weather-related rescheduling. This purposeful event was designed to dominate a television audience gathered together as a family the same way the NFL and NBA do on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What the new audience saw was a rain-interrupted mass of confusion because few drivers seemed to understand the rules during the stoppage. Rain picked up and stopped the racing at the natural break of the end of the second stage and many drivers pitted — presumably because their teams knew scoring was halted under the red flag and wouldn’t resume until the race went green.
Kyle Busch was among many drivers who did not pit — perhaps because they assumed they’d move up in the running order. So it was Busch who had his car out front when NASCAR halted all activity, but Briscoe, who had pitted, was scored as the leader.
Denny Hamlin, who had already been eliminated from the race, was watching on Fox Sports and saw what he claimed was a rules explanation that lasted longer than a minute.
“What’s wrong with this picture,” Hamlin wrote on Twitter. “As a fan sitting on my ass right now watching, it’s hard to take this seriously.”
Carson Hocevar, the runner-up in Saturday night’s Truck Series race, posted a meme th at intimated NASCAR was making up the rules as it went along. In actuality, NASCAR was clear in its pre-race rules video that scoring would be stopped at the end of the stage and not resume until the race went green again.
The confusion up and down pit road indicated few had a clear grasp of the procedures, which at Bristol differed from all other Cup races. NASCAR held a mandatory pre-race driver meeting prior to the pandemic in which rules were discussed; it has since been replaced by a video.
The confusion was for naught because the race did resume — with Briscoe as the leader — with the entire third stage still remaining.
But NASCAR’s return to Bristol dirt had controversy even before the rain; NASCAR called the cars to pit road early to have mud removed from their grilles and their windshields cleaned. Visibility has plagued Bristol in its two years of this dirt experiment and the dust created from the dirt, coupled with the glare of the sun, dictated the need for a night race.
Kevin Harvick was knocked out of the race in a multi-car accident in which his in-car camera view appeared to have a limited view. He ripped both poor track preparation that forced the early cleanup caution, and racing on dirt, period.
“The first thing I can tell you is we did a terrible job prepping the track,” Harvick said. “We all looked like a bunch of bozos coming into pit because we don’t know how to prep the track.”
And he reiterated that only television ratings will determine if the Easter Sunday night race was a success, but found the entire weekend to be a farce. This is the only Cup race out of 38 scheduled to be run on dirt and it is at Bristol, a popular short track that spent more than $2 million last year for its inaugural dirt weekend.
Critics argued there are plenty of existing dirt tracks across the country and Bristol was just fine as a concrete track; Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith would counter that ticket sales have proven the desire for a dirt race, and attendance for his annual spring race had waned long before the pandemic.
None of it mattered to Harvick, who said he wouldn’t bother trying to discuss his thoughts on racing on dirt with NASCAR: “You can’t talk to them.”
“I think Bristol is a great racetrack, but it must not have been what everybody liked,” Harvick added. “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re doing what we’re doing anyway.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer and NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be in the rotating guest in the Fox Sports booth next Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt will join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer on Sunday. He has a record His record six wins at Talladega and is the 15-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award.
“Calling a race from Talladega is an incredibly fun experience,” Earnhardt said in a statement issued by Fox Sports. “You absolutely have to be on your toes at all times. It doesn’t take much for all hell to break loose.”
Fox Sports and NBC Sports split NASCAR’s 38-race schedule. Neither network had an explanation for the sharing next week of Earnhardt. Fox Sports all season has used a different guest analyst as the replacement for Jeff Gordon, who returned to a competition role at Hendrick Motorsports this season and left the network with a two-man booth.
NASCAR races next Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, where Brad Keselowski is he defending race winner and Bubba Wallace in October earned his first career victory.
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