NASCAR Food City Dirt Race

Cup Series cars come around turn 4 at the start of the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday in Bristol, Tenn. BMS VP Jerry Caldwell annouced during the race that the dirt will return in 2022.

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Even the harshest critics had to admit the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway was quite the spectacle.

After torrential rains over the weekend forced the postponement of the race until Monday, some in the national media blasted the event, calling it a desperate gimmick to save Bristol’s spring race.

Instead, the first NASCAR Cup Series race on dirt since 1970 turned out to be a classic. It was wildly entertaining with Joey Logano outdueling Denny Hamlin in a battle of two of NASCAR’s best drivers.

The dirt surface made the low side of the track the fastest way around with drivers bumping each other out of the way to get that groove.

In a break from the exciting action, Bristol Motor Speedway Executive Vice President Jerry Caldwell came over the Colossus big screen with the announcement the track would be covered in dirt again in the spring of 2022. It was met with a loud cheer from the grandstands, a crowd estimated at more than 30,000 even with the race run on a workday.

Sure, there were a few growing pains. The dust kicked up bad for Friday’s practice. An attempt to run heat races on a wet track Saturday resulted in the windshields of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series vehicles covered in mud before rain washed out the rest of the day’s activities.

After Sunday’s record flooding, track crews worked feverishly to get the speedway ready to race Monday. They did that with 400 laps between the truck and Cup series.

That’s not to say there still weren’t challenges.

The track got particularly dusty in the second stage of the Cup race. The top dried out and made it a dust bowl for drivers back in the pack. The combination of a glaring afternoon sun and the dust made it nearly impossible for the drivers to see, resulting in a nine-car pileup.

Another accident seven laps later forced NASCAR to make the decision to have single-file restarts. Once the shade fell over the track and the track was watered for the final 50 laps, the dust subsided to a large extent.

The battle for the lead between Logano and Hamlin the early part of the final stage was epic. Logano’s car was better in the end, but still the race lived up to the hype as another Bristol classic.

And there was plenty of hype. It was one of the most talked-about races in years, if not decades. The Food City Dirt Race has been the No. 1 topic on SiriusXM radio’s NASCAR channel for months.

It has been talked about more than any other race, including the Daytona 500, and even more discussed than the pandemic or controversial topics from the past season.

Truly, the buzz around it hasn’t been seen with another sporting event in our area since the Battle at Bristol college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech in 2016. Even though that featured an NCAA-record crowd, there were more storylines with the Food City Dirt Race.

Many in the betting world thought dirt-track specialists Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell were locks to win Monday. Turns out, neither was a factor. In Larson’s case, he wasn’t a contender in the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt beforehand.

Instead, the winners were Logano and fellow Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. with their limited experience on dirt. That was part of the appeal, a true unpredictable nature of the race.

While there’s an obvious excitement of doing something for the first time in 50-plus years, it seems the Food City Dirt Race has the potential to be one of the biggest events on the NASCAR calendar for years to come.

For that, I’m glad the folks at NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway listened to the fans and not the critics.

Email Jeff Birchfield at jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com.