Let’s put in historical perspective what No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS driver Ty Dillon is about to face in Sunday’s Food City 500, when he drives a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car on the high banks of Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for the first time.
The 24-year-old Dillon will attempt to slay the .533-mile, 28-degree-banked, beast of an East Tennessee track that opened in 1960. Bristol is the fourth-largest sports venue in the United States with about 160,000 seats and is certainly the loudest with 40 cars circulating for 500 laps. After turning near-15-second lap times, drivers must also negotiate a narrow pit lane on both the front and back stretches. Whether it’s the speeds, traffic, number of laps or beating and banging, it all makes Bristol one of the toughest tracks in motorsports. Even before replacing the asphalt with concrete in 1992, Bristol was known in the sport as a track that devours most drivers – especially rookie drivers, even the ones who go on to win championships later in their careers.
A third of the 21 drivers to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title since 1970 are competing full time in 2016. None of the seven scored a top-five finish in his first appearance at the “Last Great Colosseum.” Jimmie Johnson’s seventh-place finish in 2002 is the best of the active champions making his Bristol debut. None of the others managed a top-10 finish.
A deeper dive into the NASCAR history book reveals that not just the active champions, but nearly all the champions since 1970, struggled in their maiden voyage at Bristol.
Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac and Benny Parsons failed to score a top-10 on NASCAR’s second-shortest track. Even eventual 12-time Bristol winner Darrell Waltrip could only manage a 30th-place finish at Bristol in his first race. Some didn’t do too badly. Bill Elliott finished 10th in the fall of 1979, Terry Labonte seventh earlier that year, and Richard Petty earned a fourth-place finish his first time at Bristol in 1961.
There is an exception to every rule, and it occurred in the 1979 spring race when future seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt led 163 laps on his way to winning his rookie race at Bristol driving Rod Osterlund’s Chevrolet. In one of the quirks of history, Dillon’s grandfather Richard Childress, who was a driver-owner at the time, gave up racing and hired Earnhardt to drive his car midway through the 1981 season and, as they say, the rest became racing history. Childress, who was no slouch as a driver, posting six top-fives and 76 top-10s, couldn’t conquer Bristol his rookie year as he finished 18th in 1972.
The young Dillion has a few weapons of his own in Sunday’s Bristol battle. He’s finished in the top-10 in six of his eight NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series races since 2012 at Bristol. Plus, he’ll have the help of the three-time-champion Stewart, who’ll be on the radio with Dillon throughout the weekend. Dillon and Brian Vickers have served as interim drivers in 2016 while Stewart recovers from an offseason back injury.
Dillon’s greatest asset might be the speed of Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) No. 14 Chevrolet SS led by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz that has been on a roll of late. The team had posted three consecutive top-15 finishes and raced up to fourth at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth Saturday night before a pit lane spin and accident left Vickers with a 37th-place finish.
Dillon knows, with just 11 career Sprint Cup starts, he’s entering the ring with the toughest of opponents. But, conquering Bristol as a rookie would be an accomplishment few of the sport’s greats have equaled.