Notes of Interest
● Driver Ty Dillon and the No. 96 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Gaunt Brothers Racing (GBR) return to action this weekend when the NASCAR Cup Series races on dirt for the first time in more than 50 years during the Food City Dirt Race on the high-banked, half-mile Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway oval.
● The 28-year-old from Lewisville, North Carolina last sat behind the wheel of the No. 96 Toyota at the second points-paying event of the Cup Series season Feb. 21 on the road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, when he drove to a 19th-place finish. In the previous weekend’s Duel qualifying races for the Daytona 500, Dillon finished a solid sixth in the No. 96 Toyota but was nipped at the finish line by .04 of a second in his bid to qualify for The Great American Race for the non-chartered team. It marked the highest Duel finish ever by a team that did not qualify for the Daytona 500.
● Sunday’s race at Bristol will be Dillon’s sixth NASCAR start on dirt, and the 164th Cup Series start of his career. The previous five dirt outings came when he competed with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on the half-mile Eldora Speedway dirt oval in Rossburg, Ohio. His best Eldora finish was fifth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing entry in the July 2014 race, and his best start was fifth in the No. 99 MDM Motorsports entry in the July 17 race, when he finished 12th. Dillon added a 10th-place finish in the July 2015 Eldora Truck Series race in the No. 33 GMS Racing entry.
● Racing a stock car on dirt will be nothing new for Dillon this weekend as he competed on the surface twice during his 2011 ARCA Menards Series championship season. He started on the pole, led 17 laps and finished second to Chris Buescher in the September race on the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds mile oval, and he qualified on the pole and led 19 laps in the August race on the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile oval in Springfield. Dillon also has competed in more than 500 dirt races driving dirt late models, crate late models, UMP dirt modifieds and super dirt late models throughout the Southeast since his earliest racing days.
● The No. 96 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry will be making GBR’s 75th start since joining the Cup Series as a part-time team in 2017. Team owner Marty Gaunt’s almost two-decades-long relationship with Toyota dates back to his ownership of the Toyota-powered Clean Line Racing team in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, which became Red Horse Racing, as well as his executive role in the formation of the Red Bull’s nascent Toyota-powered Cup Series team. Gaunt’s Toyota ties strengthened after the 2008 season when he purchased Triad Racing Development, which leased Toyota engines across NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck series and continues to be NASCAR’s exclusive distributor of Toyota parts as Triad Racing. Gaunt founded GBR in 2010, with his eponymous team starting out in the Canada-based NASCAR Pinty’s Series and the U.S.-based NASCAR K&N Pro Series. Its first driver, Jason Bowles, scored GBR’s maiden victory in the 2011 Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway in California, with the precursor to that win being the pole position in track-record time at the 2011 Streets of Toronto 100. After seven years competing in NASCAR’s development divisions, Gaunt stepped up to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. His team contested the full Cup Series schedule with Daniel Suárez in 2020, but scaled back its focus in 2021 to the superspeedway and road-course races with an eye toward the introduction of NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup Series car in 2022.
● The five Truck Series appearances by Dillon on the dirt at Eldora came during a successful seven-year run there by the series that began in 2013. The inaugural race there in July 2013 marked the first time in more than four decades a top NASCAR series had competed on dirt – the last being Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, where Richard Petty took the 117th of his record 200 career NASCAR Cup Series wins. Like the annual Eldora Truck Series races, it was on a Wednesday night and contested on a half-mile oval. There was never a repeat winner in the Truck Series race at Eldora, and six of its seven winners are entered in the Food City Dirt Race – Austin Dillon (2013), Bubba Wallace (2014), Christopher Bell (2015), Kyle Larson (2016), Chase Briscoe (2018) and Stewart Friesen (2019). The lone Eldora winner not entered at Bristol is 2017 victor Matt Crafton.
● Bass Pro Shops is a longtime supporter of Dillon. North America’s premier outdoor and conservation company was with Dillon for his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series win in July 2014 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victories – August 2012 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, June 2013 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, and November 2013 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Ty Dillon, Driver of the No. 96 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Gaunt Brothers Racing
When you first heard the Cup cars were going to race on dirt on the Bristol oval, what was your first reaction, and did it take long to come to terms with the concept?
“I was definitely excited. I was interested to see how they were going to adapt the track and turn it into dirt again. I know they’d done it in the past but I didn’t know what they would do this go-around, it had been so long. I was definitely excited and I wanted to instantly figure out how I could be a part of the race.”
Would you say it’s this year’s new wild-card race in that some of the typical heavy hitters may not be a favorite to do well, and just about anybody can win it?
“Absolutely. I think it falls in line as far as being a wild-card race with the series going to a new road course, or the superspeedway races at Daytona or Talladega.”
How does a race like this bode for a part-time, single-car team like GBR, and what are your expectations?
“I think it’s a huge opportunity for us. I think we can win if we do what we know we’re capable of and things go our way. We’re definitely going to go there to win, and I guess going off the wild-card nature of the race, it is such a wild card that I think anybody, even a single-car team, can have great success.”
Kevin Harvick told us you and your brother are among the drivers to watch as you have more dirt racing experience than most people might be aware of. You’ve both raced in the Truck Series at Eldora. What other dirt racing experience do you have in your arsenal, and how is that going to help you this weekend?
“That’s cool to hear that. We do have a lot of dirt experience. We were both successful at Eldora in the Truck Series on the dirt. Austin got a win and I ran really well each time without getting the finish. I’ve run dirt late models, crate late models, UMP dirt modifieds and super dirt late models, and I’ve run ARCA on dirt on top of Eldora in the Trucks. In all, I’d say about 500 to 700 races on dirt in my career.”
What all have you done to prepare for this race, and what will be your approach as you practice and heat race, and ultimately compete on Sunday?
“I watched the Dirt Nationals on TV, just watching what the track did over the course of the event, and have tried to get the most out of simulator time just trying to mimick it. And, of course, I’m relying a lot on my past experience and I think that will go a long way. I can’t wait to get out there.”
Dave Winston, Crew Chief of the No. 96 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Gaunt Brothers Racing
Could you describe the task of changing things on the racecar to be able to race on the dirt?
“Looking at our Bass Pro Shops Toyota, the biggest things we’ve had to do would be building guards, making the car a little more durable, to take the impact of racing on a dirt track, not knowing fully what to expect with the dirt track. Nobody in our organization has years and years of dirt-racing experience who can say, ‘Here’s what we have to do.’ We’ve talked to a lot of people. Every one of us has friends we have consulted with, getting people’s opinions and recommendations on what types of guards we need to put in place to block the master cylinder and brake lines, our water reservoirs and the like to keep things from getting knocked off. NASCAR has allowed us to modify the car to help deal with impacts with the wall. We feel the kind of car the Bristol dirt track calls for is somewhere between a short-track car and an intermediate car. We’re bringing an intermediate car. We’ll adjust the camber curves and we feel decent about not being overcambered with the front tires. Ride heights are a tricky part of it, and we’re going to be pretty conservative with that – we’re going to err on the high side. For overall speed, we’re not going to focus on aero. The rules took away so much front aero, and with the radiator pan underneath the car, that takes away a lot of front downforce. And they added rear spoiler, so the aero balance is shifted to the rear. Don’t know how much all of that is going to apply, but it’ll be good to have two practices. That’ll be somewhat new to us, too. So not knowing what to expect going in, we’ll have the chance to make changes to the car in practice. We’ll also have to be efficient with damage repair and maximize track time during practice.”