The NASCAR Cup Series dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway saw just five lead changes, but don’t let that stat fool you for a number of reasons.
For many NASCAR fans, lead changes play a huge role in determining how competitive races were, especially if you’re just glimpsing over the stat sheet following a race you might have missed.
Lead changes, number of different leaders, who those leaders were, passes, margin of victory, etc. — they don’t tell the whole story and never do, but all of those factors play into that determination.
If there was ever a spot where they don’t tell the whole story, it was on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway last Monday.
The first Cup Series dirt race in more than five decades was well worth the one-day rain postponement, and during the race itself, it was confirmed that the “Last Great Colosseum” would again be covered in dirt for a Cup Series race next spring.
It was an exciting event that saw several drivers spend time at the front, including some who don’t typically get the chance to do so, as well as plenty of passes for position, lots of close racing, lots of slide jobs and much more.
It fittingly went into overtime for a two-lap shootout, which was won by Team Penske’s Joey Logano ahead of JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in second place and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in third. Logano became the first first-time dirt race winner since 1968 with his win.
But this race, which lasted for about as long as a usual Cup Series race, saw just five official lead changes.
This was the fewest number of lead changes in a race at Bristol Motor Speedway since August 2008, and by far.
In fact, if you exclude the “lead change” at the start when Kyle Larson was sent to the rear of the field from the pole position as a result of a penalty, it only saw four, which is tied for the fewest at the track since August 1976.
None of the 24 races contested there from August 2008 to now saw fewer than 12, and this race was still roughly half the distance of those events with it being a 250-lap (extended to 253 laps with overtime) race around the four-turn, 0.533-mile (0.858-kilometer) high-banked oval in Bristol, Tennessee.
Five (and four as well) was also the fewest number of lead changes in any Cup Series race since the two follow-the-leader races at Martinsville Speedway two seasons ago produced just three each.
But here’s why this really doesn’t matter.
Aside from the obvious fact that the race was shorter than a usual pavement race at Bristol Motor Speedway, there are a few things to consider about why that stat doesn’t necessarily state the implied when considering this particular event.
First of all, racing on dirt is slower than racing on pavement, so getting the speed differential in the corners or on the straights to actually make a pass on the car in front of you can be a lot more difficult, even with extra horsepower and less downforce.
Yet this race still saw 5.5 passes for position per lap.
Of the other 16 races contested at Bristol Motor Speedway on pavement since the introduction of the Generation 6 car in 2013, only five have seen more than that. The average is 4.89.
That stat alone should be enough to keep the whole “Bring back the Generation 6 car” discussion going for next year’s dirt race at the track.
Secondly, factor in the fact that there were zero lead changes during pit stops since the field was frozen entering the pits. All of the lead changes we saw were actually on-track passes.
How many lead changes do we usually see when the lead changes hands for one or two laps at a time during pit sequences, not just at Bristol Motor Speedway but at any track on the schedule?
Are those really “lead changes”? Do those really make a race more competitive?
Is a race with 25 lead changes, 10 of which coming in the pits, more competitive than a race with 16 lead changes on-track?
Excluding opening race laps which were the only lap of a given leader’s stint at the front, which last Monday’s race saw with Hamlin, the 16 races on pavement at Bristol Motor Speedway with the Generation 6 car have seen an average of 3.94 stints per race in which the leader has only led for one lap.
Why? While there are a few exceptions, such as Logano’s one lap led during the bizarre finish of last May’s race at the track, the primary reason has to do with pit stops and the varying pit sequences and strategies that come along with them.
These produce artificial “lead changes” that don’t have anything to do with the competitiveness of the event, especially at a track such at Bristol Motor Speedway, where laps take only a few seconds to complete.
Those 16 races at the track with Generation 6 car also saw an average of 3.53 stints per race in which the leader led for between two and nine laps — any single-digit lap total other than one lap, basically.
There are more exceptions in this case, but it’s a double-edged sword; yes, these lead stints are also regularly produced by scenarios involving pit sequences, but at the same time, what does it say about all the one-lap lead stints? There have been more of those than all lead stints from two to nine laps combined…
Bottom line, don’t frown on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway simply because we only saw the lead change hands five times — or even four, if you want to look at it that way.
Anything more than that would have been icing on the cake, because the racing itself was phenomenal.
Irrespective of what car NASCAR decides to use for it, the race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway is back on the schedule for the 2022 season. A date has not yet been set, but it is believed that the race will again take place sometime during the spring.