Saturday's motors: NASCAR chases holiday TV audience with Easter dirt race

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Bristol, Tenn. — Kevin Harvick was on his annual family beach vacation when he was forced to cut it short early by three days to return to work for the first time in his career on Easter Sunday.

NASCAR since its 1949 inaugural season deliberately used Easter as an off weekend — often the first natural break in a 38-race season — and industry personnel slotted that week for a rare vacation. Weather-related rescheduling actually led to 10 races on Easter Sunday over the years, most recently in 1989 when a snowstorm forced a scheduling change, but NASCAR never deliberately chose the date.

Until this year.

Brad Keselowski (6) and Kyle Busch (18) drive out of Turn 4 during a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

NASCAR executive Ben Kennedy, great-grandson of NASCAR’s founder, worked with Fox to schedule the second Cup Series race on dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday night under the lights in a bid to attract a larger television audience.

“When you think about all the other sports leagues with NFL on Thanksgiving, NBA on Christmas, this is our opportunity to run on Easter Sunday and drive a lot of momentum for our fans that are watching at home,” Kennedy said when the race was announced. “We put a lot of consideration into family time. I think to that end, having it later in the day, and on primetime on Sunday, we want to make sure that for fans, families, team members, drivers, that they have the opportunity to celebrate earlier on in the day.

“Then for fans that may be tuning in at night or coming out to the track that evening, the ability to come out there and continue to be together and watch NASCAR racing we felt like was important.”

But as Harvick returned from the beach earlier than planned, he warned the decision to race Sunday night better have a monstrous payoff. In scheduling Bristol for Easter, NASCAR stripped the premier Cup Series of all but one off weekend spanning from February until November.

“The only way it’s successful is if the TV ratings are through the roof. That’s the only way that having it on Easter night is successful,” Harvick said. “That’s the only reason it is where it is is for a TV rating, so if it doesn’t have a TV rating, you should never do it again.

“It’s an experiment, which I’m fine with experiments if it’s beneficial. If it’s beneficial for this sport and beneficial for TV ratings and beneficial for a number of things, then I’m all in. But that will be the real tell of success if that rating is way up compared to what it was.”

But not everyone is onboard as deliberately racing on Easter is unheard of in a sport that begins each event with an invocation and an optional Sunday pre-race church service. Bristol Motor Speedway has scheduled a live Easter Celebration Worship Service at the track to be held three hours before the green flag.

“Not a big fan of racing on Easter. I feel like that’s a very special day, a day that’s equally as big as Christmas, if not bigger, so I’m not crazy about it,” said defending race winner Joey Logano. “I also understand where it makes a lot of sense for a sport to do it. But it’s different than other sports. When other sports compete on holidays, it’s a couple teams here and a couple teams there. This is 40 teams.

“Maybe, it’s going to be fantastic. I’ll have my family with me so that’s good, but it’s going to be a lot different Easter than what we’re used to. Having a church service for industry, I think that that part is good.”

Marcus Smith, president and CEO of track ownership group Speedway Motorsports, said holding the Easter pre-race service was “essential” to staging the event Sunday.

“I think Easter night works really well into the schedule for people at home, they can go to church, go to lunch and Easter night you can watch a race,” Smith said. “And Easter for a lot of people is a travel weekend and we’re giving everybody a place to travel to right here — enjoy a NASCAR weekend and enjoy Easter and we’re going to have a really fantastic service.”


Ben Rhodes used a crossover move to slide past Carson Hocevar and drift his way to victory in the NASCAR Truck Series race at dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway.

The reigning Truck Series champion won Saturday night for the first time in six races this season and sixth time of his career. Prior to the win, Rhodes this season had four top-fives and a pair of runner-up finishes through five races.

It was redemption of sorts for Rhodes, who was runner-up last year in NASCAR’s first ever race on dirt at the 0.533-mile Bristol bullring.

The current points leader actually dominated the race, winning the first two stages and leading 95 of the 155 laps. But a strategy error almost knocked him from contention.

“I thought I gave it away for a moment,” Rhodes said. “Michael Waltrip asked me on the radio ‘Did you mean to (not pit)?’ and the real answer is, ‘No.’ So driving back through the pack like that was really, really tough and not something we wanted to do.”

Hocevar had the lead late until the 12th caution set up a final restart with five laps remaining. By then Rhodes had worked his way back into contention.

Hocevar was the leader, John Hunter Nemechek was second and Rhodes was third when the race resumed. Rhodes pounced past Nemechek and then used a crossover on Hocevar to take the lead with four laps remaining and then pull away.

Hocevar finished second, Nemechek was third and Parker Kligerman was fourth. Christian Eckes was fifth.

Hocevar said he had few options once Rhodes made his move for the win.

“I mean either rip the top or crash him, I hate saying that but it’s part of this racing,” Hocevar said. I couldn’t really compete with him. He just had better tires and he was the fastest truck all day. I was just trying really hard and hoping I could hold him off. I kept looking up in the mirror and once he was fourth, I knew I was in trouble.”

Joey Logano, the defending winner of the Cup race scheduled for Sunday, was sixth as he tried to get extra laps in advance of the main event.

Cup qualifying

Cole Custer won the first pole of his career Saturday through a formula designed for qualifying via heat races at dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway.

Custer put his No. 41 Ford at the front for NASCAR’s rare Easter Sunday race that was specifically scheduled for Fox Sports to try to capitalize on a primetime holiday audience the way the NFL and NBA do on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The starting lineup was set over four 15-lap heats that were determined by a random draw. Drivers accumulated points for both finishing and passing and Custer started ninth in his heat and then won it – good enough for his first pole in 84 career Cup starts.

A slew of dirt aces followed Custer in qualifying: Christopher Bell was second in a Toyota, followed by Tyler Reddick in a Chevrolet and Chase Briscoe, Custer’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, one of the best drivers on dirt in the nation, qualified fifth and was followed by Justin Haley, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and defending race winner Joey Logano.

Visibility was much better Saturday as dust was less of an issue on the watered-down 2,300 truckloads of red Tennessee clay. Fox a year ago asked NASCAR to add a dirt race to the 38-race Cup schedule and Speedway Motorsports volunteered its .0533-mile Bristol bullring.

It cost Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith over $2 million to convert the track a year ago and even though it was a dusty mess of a race, he announced before the checkered flag that the 2022 spring race would again be on dirt. The track was reverted back to its concrete “Last Great Colosseum.”

Fox asked for the Easter Sunday slot and Smith and his staff have scheduled a pre-race religious service for those at the track. He also said ticket sales have proven there’s a demand for dirt racing and the 2023 race at Bristol will again be on dirt.

A spokesman for Speedway Motorsports told The Associated Press that ticket sales for the Bristol spring race – which had waned over the last decade because of poor weather and exorbitant local lodging rates – were above pre-pandemic levels. The crowd expected Sunday was on track to be the largest for Bristol’s spring race in years.