If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
That appears to be the mentality most NASCAR Cup Series team owners have now regarding their superstar drivers participating in other forms of motorsports. This year, it especially holds true for the Chili Bowl Nationals.
The amount of NASCAR’s own participating in this week’s Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is as big as it has ever been, with 11 active drivers from the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series slated to take on the 1/4-mile dirt oval at the River Spirit Expo Center. Those drivers include Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Ryan Ellis, Kyle Larson, Brett Moffitt, Ryan Newman, Garrett Smithley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JJ Yeley. Alex Bowman owns a team in competition, as well.
For Briscoe, the Cup Series rookie set to take over the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in 2021, the positives of competing in grassroots levels of motorsports outweigh any negatives that could be a cause for concern.
“I think if you even looked at five years ago, for sure 10 years ago, it was kind of forbidden to go run sprint-car stuff because obviously it’s dangerous and our day job is to run the NASCAR stuff,” Briscoe told NASCAR.com. “That’s our No. 1 priority. The last two or three years, a lot of these team owners have noticed how much better it honestly makes us on Sundays. Anytime when you can go from racing 36 races a year to running 60 races a year and not only running the Cup car, but sprint cars, winged, non-winged, midgets, dirt late model, it makes you a better race car driver.”
As far as his outlook on this week, Briscoe isn’t sure what to expect after running a significantly smaller number of dirt races in 2020 due to his Xfinity Series schedule and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like every year you go there, and you want to run good, but with 330 something (entries) and only 24 making it, everything’s gotta go your way,” Briscoe said. “Everything has to go your way, you have to be fast, you gotta have a little bit of luck.
“You show up at Tulsa and you really have to be 110% from the get-go. You can’t struggle with the car. You can’t struggle as a driver. You gotta go because on Monday, you’re going to get four laps for practice and then on your prelim night, you’re going to get another three laps and then you go heat racing, which really determines how your whole week goes.”
Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion making his first appearance at the event, has used Briscoe to get up to speed in the dirt-racing realm. The No. 9 driver cut his teeth on asphalt short tracks across the southeast where late-model racing is more prevalent than open-wheel dirt racing. He has shown the interest and willingness to learn a new trade with dirt midgets and been a quick study, finishing third and fourth to Briscoe and Larson in a pair of A-Main events at the 1/6-mile Millbridge Speedway near Salisbury, North Carolina, back in December.
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Briscoe was impressed with not only his gumption to learn something new but also how quickly he was able to adapt to a car so foreign compared to his background. But between the Chili Bowl’s competitive nature and Elliott’s lack of experience, Briscoe also admitted the learning curve for Elliott will be steeper this time around.
“Tulsa is another animal than Millbridge,” Briscoe said. “Regardless, he’s going to have a really good time, a lot of fun and hopefully this will be the first of many years that he’ll come and do it because having a guy that caliber, just the popularity and the recognition he has, to bring that to the Chili Bowl is great for short-track racing, the dirt-racing community and bridge that gap to NASCAR.”
In the past, there was a notion among those in the grassroots racing community that some drivers had forgotten where they came from, maybe not as willing or even unable to take the time to go back and pay respect. It’s the participation of Elliott, Briscoe and other drivers with NASCAR ties in recent years that has shrunk a gap between the highest level of stock-car racing and the grassroots racing that helped elevate them to that level.
NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and three-time champion Tony Stewart initially helped pave that way, finding joy in showing up at a short track when he wasn’t busy with his NASCAR obligations. Stewart competed in sprint-car events across the country throughout his NASCAR career, a passion he still pursues to this day after his retirement. Stewart is also a two-time Chili Bowl Nationals champion, winning in 2002 and 2007.
Now it’s Larson who has taken over the reins and took his participation on dirt tracks across the country and even internationally to new levels. Larson will pilot the new No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2021, and in doing so, he appears to have warmed up to team owner Rick Hendrick enough to let him continue to roam free in other forms of racing.
“I’d say Larson being the first guy that’s really kind of bridged that gap for everybody because he’s so competitive on each side, truthfully, he wins everything on dirt,” Briscoe said. “I think it allows dirt fans to have a lot more reason to watch on Sundays because in the past you really only had Tony, where now you have Larson, you have Christopher Bell, you have myself, you have Tyler Reddick. There’s a lot of people to choose from and root for, you don’t just see them on Sunday. I think the biggest thing that’s bridged that gap is that it’s so much more accessible.”
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Larson has also played a huge role in helping new Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott get up to speed before the Chili Bowl.
“Kyle has been great, he’s been super open and honest talking about midget and dirt racing in general,” Elliott said. “As much as he’s willing to share, I’m certainly going to lean on him at least to help me get going. I’m excited to talk to him and learn some things that might be second nature to him, but that are completely foreign to me.”
While Briscoe grew up racing sprint cars and other forms of dirt competition in Indiana and across the Midwest, he thinks Elliott’s participation has the potential to make even greater strides since it has stemmed from his own initiative.
“That’s the coolest thing,” Briscoe said. “That’s where there’s a lot more respect to be had. … Chase genuinely wants to go run dirt and get better at it. I don’t know how much of that is because of the Cup race (on dirt at Bristol) getting added, but a lot of this was in the works before the schedule got announced, or obviously before he won the championship. He could have easily backed out, but he still wanted to do it. That shows a lot about his character.”