BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — 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.
“I was nervous about starting ninth, but it worked out,” Custer said. “They did a great job with the track. It was really racy.”
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.
“I wouldn’t call myself a dirt racing expert whatsoever,” Custer said. "I did it when I was younger. I raced some Ford Focus midgets when I was in my early teens and I always loved dirt, but I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert. I’m nowhere near Kyle Larson, so getting my first pole at a dirt race is pretty crazy.”
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.
“I think the first truck heat race you saw some mud got flung up on their windshields and on their grilles and stuff, but after that nobody seemed to have a problem,” Custer said. "It’s the perfect amount (of moisture) what they’re chasing, it seems like. If it gets too dusty, then there’s too much dust in the air and if it’s too wet, then there’s too much mud flying up, so it’s just trying to find that sweet spot I think.”
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.
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