BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Cole Custer earned the first pole of his career on Saturday thanks to a formula designed to qualify via heat races at the dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway.
Custer put his No. 41 Ford up front for NASCAR’s rare Easter Sunday race that was specifically scheduled for Fox Sports to try and capitalize on a prime-time holiday audience like the NFL does. and the NBA at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The starting line-up was established over four 15-lap rounds which were determined by a coin toss. Drivers racked up points for both finishing and overtaking 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 finished second in a Toyota, followed by Tyler Reddick in a Chevy and Chase Briscoe, Custer’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, one of the best clay riders in the country, qualified fifth and was followed by Justin Haley, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and defending winner Joey Logan.
Visibility was much better Saturday as dust was less of an issue on Tennessee’s 2,300 dilute trucks of red clay. A year ago, Fox asked NASCAR to add a dirt race to the 38-race Cup schedule, and Speedway Motorsports offered its 0.0533-mile Bristol arenas.
A year ago it cost Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith more than $2 million to convert the track and although it was a dusty ride he announced before the checkered flag that the spring 2022 race would be on land again. The track was returned to its “last great coliseum” in concrete.
Fox requested the Easter Sunday slot, and Smith and his team scheduled a pre-race church service for those at the track. He also said ticket sales had proven there was a demand for dirt racing and that the 2023 race in Bristol would be held on dirt again.
A spokesperson for Speedway Motorsports told The Associated Press that ticket sales for the Bristol Spring Race – which had declined over the past decade due to bad weather and sky-high local accommodation rates – were above pre-pandemic levels. The expected crowd on Sunday was on track to be the biggest for Bristol’s spring race in years.
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