BRISTOL, Tenn. — NASCAR's hyped return to dirt is instead a muddy mess on hold at least until Monday.
Torrential rains flooded campgrounds and parking lots surrounding Bristol Motor Speedway and created a rut for NASCAR far deeper than anything the Cup Series drivers encountered on the track.
NASCAR canceled all Sunday activity because even if Bristol's converted dirt track could eventually be readied for night racing, the entire facility was a swampy mess. Grandstand seats that had been covered in dust were caked in mud, while pit road and the apron around the 0.533-mile bullring held several inches of standing water.
After 2 1/2 inches of rain fell across "Thunder Valley," NASCAR made an atypical decision to call an early washout. The first Cup Series race on dirt since 1970 was rescheduled for 4 p.m. Monday; the Truck Series race, already postponed from Saturday night, was set to run at noon Monday.
Somewhere, Tony Stewart likely was having a hearty laugh at Bristol's expense.
Stewart — the NASCAR Hall of Fame driver with three Cup Series titles and the part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which runs four cars on the circuit — successfully hosted seven Truck Series races at his Eldora Speedway dirt track in Ohio. However, when Fox asked NASCAR to put a dirt event on the Cup Series schedule, it went to the concrete track at Bristol instead of Eldora.
An incensed Stewart declined to bring the Truck Series back to his track this year out of spite and has sat back and watched from afar as Bristol attempted to tackle the challenges of a dirt race. He openly fretted that a bad show at Bristol would damage the future of NASCAR dirt racing, and at least one executive seemed to admit it was a valid concern.
"We need this show to be great," Scott Miller, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said Saturday.
Stewart, who has insisted Eldora can successfully host the Cup Series, declined to comment Sunday when reached by The Associated Press.
"I'm not getting my hands dirty," he said.
In fairness to Bristol parent company Speedway Motorsports, its CEO has been unafraid to take risks and spend considerable money in an effort to bring new energy into the sport. Marcus Smith converted centerpiece Charlotte Motor Speedway into a hybrid oval-and-road course, known as the "Roval," that in three years has become one of the more popular layouts on the NASCAR schedule.
So Smith was all in on offering Bristol for the dirt experiment, and his staff spent six months converting the venue by topping the track's concrete surface with 2,300 truckloads of red Tennessee clay. It was ready in time to host the Bristol Dirt Nationals a week before the Cup Series visited, and Super Late Models, Sport Mods, Modifieds and 602 Late Models raced largely without trouble.
Cup Series drivers Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson competed, and NASCAR leaned on both for guidance during this weird weekend.
Problems began to crop up this past Friday during practice sessions for the weekend's NASCAR races. The dust that kicked up from the dirt was thick, but the main concern was the durability of the tires provided by Goodyear. Drivers reported significant wear down to the cords on their tires, and the 3,400-pound stock cars were tearing up the track surface.
NASCAR made tweaks to in-race procedures to allot additional time for track prep and granted teams an additional set of tires for the race. When it stopped raining Saturday, the trucks were sent out to start heat races, but it took just one lap for the rain-soaked track to splatter windshields with a thick layer of mud and cake the front grilles. That put every competitor into a blinding situation accompanied by a fear of an overheating engine.
Larson believed the track conditions at the start of the heat races would have created the best dirt racing NASCAR had ever experienced, but the cars had not been transformed for the event.
"If dirt racing became a thing, I think we could develop a tire that could handle the loads at a track like Bristol and this kind of dirt, they could stay together and put on good racing," Larson said Sunday. "And if dirt racing is a thing, then maybe we should develop something where we don't run with windshields and we can change around the radiators so that we could have raced in Saturday's conditions."
A week earlier, Larson led a feedback session on track prep during a drivers' meeting at the Dirt Nationals and, as one of the top dirt racers in the country, he is one of the most knowledgeable on site and willing to advise both NASCAR and the track staff.
"Now that Smoke isn't here, I'm the guy who probably has the most experience," Larson said, referring to Stewart by his nickname. "A lot of people in NASCAR don't have a lot of dirt experience, and that might go for many of the people even working on the track."
He thought the Dirt Nationals went well and Bristol had done a great job converting the track.
"I don't think Bristol has done anything wrong. I know it looks bad with the dust from Friday practice," Larson said. "But I really think that it comes down to our cars are 1,000 pounds heavier than anything that ran here last weekend and our tires are narrow and hard — that's just a recipe for how this has ended up."
Larson hasn't given up on Monday's rescheduled race still being a decent show, and he wants critics to give Bristol a break.
"Eldora has races all throughout the year and the weather is typically fine when they hold those events," Larson said. "This is a makeshift track in the mountains, and it is always raining in the spring.
"People need to understand this is not how dirt racing is, and I think they need to try and appreciate how hard this is to pull off. I don't think it is a black eye on Bristol or dirt for Cup. Sure, there's a lot of other dirt tracks we can run on that has really good dirt and a great track prep crew that knows the track, but a lot of work went into making it happen here, and I still think it can be a great event because Bristol was awesome last week."
F1: Hamilton holds on
SAKHIR, Bahrain — Reigning series champion Lewis Hamilton just managed to hold off Max Verstappen to win the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, the 96th Formula One victory of his storied career.
The race was effectively decided when Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the 53rd of 56 laps but went too wide on a turn and off track limits. He was told by his Red Bull team to give Hamilton the position back because he risked a time penalty.
"It's a shame, but you also have to see the positives," Verstappen said. "We are really taking the fight to them, and I think that's great to start the year like that."
Verstappen still had a few laps to catch Hamilton and almost did, finishing .74 second behind the Mercedes driver who last year won his fourth straight season championship and record-tying seventh overall.
"What a difficult race that was. Max was all over me at the end, and I was just about able to hold him off," Hamilton said. "I knew he was going to catch me, and I thought it was going to be impossible to keep him behind That was one of the hardest races I've had for a while. I love the challenge."
With 22 races still to come — next up is the Emilia-Romagna GP in Italy on April 18 — fans could be in for a treat this season if the 23-year-old Verstappen takes the title challenge to Hamilton, who turned 36 in January.
"I'm super happy for the fans that they are excited; this is something all the fans have wanted for some time," Hamilton said. "I hope for many more of these races with Max."
Hamilton's teammate, Valtteri Bottas, finished third but was far behind the front two.
Verstappen started in pole position for the fourth time in his F1 career and was immediately ahead of Hamilton under floodlights at the desert track. Verstappen got away cleanly, while Ferrari's Charles Leclerc made a fine overtake on Bottas but lost that position after the safety car came out on the first lap.
Hamilton initially gained control of the race by making an earlier tire change than Verstappen, who finally started trimming his deficit and took the lead when Hamilton came in for a second tire change.
Verstappen then made his second change with 16 laps left and had an eight-second gap to make up, but Hamilton had older tires. Verstappen caught him on the 53rd lap and passed him at the second attempt on the fourth turn, but the joy was short-lived.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained to him that race control had given the order to let Hamilton back in front per regulations.
"I knew I had run off the track limits," Verstappen said afterward.
Sergio Perez's Red Bull debut started badly as his car stalled seconds before the start. He lost his grid position and had to start from the pit lane, but he did well to finish fifth, behind Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas and McLaren's Lando Norris.
Haas driver Nikita Mazepin slid into the gravel without completing a lap on his F1 debut, bringing out the safety car for three laps. In a hectic restart, Bottas regained third place as Leclerc slipped back.
Hamilton was 1.5 seconds behind Verstappen when Mercedes took the bold strategy to switch him to hard tires on the 14th lap. Hamilton soon clocked the fastest time on his new tires. Bottas came in for the same tire change three laps after Hamilton, and Verstappen came in on the 18th lap but again for medium tires.
Midway through, Verstappen was finally starting to gain on every lap as Hamilton's tires began to wear.
"I can't go any quicker," Hamilton told his team over the radio.
So they brought him in for a second tire change and Bottas soon after, but Mercedes botched the latter stop, taking too long to remove his right front tire.
"Not ideal, and I had a slow pit stop which in the end took away any opportunities," Bottas said.
Sebastian Vettel's Aston Martin debut was eventful as he clipped Esteban Ocon near the end, then accused the French driver of changing his racing line.
Vettel was 15th, one place ahead of Haas driver Mick Schumacher, who made his F1 debut on the track where his famed father Michael won the inaugural Bahrain GP in 2004. Hamilton tied Michael Schumacher's record last year with his seventh championship.
Two-time series champion Fernando Alonso failed to finish the race in his F1 comeback with Alpine.
Before the race, all drivers wore "We Race As One" written on the front of black T-shirts to send a message for diversity and inclusion. Hamilton, Vettel and several other drivers took a knee against racism, just as they did last year.