Another race weekend, another new venture for the Next Gen car. This weekend will be the first time that the Cup Series hosts a race on dirt, with the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. There are some major changes that will be needed in order to make sure this event is a success, unlike last weekend's lackluster race at Martinsville.

The ultimate goal for NASCAR is to prevent the collection of dirt on body panels and suspension components. Several of the composite parts used for the rest of the season are being replaced with metal pieces for this weekend. Screens will also be permitted for rocker box vents and the rear wheel tub vent. The exhaust exit shrouds must be mounted on the inside of the rocker boxes to prevent dirt catching on them.

In terms of the suspension, spring bags are able to be installed on the damper assembly and rules have been tweaked for the ground clearance section of the rule book. Most of these changes won't be noticed by most fans watching the race but they are all critical for this event to be successful.

Last week NASCAR had Stewart Friesen on hand to test a few things, in preparation for this weekend's race. The car appeared to have a little more speed on track, which could be due in part to the independent rear suspension. It will be a major learning curve for the drivers in several different aspects.

One of the biggest changes that drivers are still trying to get used to is the shifting inside the car. That was a hot topic last weekend in Martinsville, and could be a main storyline in this race. Bubba Wallace was one of the more vocal drivers on this subject.

“This new Next Gen car has totally revamped Martinsville,” Wallace said. “You’re barely using any brake pressure, downshifting into the corners, upshifting on the straightaways. So, it’s just a lot going on, which is good. You’re going to have to get up on the wheel."

Bubba's teammate Kurt Busch painted a more detailed picture on the subject. “Right now, I feel like I’m an octopus in the car. Shifting gears, steering with one arm, trying to get the brake bias, trying to tell them race trim, trying to tell them qualifying trim. How in the world are we shifting here at Martinsville? This is either awesome or it’s insane. I don’t know yet.”

Martin Truex Jr was more direct on the topic. “It’s just so different. We have no experience because we’ve never done this,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver stated. Rookie Austin Cindric noted the additional workload on the drivers. “Four more shifts a lap than normal,” said the Daytona 500 winner. “Just calculating that in that adds a significant more amount physicality to this race. That’s a lot more work by the driver having to shift every lap.”

Considering all of these changes and the extra workload, it will be the drivers that figure it out the quickest that will make their way to the front of the field on Sunday.

Be that as it may, the favorites will still be the guys with experience racing on dirt.

“The dirt guys, I would say, definitely have an advantage,” Kyle Busch said. “The more experience you have on dirt, the more trust you have in what the vehicle can do on dirt and what your driving style is or what your driving technique can be and how you can trust the grip level that the dirt has versus what your car has. I think there’s a lot of things that the dirt guys can really pick up on. You always see in those truck races the guys that are good at it, that put some time into it, are better than the ones that are not.”

Chase Briscoe, who is one of those guys, agrees with Busch. "The dirt guys have always had to figure it out and adapt very quickly," he said. "The guys that grew up late model racing or pavement racing, they don't really have that. They go out and test, or have hours of practice, where the dirt guys have to adapt quickly. I think that's why you've seen dirt guys run better, earlier, in this Next Gen car."

Another favorite to win this race is defending series champion Kyle Larson. Oddsmakers have made the Hendrick Motorsports driver the betting favorite heading into the weekend, despite his struggles this season. His experience on dirt is well established but others like Briscoe, Christopher Bell, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr should garner plenty of attention come Sunday.

“I think people look at me with all the experience that I have on dirt as being even more of a favorite,” said Larson. “But these cars are way different than what I typically race on dirt. They don’t drive anything like what I’m used to with a sprint car, midget or now a dirt late model. These cars are way heavier and have a lot less horsepower than I’m used to on a dirt track.”

Not many people predicted that Joey Logano would win the inaugural race here last season, but the Team Penske driver got the job done with little experience on dirt. Factoring in all of the different aspects of the Next Gen car, it really is wide open this weekend.