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Big week ahead for Eldora owner Tony Stewart

In the past nine days Tony Stewart has flipped down Eldora Speedway’s front stretch in his winged 410 sprint car, set off a social media buzzstorm by calling Steve Kinser a part of the body used in the final step of digestion and taken the blame for setting off a spectacular 15-car pileup that injured two at a dirt track in New York.

And he thought last week was intense.

Consider what awaits the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion this week. On Wednesday, Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Rossburg hosts the Camping World Truck Series for NASCAR’s first national touring series race on dirt since King Richard Petty tore up the North Carolina Fairgrounds on Sept. 30, 1970. On Sunday, Stewart tries to kiss those coveted bricks for a third time when the Sprint Cup Series celebrates its 20th anniversary at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the racing mecca just 45 minutes from his hometown of Columbus, Ind.

If last week felt more like April Fool’s Day pranks to Stewart, then this week might more resemble Christmas. With one exception.

“I’ve never been scared at Christmas, but I’m nervous with the Truck race coming up,” Stewart said of hosting the CarCash Mudsummer Classic on July 23-24. “Any time you do something for the first time and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out you’re always nervous.”

The Truck race is one of NASCAR’s most anticipated events since perhaps that first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But if any dirt track is ready to take on NASCAR’s first national dirt race in 43 years it’s Eldora. The historic half-mile, high-banked clay oval has hosted some of Sprint Cup’s biggest stars with the Prelude to the Dream late model charity race. It also fields some of dirt racing’s biggest crown jewel events with the Dirt Late Model Dream, World 100, Kings Royal and the 4-Crown Nationals.

“I think it’s a compliment,” Stewart said of Eldora hosting NASCAR’s return to its roots. “If it was at Hickory (Motor Speedway in North Carolina) and it was on TV I don’t think it would generate that kind of excitement. Everybody is curious to see what happens with trucks on dirt for the first time.”

Eldora is ready for NASCAR. Are the drivers ready for Eldora?

Racing at Eldora means running inches from those unforgiving concrete walls on a surface many have never experienced. It’s slide jobs on a constantly changing track. It’s more than 20,000 spectators turning Eldora into Darke County’s largest, albeit temporary, town surrounded by cornfields and campgrounds.

As of Friday 36 Trucks were entered. Stewart wasn’t one of them. He’d prefer to give other drivers a shot to claim one of the 30 spots to start the feature. That’s incredible restraint for a die-hard dirt competitor who has driven just about every kind of car at Eldora … except a NASCAR Truck.

As an official Truck race, the top 20 in owners’ points are locked in the feature, including Dave Blaney, Scott Bloomquist, Austin Dillon, Tracy Hines and Kenny Wallace. The final 10 spots are up for grabs among other non-regulars that include Ken Schrader and Ryan Newman. Embracing the grassroots dirt track format, they’ll battle through six qualifying heat races (eight green flag laps), a last-chance qualifier (15 laps) and then the Mudsummer Classic main event, a 150-lap feature broken up into three segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps. Pit stops will be held between each segment.

“I didn’t want to take one of the 10 spots if it was available,” Stewart said. “I was excited to give other drivers the opportunity to do so.”

Next year might be different. Truck Series director Chad Little said NASCAR goes into each race with the idea it’ll be an annual event if the promoter, the fans and the sponsors support it.

“We’ll see what happens after the event, sit back, analyze it and see what direction they want to go with it,” Stewart said of a possible return in 2014. “We hope it will lead into something like that. Hopefully this is something that takes off and continues to grow.”

When Eldora hosted the first Prelude to the Dream in 2005 there was some backlash from dirt-race purists who thought NASCAR’s asphalt drivers had no place taking over the legendary dirt track started by Earl Baltes back in 1954. The criticism has been much less noticeable for the trucks. Even still, Stewart assures those passionate fans Eldora will remain Eldora.

“This was an opportunity to bring short-track racing forward. It’s a simple deal. If you don’t like the deal don’t go to the program that weekend. It doesn’t mean we’re turning our backs to other ideas and thoughts. We’re just trying to do the best we can. We’re not turning Eldora Speedway into a NASCAR facility. It’s still Eldora,” Stewart said. “We haven’t changed the aura of Eldora Speedway. That’s something we work really hard to not do.”

Stewart — then a rising star with the United States Auto Club (USAC) series with IndyCar aspirations — had a similar response when NASCAR announced it was bringing stock cars to Indianapolis. He’s grown to love the Brickyard 400. Titles in 2005 and 2007 didn’t hurt.

“I was furious. I was one of those people that was a purist. I didn’t want to see Formula One come to Indy. I didn’t want to see NASCAR come to Indy. I didn’t want to see Grand Am. As time has gone on and how hard everybody works, the teams focus a lot on this event,” he said. “This is a place they put a lot of work into. I’ve come around to seeing Formula One and being excited about. Now the Grand Am Series and Nationwide Series is (in Indy) and it’s a fun weekend.”

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