NASCAR’s return to dirt racing on Wednesday took on a different look than the last time they kicked up some dust.
Consider it the Eldora Experience, and 43 consecutive years of asphalt action.
Amid some traditional dirt track pomp and pageantry — including NASCAR’s first-ever, four-wide parade lap salute to the fans — NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series and Eldora threw a dirt party that will long be remembered. Austin Dillon won’t soon forget.
Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, held off a late-race charge from Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman to win the Inaugural CarCash Mudsummer Classic at Eldora. It was NASCAR’s first race on dirt since Sept. 30, 1970, when Richard Petty beat the field by two laps at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C.
Dillon didn’t have it that easy. The 2011 CWTS points champion and current Nationwide Series driver had to work through the field from his 19th starting position. That’s a dangerous spot considering most of the drivers in the field had little or no experience on dirt. Still, Dillon weaved his way through the field during the race that featured three segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps for a scheduled 150-lapper. He caught up to and slipped past dirt hotshoe Kyle Larson on lap 123 and never relinquished it to win by 1.207 seconds.
“To be able to come from 19th in a 150-lap race I feel is great racing. There were some slide jobs out there and some tight racing,” Dillon said. “I think the Truck Series should come back here twice next year. I don’t know about Nationwide or Cup, maybe later on down the road possibly, but I think it throws another bone in the championship chase showing how good our drivers are in NASCAR to be able to transition from asphalt, dirt and road courses.”
The field of 30 drivers impressed early. Timothy Peters, who had no dirt experience, slid past dirt veteran and pole sitter Ken Schrader to lead 23 laps. Most impressive is the first caution didn’t come out until 55 laps into the race for debris. There were six cautions overall.
“I would have lost probably half my Sprint Cup team and my new house betting we were going to run the first 55 laps without a caution,” Stewart said. “I would have said we wouldn’t make it five laps into the race without a caution.”
The final caution came out on lap 149 and lasted until 151 to set up a green-white-checkered finish. Dillon, starting high on the double-file restart, pulled away as Larson and third-place finisher Ryan Newman battled door-to-door behind him. CWTS regulars Joey Coulter and Brendan Gaughan rounded out the top five. Peters finished sixth and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. seventh to give the Truck regulars a strong showing against the mudslingers hired for the one-race run.
“Yeah, if I can get the dirt out of my eyes I’ll be all right,” Wallace said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my career, I’d say. It was kind of a given one of the dirt racers would win, so congrats to Austin.”
CWTS points leader Matt Crafton finished eighth to keep his points lead over Jeb Burton, who finished 18th. Dillon, Larson and Newman were not eligible for points.
That didn’t make the racing any less exciting as the track slicked up during the race giving the drivers they feeling they were riding around Eldora on ice. Larson led twice for 51 laps and lost the lead to Dillon on lap 122 when he said he over-drove his truck into Turn 3, then made contact with a slower truck. That enabled Dillon to get by. Larson said he pulled slightly ahead of Dillon but lost the lead when a caution came out.
“That’s kind of what killed the race for us,” Larson said.
The night started with some dirt racing traditions. As opposed to a popular country or pop singer, the St. Henry High School marching band performed the national anthem. The winner’s share of the 50/50 claimed $17,000. And, of course, there were those famous Eldora pizza burgers. Was it a success?
“I heard they were hauling dirt into Daytona right now as part of their renovation project,” Newman joked. “It’s awesome. It’s fun. It’s pretty simple. We didn’t need pit crews tonight. I think it’s a matter of asking the fans. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. There are other dirt tracks we could go to that would be fun as well.”
For the historic return to dirt 130 media descended on Eldora. That’s more than attended the Prelude to the Dream charity dirt late model race featuring some of Sprint Cup’s biggest stars. The event also brought together dirt racing fans and asphalt fans who often don’t appreciate each others sport. Those paths collided at Eldora on Wednesday.
Welcome to Stewart’s world.
“It just confirms the level of insanity that is my life,” Stewart said of the challenge in reuniting dirt racing and NASCAR. “I think this is huge. I was in the motorhome lot (Tuesday) night before I left the track and Kenny Schrader put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘This is big for all of us.’ This is more than just a truck race here. The big picture is this is big for every dirt track across the country. This is exposure a lot of these tracks never get. This is something that can really help short track racing.”
It certainly helped Schrader. He topped the CWTS field to set fast time in the two-lap qualifying session. Schrader, a dirt racing legend also making his 975th NASCAR start among the three national divisions, set fast time in 19.709 seconds (91.329 mph) around Eldora’s high-banked, half-mile oval.
Thirty-five drivers tested Eldora. Schrader, 58, prevailed to become NASCAR’s oldest pole winner among the Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Truck series. The late Dick Trickle held the previous record at 57.
By most accounts — especially those on social media — the combination of dirt and NASCAR is a success. The race sold out in February. Eldora GM Roger Slack said 83 percent of the buyers had never purchased an advanced ticket to Eldora before. And of those who did buy tickets came from 48 different states as well as Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. The average crowd at a 2012 CWTS race was 30,000. About 25,000 were expected for Eldora.
During one point in the race #Mudsummer Classic was trending on Twitter as the fifth most popular topic in the nation.
It wasn’t just the racing fans — both dirt and asphalt — who were excited about NASCAR going back to its roots.
“If you look at the crowds we get at Truck races at 1.5-mile tracks, 20,000 would be huge,” said CWTS driver Johnny Sauter. “I don’t care what short track it is. They have some of the best fans in the world. If we run in Minnesota or Ohio it doesn’t matter. Short tracks typically have a really good fan base. I’m a short track racer at heart. I’m all for it.”
Both NASCAR and Eldora will have to undergo an evaluation process after Wednesday’s race. But judging from the buzz surrounding the Mudsummer Classic, NASCAR should return in 2014.
“We wouldn’t have done this for one race if we didn’t think that this was something that potentially could go further down the road,” Stewart said. “If it only goes one year, is all the time and effort and worrying worth it? Absolutely in my mind.
“When we announced we were doing this race we had a lot of backlash from a lot of our core fans at Eldora who were absolutely livid about hosting an event for NASCAR,” Stewart said. “I think as time has gone on we’ve won the idea that we’re not going to host an event here and totally change this venue. There are people here now who haven’t been for 20 or 30 years because of the NASCAR race.”
In addition to NASCAR fans getting their first taste of Eldora, there was one more sign that signaled the two sides could co-exist.
“It’s been somewhat surprising from our standpoint because some of the other events we have here it seems we don’t have enough law enforcement on the property to accommodate our needs,” Stewart said. “There were a lot of them who went home early (Tuesday) night because the crowd has been very well behaved. Everybody’s just happy because it’s an event.”