Next Wednesday night, the Camping World Truck Series steps out of its asphalt comfort zone and onto the dirt of Eldora Speedway. The Aspen Dental 150 will mark the fifth consecutive year the series has visited the half-mile oval, and it appears this race will remain on the schedule for years to come, especially with the reception it’s had with fans over the last few years.
As the only dirt track on the 23-race schedule, Eldora is a bit of an anomaly and presents a unique challenge to many drivers, while it plays to the strengths of others.
“Eldora is kind of an oddball compared to most racetracks we go to,” John Hunter Nemechek said in a NASCAR teleconference Tuesday.
And that’s truly what it is. It’s the one race each year that brings such a large uncertainty to how it will play out. Sure, the visits to the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega include uncertainty in how they’ll turn out, however it’s a different feeling. Everyone knows going into the superspeedways that we’ll see pack racing and likely plenty of carnage, leaving whoever can survive with a shot at the win. But Eldora is different.
With different experience levels and different talent levels, racing on dirt can either be a huge excitement or a cause for anxiety. For a driver like Christopher Bell, who is fresh off of his third win this season at Kentucky Speedway, momentum is already on his side. Add in his experience at the half-mile oval, and you can expect he’s excited, especially since he’s already got a win from 2015 at the track.
“Eldora is my favorite racetrack in the whole world,” Bell said in Tuesday’s teleconference. “I think I’ve got as good a shot as anybody to win the race and it’s one of my favorite races of the year, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
But perhaps what’s more important than the actual dirt race itself is the atmosphere that surrounds this event in general. When NASCAR announced the Truck Series would head to Eldora for the first time in 2013, the excitement from fans and media alike were felt all across social media. Of course, the hype leading up to the first race left you wondering whether it would actually deliver. And boy did it ever.
The inaugural Mudsummer Classic fell on a Wednesday night, like it always has, in 2013. When the checkered flag flew, Austin Dillon emerged victorious by more than a second over Kyle Larson in a green-white-checkered finish. But what was more memorable was Norm Benning’s last ditch effort to make the race in his self-owned No. 57 truck. In the last chance qualifier, he fought hard, slipping and sliding, while bouncing off of the wall coming to the checkered flag.
The hard work paid off though, as he held off Clay Greenfield to make the field, leaving fellow drivers cheering for his success.
But that success was short-lived when Benning saw the damage caused by his very physical battle with Greenfield. The truck needed several repairs in a short amount of time if Benning was going to be able to race.
Enter his fellow competitors. Excited over the effort Benning put in to make the main event, crew members from several teams descended on his truck, beating out the damage, changing tires and making repairs to the exhaust, which was broken from its mount and dragging on the ground.
“I couldn’t get to my own truck through all the people working on it,” Benning said at the time. “I want to personally thank each and every one of them. There were so many, I can’t remember them all. But I really appreciate what they did.
“I don’t get an opportunity to have a level playing field too often. It wasn’t about aerodynamics at Eldora and it wasn’t about big horsepower. I’d love an opportunity to come out and do it right every week, but I just don’t have the money.”
Though Benning was never a factor for the win in the main event, the feel-good story of a team on a miniscule budget barely making the field added to the appeal of an already exciting race.
The following year, the excitement again returned as the series headed back to Eldora. Heading into that race, I wondered whether the new had worn off and if it would be just another race, but once again, it didn’t disappoint.
Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Erik Jones and Darrell Wallace Jr. combined to dominate the race, leading a combined 121 of 150 laps, though Jones faded to an eventual 29th-place finish after winning his heat race and leading the first 24 circuits in the main event. Wallace ended up in Victory Lane following a spirited battle with dirt-track ace Kyle Larson, who tried to knock down the walls – almost literally – all around the track trying to catch Wallace, until he hit too hard and was forced to settle for a DNF in 25th.
That race also was the one where Ty Dillon’s crew chief Danny Stockman made a questionable call, saw his driver penalized and watched as NASCAR attempted to fix the problem. Dillon and Larson engaged in an intense side-by-side battle, swapping positions as they raced. But when Larson spun and clipped Dillon’s left rear, the latter was left with a flat tire.
After speaking with a NASCAR official, Stockman brought his driver down pit road to change four tires and add fuel, but there were two problems with that move. The first was that adding fuel outside of the segment breaks was prohibited, and the other was that the official gave the team incorrect information in allowing a four-tire change.
The result was Dillon being held a lap as a penalty, but because the wrong information about changing four tires was given to the team NASCAR attempted to correct its wrong by allowing the crew to put the tires Dillon had started the race on without penalty. The consequence for adding fuel stood, though, since that wasn’t part of the conversation with the official. Dillon ended up getting the free pass shortly after that penalty and ultimately recovered to a fifth-place finish, though he was left wondering what could have been.
Fast forward to the 2015 race, and virtual NASCAR unknown Bobby Pierce took the world by storm. Well-known in dirt racing circles, Pierce made his series debut with MB Motorsports and promptly put his truck on the pole for the race. After winning his heat race too, many expected Pierce to excel in the feature, and that’s exactly what he did, though it wasn’t without its challenges.
Pierce got shuffled back on an early restart and looked like he wouldn’t be able to recover. Then, when he finally did get to the front again, Pierce engaged in several side-by-side battles with eventual winner Christopher Bell that could only be described as epic. He did so even when one of his many smacks to the wall in the closing laps loosened the bed cover on the back end of the truck, damage that looked like it might end his race. Instead, NASCAR let Pierce continue to race since the piece was tethered to the truck and wouldn’t cause a danger to spectators or competitors.
Christopher Bell, who was not yet racing full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports, led 106 laps en route to his first Truck Series victory, while Pierce ended up second in his first race with MBM.
“The last 10-15 laps, I was really going for it,” Pierce said after the race. “After watching Kyle (Larson) beat the wall down last year, I knew these trucks could take a lot before they start falling apart. “Whenever I hit the wall with the truck, I made sure it was the back end. I tried to keep the front end out of it, but a couple of times we got up in there. That’s just what happens when you’re really going for it at the end.
“Christopher did an unbelievable job. Hats off to him. He raced clean the whole race. It was just a lot of fun, and beating the wall down is something I’m normally good at, so it’s been a great week.”
Just last year, during his rookie season, Bell took a shot at going back-to-back at Eldora, while Pierce once again started on the pole and won his heat race. This time, neither one emerged victorious. Bell ended up second to eventual winner Kyle Larson, while Pierce dominated, leading 102 laps before retiring early to a disappointing 25th-place finish.
Much like he had done the year before, Pierce spent a good chunk of the race bouncing off of the wall, only this time, he did so while struggling to get his truck out of fourth gear. When contact with the wall left him with a flat tire, the truck ended up nose-first in the inside wall, and Pierce was unable to move, forcing him out of the race.
For Larson, the record books won’t show what he went through en route to Victory Lane. Contact resulted in a cut tire and spun from the lead, but NASCAR deemed the spin avoidable and docked him a lap. A free pass under the sixth caution allowed Larson to rejoin the lead lap, and he worked his way through the field to the win.
As I’ve looked back at the last four races at Eldora, I’m reminded of just how great the racing has been at the half-mile oval, and it leaves me, once again, looking forward to next Wednesday night. In fact, it’s almost like you can feel the energy and excitement, even from at home on the couch.
Each year, the racing seems to get better and better as the teams figure the surface and the strategies required and the track continues to ensure a strong racing surface.
“No matter how big this (sport) gets, tonight was an example of the passion we all have for what we do,” Eldora owner Tony Stewart said after the inaugural race. “You don’t see that with pavement racing. It gives us hope for why we all do this.”
Of course, along with the excitement each year when the Truck Series visits Eldora, the calls for adding more dirt races to the schedule begin anew. But the problem with that is adding more dirt races would simply take the shine off of the annual trip to the small track, nestled in northwest Ohio.
NASCAR truly is better off leaving Eldora as the lone outlier in an otherwise predictable schedule. After all, there has to be at least a little excitement and mystery left to keep people coming back for more.