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Chaos. Fun. Melee. Entertaining. Wild. Great. Expensive. Awesome.
Those are just some of the words used to describe last Friday night’s (July 9) Camping World Truck Series visit to the Knoxville Raceway. While it wasn’t the first dirt race for the series, it was a first at the historic Iowa track, and of course, that begs the question of whether the series should return after what turned out to be an incredibly eventful main event.
Four heat races and a points combination of finishing position and positions gained lined up the 40-truck field for what turned out to be nearly 200 laps of competition. Derek Kraus led the field to the green flag and won the first two stages, although he only led 10 laps and ultimately ended up fifth and didn’t make many friends along the way.
In between that, the field was slowed by 14 cautions for a whopping 80 laps (45%) while officially involving 29 drivers, though there were far more than that left with damage. Additionally, there was a nearly 15-minute red flag to clean up the Big One that officially involved 17 trucks on the first of four overtime attempts.
“Knoxville fans are awesome …” Sheldon Creed, who was knocked out of the race on that first overtime attempt, said. But we don’t belong here.”
And in its current form, he’s probably right. But that’s not to say it’s not a salvageable option to see the Truck Series on dirt. It’s nothing against Knoxville or the track preparation team, led by Chris Dunkin. He had a solid plan coming into the weekend, but these trucks weigh almost double what an average sprint car weighs. I’m no dirt track expert, but it doesn’t take one to know that the extra weight will naturally pack the track surface a lot more than is standard.
What I want to know is why NASCAR didn’t take any kind of break to really prep the track during the race. It was clear in stage one how well the track raced and drivers were actually able to pass without flat out dumping one another. In fact, the heat races and first two stages were pretty great. Had the sanctioning body taken some extra time during the break between stage two and three to let the track prep team work on the surface a little, I’d venture to guess there wouldn’t have been as much of a demolition derby to finish out the final stage.
At least we didn’t see drivers plagued with mud clogging their radiators or covering their windshields to the point they couldn’t see, though. I mean, Knoxville didn’t see quite the deluge that plagued the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt weekend either. Add in having a track prep team that’s been working with dirt at this track for generations, and it’s easy to see why the surface was better prepared even after rains overnight Thursday into Friday.
Unfortunately, people will walk away remembering the four overtime attempts and not the heat racing and early parts of the race that were actually quite entertaining. Many have said it was an embarrassment and NASCAR shouldn’t return to the track. But if you look at the whole picture, it wasn’t as bad as people make it out to be. Sure, the final stage carnage was just a demolition derby, not actual racing. I’m not here to argue that. I’m sure everyone was at the point where they were throwing their hands up and shouting “not again” as each restart devolved into another caution, especially during the 29 laps that went beyond the scheduled distance.
But to think that a single visit to a historic race track like Knoxville should be the sole indicator of whether the series should run there again would be like looking at the rain-soaked weekend at Circuit of the Americas and saying, “forget it, it’s not worth it,” without giving it a fair shot.
Obviously, if NASCAR chooses to return to Knoxville but doesn’t change a thing about its approach, history will repeat itself. But a few minor changes can easily take that stage three demolition derby and turn it into an exciting final stage where drivers can actually race each other instead of wrecking each other.
- John Hunter Nemechek clinched the regular season championship with his 11th-place finish. He’ll take 15 additional playoff points and add them to an already astounding 34 that he’s accumulated so far this season with five victories and nine stage wins.
- The Truck Series will now sit idle until Saturday, Aug. 7 when it heads to Watkins Glen International for the final race of the regular season. The series doesn’t race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, and the following two off weekends come during the sport’s Olympic break.