There was wall scrapping, door slamming, dirt flying and not a single fan sitting at Eldora Speedway Wednesday night. NASCAR had finally gone back home to where it all began; they returned to dirt. After a 43 year hiatus, no one knew what to expect but everyone believed that it would be epic and that it was. Race pole-sitter Kenny Schrader called it the most anticipated race since the 1994 Brickyard 400 while others were hailing it as the biggest race ever run in the Camping World Truck Series. People flocked from 48 states and five countries to watch history be made in NASCAR’s field of a dreams; a track in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by cornfields. Despite its desolate location, the place was packed with well over 20,000 screaming fans. It was a race that will be remembered as a turning point in NASCAR history as this sport rediscovered its roots and I believe this is just the beginning of many good things to come.
The night kicked off with five heat races and a last chance qualifier. I wrote an article a couple weeks ago saying that NASCAR needs to implement heat races in place of single car qualifying and what we all witnessed at Eldora only proved my point that much more. The races put on a heck of a show as drivers battled fiercely for the win and even harder for that coveted transfer spot that would guarantee them a place in the main event. We saw close finishes, tempers flare, battles everywhere and a 61 year old back-marker drive the race of his life to make the MudSummer Classic after a thrilling battle with Clay Greenfield!
I’m talking about Norm Benning who in 103 CWTS starts, has never finished higher than 15th but nonetheless, he shows up every weekend undeterred and gives it his all. At Eldora, he held the final transfer position in the LCQ and was not about to bow for the hungry young drivers that were harassing him for the position. Clay Greenfield grew very impatient as the laps clicked away and finally went on the attack with the white flag in the air. He bumped and slammed Norm whose truck slid sideways but he stayed in the throttle and kept it pointed in the right direction. In the final corner, Clay door-slammed him and ran the No.57 up into the wall but Benning could see the checkered flag and kept that pedal nailed to the floor as he rode the wall all the way to the finish line. With both sides beat all to hell and the exhaust dragging on the ground, he made the race and gave Greenfield the 1-finger salute on the cool down lap before merging triumphantly from his battered machine.
The race itself was just as good with trucks fanning out four and even five wide at times as they tried to make some ground on the leaders. Thankfully, the race was not a wreck-fest as many had feared it would be but the lack of cautions actually helped build the drama on track as the leaders cut through lap traffic while still battling for the top spot with remarkable precision. The race ended with three dirt track aces battling it out for the win in the form of 2011 CWTS champion Austin Dillon, 2008 Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman and the man considered by many as one of the most versatile drivers out there today; 20 year old Kyle Larson. Larson and Newman were teammates but you couldn’t tell on the final two restarts as they proceeded to slam into each other which allowed Dillon to get a little breathing room. After putting Newman in the wall, Larson tried desperately to hunt down Austin but to no avail as the elder Dillon would win the inaugural MudSummer Classic at Eldora Speedway!
After the race, practically every driver was using the words “fun”, “wild,” and “crazy” to describe their nights. Everyone had a great time and every single driver wanted to do it again. I did a Twitter poll last night asking what everyone thought of the race and 100% of the people that voted said they enjoyed it. Jeff Gluck did a similar poll and 95% of fans said that they loved the race as well. Ratings were some of the highest ever for the truck series with 1.4 million people tuning in and topics such as “Norm Benning,” “Eldora” and “MudSummer Classic” trending nationally on Twitter. With how well-received this race was, the longevity of the MudSummer Classic is all but assured and I think this is just the beginning for dirt racing’s resurgence in NASCAR. I believe we will see more dirt races on the truck schedule in the future, a couple in Nationwide and a Cup race on dirt is not completely out of the question but it would be difficult. The 20th anniversary of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a just a few days away and it might as while not exist because all the talk right now surrounds a truck race at a little dirt track in Ohio.
If NASCAR does make the very prudent decision to give dirt racing more of a presence in the three national touring series, the next best candidate in the minds of many drivers is Knoxville Raceway and I heard Duqoin being tossed around by a few people too. Then there’s always the possibility of pouring dirt on a track already in use like when they used to cover Bristol Motor Speedway in dirt for some regional races. I would love to see the March event be a dirt race and then have the August race still be on the concrete; that would be awesome to watch. Knowing Bruton Smith, I think he’d be up for that! Steve O’Donnell said it would be feasible to get Nationwide and Cup at Eldora but those conversations haven’t happened…yet. All I know is that this highly anticipated truck race on dirt lived up to the hype and every person was smiling when they left the track.
You are onto something here NASCAR and please pursue it. If you can get people from across the USA and around the world to show up in the middle of nowhere and pack the house for a standalone truck race, just imagine what you could do for a Cup event!? With the new TV deals taking place in 2015, that could be the perfect opportunity to refine the schedule and add more excitement to the circuit. NASCAR was built on dirt racing and a return to dirt track racing could just be the boost that NASCAR needs to bolster their fan base and regain their former glory.