Back in 1965, NASCAR was seen as nothing more than a niche sport for southerners. The calendar was made up mostly of short tracks, both dirt and paved, and it only reached the national spotlight in "ABC's Wide World of Sports". That began to change quickly, however, and by 1970 the series had outgrown it's dirt track roots, seemingly permanently cutting ties with non-paved racing surfaces. However, 43 years later, that's all changed. Yes, tonight NASCAR returns to dirt track racing.
The top tier Sprint Cup series, the only NASCAR national series that existed at the time of the last NASCAR sanctioned dirt race, is still a few years out of even considering a dirt race, so proverbial foot in the water at Eldora is being run by the third tier Camping World Truck Series.
The series, commonly referred to as simply "the Truck series" or by the abbreviation "NCWTS", exists mostly to bridge the gap between the now rather big second tier Nationwide series and the still significantly smaller stage regional K&N Pro Series classes. It caters to both early development drivers (such as Joe Gibbs Racing's Darrell Wallace Jr, who is running for Joe Gibbs Racing Cup driver Kyle Busch's KBM organization) and semi-retired veterans (such as Ron Hornaday, Jr., who is a four time champion of the relatively young Truck series), runs a shorter season than the other two national series (just 24 events, compared to 33 for the Nationwide series and a whopping 38 (36 points paying) for the Sprint Cup series) and generally runs shorter races than the two classes higher up the NASCAR ladder.
The cars are extremely similar to normal stock cars underneath, built in the same manner, but have different dimensions and thus aren't built off of cars from any other class. The larger amount of drag produced by the protruding Truck-like cabin creates both a massive draft and little "aero push", resulting in far more passing than what's seen in the now relatively overtake-dry Nationwide and Sprint Cup categories. They generally wear a small spoiler and a large splitter, but due to the nature of dirt track racing, the splitter has been removed for today's event and the spoiler has been made larger. Their engines are cut from the same cloth as those in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup divisions, but they produce significantly less power thanks to a NASCAR mandated tapered spacer. Thus, they're left with about 550 horsepower, which may not be much compared to the rumored 900 horsepower put out by a fully tuned Sprint Cup engine, but is far more than one would consider "comfortable" in a heavy RWD car on a dirt track.
Owned and operated by three time NASCAR (and one time IRL) champion Tony Stewart, the Eldora Speedway of Rossburg, Ohio has quickly become the world's premiere dirt oval. Host of one of the biggest sprint car races on earth (The King's Royal, won a week and a half ago by Brad Sweet), two of the biggest dirt late model races on earth (The World 100 and The Dream) and the former pay-per-view all star event (on hiatus for 2013 in favor of today's NCWTS event) known as the Preulde to the Dream, the 20,000 seat Eldora facility is clearly the best possible stage for NASCAR's return to it's roots.
The race has been sold out since January, and yesterday's practice sessions (literally just four hours of practice and about an hour and a half of dirt late model running, nothing else!) were nearly a sell out as well. Thanks to that already confirmed strong crowd, a good race tonight could set up Eldora for two Truck Series races in 2014, which would be the next logical step in the long process that will hopefully end in a dirt track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule before the decade is out.
What Makes Racing On Dirt Special?
Racing on dirt is different from racing on asphalt. The lack of grip and near-requirement of vigorous applications of oppositelock out of each corner make this clear. However, what's less clear is what makes racing on a dirt oval so unique: The way the track changes.
A paved track is not a dynamic thing. Yes, the conditions change depending on the temperature, level of rubber on the surface and level of moisture on the surface, but the track itself is always the same. Surface changes occur at dirt tracks as well, but they don't just change the way the track is driven on. No, they change the track itself. The track slowly widens as drivers flirt more and more with the far outside line until the "cushion" meets the wall, the rubber actually actively mixes with the dirt to create a firmer and faster track surface and new bumps appear and disappear as the night goes on. The track surface at the end of the race is almost entirely different from that of the start of the race.
Because dirt tracks develop "cushions" (points in a corner where unused dirt meets the racing line, usually the highest banked point on the circuit and fastest portion of the track), the higher line is often the fastest way around the track, and that means that if a driver wants to make a pass, they need to go all the way to the bottom. This is going to be difficult with cars as long and wide as these NASCAR trucks, as most dirt tracks are designed for 2400 pound Late Models at most, but the more talented dirt racers in the field will be able to accomplish it with relative ease. One can expect to see the more experienced drivers, particularly the likes of Scott Bloomquist and Kyle Larson, running odd lines that most others aren't willing to experiment with early in the race in order to see where moves can be made late, when positions really start to matter.
Two other things to watch for tonight are the level of moisture in the track (adjusted between sessions by a water truck that runs over the circuit to keep the moisture in the circuit, with a more damp track generally being quicker) and the level of rubber in the track (adjusted simply by the amount of tire degradation occurring over the course of the race and where drivers run, with more rubber generally being quicker). Both will become more important as the night goes on.
The evolution of the track will decide when and where passes can be made, and a well prepared and developed track could be the difference between a follow-the-leader affair and a 150 lap side-by-side, sideways battle for the win.
Thirty five cars are entered for tonight's race. However, there's only room on the grid for thirty. As you can imagine, that's a bit of an issue, and it's one set to be resolved by a series of heat races. Five heats of seven trucks will set the first 25 positions on the grid, while whatever trucks that fail to make the show in those rounds and don't hold the neccessary position in the owner's standings to get into the field by a provisional will move on to a last chance qualifier, which will fill the remaining positions on the grid. The top twenty cars in the owner's championship (a championship that follows car numbers (which represent team ownership), essentially) are already locked into the field regardless of what happens in the heat races, but with the speed most of those entries are showing and how little speed many of the teams lower int he owner's standings are showing, it's not hard to imagine that these provisional positions ends up a non-factor in setting the final grid.
The race itself will be a 150 lap affair (split into a 60 lap segment, a 50 lap segment and a 40 lap segment because Eldora has no pit lane and stops need to be made under controlled conditions) starting at about 9:00 PM EST.
Below is a car-by-car summary of the entire entry list for tonight's race, with a small blurb on each and a "predictive ranking" stating where I think they would finish if the race were one of thirty five entries and nothing unpredictable happened.
3 - Ty Dillon
Predictive ranking - 4
The grandson of team owner Richard Childress and a favorite for the 2013 Truck Series title even despite being a full race out of the championship lead after just nine races, Dillon comes into tonight's event with the world on his side. Add to that his wealth of experience in dirt late models and great times in both of yesterday's practice sessions and he's got to be a favorite for a strong finish.
4 - Jeb Burton
Predictive ranking - 11
Only one Truck series rookie has ever been as competitive in his debut season as Jeb Burton has been in 2013 to date. That driver? Ty Dillon. Like the younger Dillon brother, he has a real shot at a title in his first ever season of NASCAR sanctioned racing on a national level, but unlike the younger Dillon brother, he does not have a wealth of experience on dirt. He's been quick in practice, however, and a quick learner like Burton is always a threat to exceed expectations.
5 - Jason Bowles
Predictive ranking - 15
Filling a seat normally held by less-than-popular funded driver Tim George Jr, Bowles is making his first competitive run in a NASCAR national series car since his moderately successful rookie Nationwide season in 2012. He's not going to be a favorite for the win, but he's fast and he's in a very fast truck.
6 - Jared Landers
Predictive ranking - 14
Landers is a dirt late model specialist, driving full time for Sprint Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer (who will be a SPEED analyst for tonight's race), but even with his wealth of experience in relatively heavy cars on dirt tracks, 3200 pounds of truck will be something wholly unique to Landers. He'll be better than many, but likely not the most competitive of the so-called "dirt track ringers".
7 - John Wes Townley
Predictive ranking - 34
What can be said about John Wes Townley? Once known as a man who did little more than wreck Richard Childress's Nationwide series cars, the young man has blossomed into a fairly competent, fairly competitive driver. He even won in the ARCA series at Daytona earlier in the year. However, if you've only seen him in yesterday's two practice sessions, this development would be entirely lost on you. In just four hours of running, he spun an amazing seven times. Yes, seven. He's done so poorly that multiple drivers, including Midget racing star and part time Nationwide series racer Kevin Swindell and former driver of the #7 Red Horse Racing truck Parker Kligerman, have offered on Twitter to replace him mid-race. Expect very little from the man affectionately referred to as "The Chickenman"
07 - Jimmy Weller III
Predictive ranking - 32
Weller made his debut in the series at Kentucky about two weeks ago and did nothing of note. However, his background is in dirt racing, so he should be better suited for tonight's event. Nonetheless, expect nothing from Weller, and you won't be surprised when that's what you get.
8 - Max Gresham
Predictive ranking - 31
Gresham put in a fantastic effort to win a hotly contested K&N Pro Series East championship in 2011, defeating JGR development driver Darrell Wallace Jr and then MWR development driver Brett Moffitt among a host of others. Unfortunately for him, his move up to the Truck series the next season went very poorly. A switch to Eddie Sharp's program in 2013 has done him extremely well, but he's still been far from competitive and that should continue to Eldora.
9 - Ron Hornaday Jr
Predictive ranking - 10
Hornaday is a four time champion of the series, a former star of west coast short track racing and perhaps the best short track driver in the history of the Truck series. Unfortunately, he's no longer in a top tier ride and his dirt experience is somewhat lacking. However, he impressed in practice yesterday and could do the same in the race tonight.
10 - Joe Cobb
Joe Cobb's daughter (and team owner) was in the news for all the wrong reasons earlier in the year, thanks entirely to her dispute with accused car thief Mike Harmon. Cobb is running for his daughter's Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing outfit for the first time ever, but little is to be expected from the program that often fills the final spot on the grid and comes in as the final finisher on a race weekend. Even at a track where the car is far less important than the driver, JJCR's trucks are too slow for anyone, from Cobb to AJ Foyt himself, to be truly competitive.
13 - Tracy Hines
Predictive ranking - 9
Hines first drove the #13 ThorSport entry in 2005, and he didn't do very well. In a 23 race season, he put in just seven top 20 finishes. However, those were all races on pavement, and Hines is a dirt specialist. Eight years later and on the track surface he's most known for racing on, the USAC star could finally make the impression on the Truck series he hoped to make eight years ago.
17 - Timothy Peters
Predictive ranking - 25
Still an outside title contender, as he's seemingly been for years, the top pilot at Red Horse Racing is great on short tracks. However, the short tracks he's great on are paved, and Eldora is not. He did not stand out in yesterday's practice sessions and little is expected of him tonight.
18 - Joey Coulter
Predictive ranking - 24
Coulter had a breakout season in 2012, winning a race and finishing in the top 5 in the title standings with Richard Childress Racing, but he decided to move to Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013 and it hasn't gone entirely well. He currently sits all the way back in 13th in the tile hunt, and after a wreck in practice yesterday he doesn't exactly exude confidence heading into tonight's main event.
19 - Dave Blaney
Predictive ranking - 2
Dave Blaney is known to many as a journeyman of the Sprint Cup Series midpack. After all, he's been in that position for seemingly decades now. However, all of his best career moments have come on dirt, and in a one-off start as a team mate to his son at Brad Keselowski Racing, he's one of the favorites to take the win tonight.
24 - Brennan Newberry
Predictive ranking - 23
Brennan Newberry scored the pole for the season opening Truck series race at Daytona earlier this year. That's about all there is of note to say about him. Well, that and the fact that his family team has put out very respectable cars for team mate Ron Hornaday. Don't expect much from him tonight.
29 - Ryan Blaney
Predictive ranking - 5
Ryan Blaney doesn't have the success on dirt that his legendary father does, but he was perhaps the most impressive driver without significant dirt experience in the field in practice and his championship hopes could grow if he does as well tonight as many are expecting.
30 - Kyle Larson
Predictive ranking - 1
At just 20 years old and just 18 months into his stock car career, Kyle Larson is already a living legend. He's discussed in NASCAR circles as if he were a myth, something incredible that absolutely everyone wants to buy into simply because if he's all he cracked up to be, he will be something unlike anything the world of NASCAR has ever seen before. He's almost certainly the best driver on dirt in the entire world at the moment, he's already a winner in NASCAR Truck Series competition despite competing in just five races (and he had a win stolen from him by a late caution in his third ever start) and he's been very good in his prior races at Eldora. To add to all of that, he was the fastest in the first practice session and third fastest in the second. To say he's the favorite for tonight's event would be a massive, massive understatement.
31 - James Buescher
Predictive ranking - 22
Buescher may be the reigning series champion, but he hasn't looked all that good in the early portions of 2013. However, he's rebounded over the past few weeks and now sits in third in the standings with a reasonable shot at the title. Eldora probably won't be where he breaks back into victory lane, though, as he's not been all that impressive in practice.
32 - Miguel Paludo
Predictive ranking - 26
Miguel Paludo has been a competent, but not entirely impressive, racer in his time with Turner-Scott Motorsports. He's a regular in the top 10, but rarely sniffs the top 5, let alone the lead. None of this is entirely relevant here, though, as he's looked fairly poor in practice and has no prior dirt experience.
34 - Ryan Newman
Predictive ranking - 8
Just a week and a half removed from the announcement that he will not be returning to his Sprint Cup Series ride with Stewart-Haas racing in 2014, Newman is making his first Truck Series start of the season. He's not a legendary master on dirt as his (soon to be former) boss Tony Stewart is, but he's more than competent and he might be in a position to fight for the win come the end of the night.
39 - Austin Dillon
Predictive ranking - 3
After winning the 2011 Truck series title, Austin Dillon immediately graduated to the Nationwide series, where he's seen immediate success and didn't look back. This is his first time running a Truck in competition since his dramatic championship clinching performance in a rain-shortened Homestead finale in 2011, and with an even deeper level of dirt late model experience than his brother, he's one of the favorites tonight.
44 - JR Heffner
Predictive ranking - 30
This is a little awkward, but I'm just going to say it: I don't know who JR Heffner is. By extent, I'm just going to post a fun fact about the A1GP series:
Narain Karthikeyan won twice in the 2007-2008 A1Gp championship, besting the likes of Porsche's recently signed factory LMP1 driver Neel Jani, DTM star Robert Wickens, IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe, sports car ace Jeroen Bleekemolen and former Peugeot factory LMP1 pilots Loic Duval and Franck Montagny. Why is this relevant to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series? Well, in 2010, Karthikeyan attained the title of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Most Popular Driver.
51 - Scott Bloomquist
Predictive ranking - 7
Scott Bloomquist is one of the best ever in dirt late models, if not the best ever. He's won "The Dream", the biggest Late Model event at Eldora and perhaps the biggest in the world, a record six times. He's the ultimate "dirt oval ringer" from outside the world of NASCAR. Despite his lack of experience with the heavier Truck, he can't be overlooked in the conversation of potential race winners. It doesn't hurt that he's driving Kyle Busch's race winning #51 truck, either...
52 - Ken Schrader
Predictive ranking - 6
A veteran of both the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and pretty much every car on dirt, the 58 year old Schrader has proven to be shockingly competitive in practice. He's already got an ARCA win in 2013, and if he can pull off the upset and win tonight in his self-owned Truck it'll surely be a result for the ages.
54 - Darrell Wallace, Jr.
Predictive ranking - 13
Wallace entered NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East through it's diversity program, and soon he proved he belonged with an impressive string of results that eventually lead to his signing as a JGR development driver. In the time since, he's won multiple K&N Pro Series East races, contended for championships and finished in the top ten in three of his four career nationwide starts (scoring a pole in the fourth!). However, his rookie NCWTS campaign has been a struggle, creating a near-weekly pattern of driving his way up to the front and then promptly wrecking out of a position in the top 5, if not the lead. He'll need to overcome that crash frequency and a complete lack of dirt experience if he wants to turn his surprising pace from practice into a good finish tonight.
57 - Norm Benning
Predictive ranking - 35
Norm Benning is a veteran, but not because he's talented. The 61 year old driver has been in the Camping World Truck Series for 104 races, but he's yet to find himself with a top 10 finish, something even Jennifer Jo Cobb has accomplished. Much like Norm Peterson, the frequent bar patron from the 1980s television hit "Cheers", he always seems to arrive somewhere far after everyone else is already there. However, unlike Norm Peterson, he doesn't often find himself talking with a mailman that's also in every Pixar movie. Instead, he just struggles in qualifying and gets lapped often.
60 - Dakoda Armstrong
Predictive ranking - 21
Dakoda Armstrong spent the beginning of 2012 running in a third car for ThorSport Racing, but struggled mightily and was considered a laughing stock by even his own crew. He switched to Stacy Compton's Turn One Racing in 2013, and it's already clear that he's far more competitive with the smaller program. He sits 11th in the standings, ahead of Joey Coulter and Ron Hornaday, both of which were considered possible title contenders before the start of the season.
62 - Brendan Gaughan
Predictive ranking - 17
Brendan Gaughan is perhaps the most experienced driver of heavy trucks on dirt in the field. Unfortunately, the heavy trucks he's used to are trophy trucks and the dirt he's used to is that found on a rally raid stage, and neither of those are anything like what he faces tonight. However, he has two great team mates in the Dillon brothers and plenty of experience in Trucks on paved tracks that will help him survive the night with his hopes at a Camping World Truck Series title intact.
63 - Justin Jennings
Predictive ranking - 29
I know less about Justin Jennings than I do JR Heffner. Time for another A1GP fun fact:
Andretti Autosport ran the American A1GP effort in the series's final season, running most of the 2008-2009 season with Marco Andretti. The third generation driver wasn't all that competitive in his time in the series, with just one podium in ten starts, but he can take solace in the fact that he was significantly faster than eventual 2008-2009 A1GP champion Adam Carroll in both races in which they were team mates at Andretti Autosport.
68 - Clay Greenfield
Predictive ranking - 28
Clay Greenfield isn't the most decorated driver in the field, but he scored a top 10 in his 12th start, and that's more than can be said about Norm Benning at any point in his career.
77 - German Quiroga
Predictive ranking - 20
The NASCAR Mexico champion ran part time in the truck series in 2011 and 2012, but his 2013 assualt with Red Horse Racing is his first full season in the category. He didn't impress early on, but he scored a shocking top 5 in Kentucky and lead a significant number of laps from pole in Iowa the very next week. He's not exactly an experienced dirt racer, but he's on a much-needed hot streak and if he keeps his car off the wall it'll be counted as a continuance of that streak. Oh, and yes, his name is "German" despite the fact that he is Mexican.
81 - Kenny Wallace
Predictive ranking - 12
Wallace, the youngest of the three Wallace brothers (the others being Mike Wallace and one time Sprint Cup series champion Rusty), is the most experienced on dirt, but all of his experience is in the relatively low pressure world of dirt Modifieds. This is a far bigger stage and the question is now whether or not Wallace will be able to convert his success in smaller cars to the heavy Trucks.
84 - Jeff Babcock
Predictive ranking - 27
Babcock is a talented dirt late model driver who may be competitive tonight, but the #84 he uses, and by extent the owner's points he inherits, are those of recently arrested car thief Mike Harmon, and anything that's been touched by Mike Harmon, even a car number representing owner's points, is difficult to take seriously.
88 - Matt Crafton
Predictive ranking - 18
Matt Crafton has dominated the 2013 Camping World Truck Series season to date, and something very strange would have to happen for his massive lead in the title standings to dwindle any time soon. Unfortunately for Matt, racing on dirt is something very strange, and his struggles in practice are not a good sign for his hopes tonight.
98 - Johnny Sauter
Predictive ranking - 19
Before Crafton took off, ThorSport team mate Johnny Sauter was the dominant force in the NCWTS. Unfortunately, even though that period of dominance was just a few months ago, it was also a crew chief change ago, and with the legendary Joe Shear, Jr. stepping down from the ThorSport organization, it's difficult to see Sauter doing as well as he did at the beginning of the season in the near future, especially not on dirt.
99 - Bryan Silas
Bryan Silas spun three times between two practice sessions, and if it weren't for John Wes Townley's amazing seven spin spectacular, this would be extremely notable.
How To Follow
SPEED will air all five heat races, the last chance qualifier race and the feature race itself starting at 7:00 PM EST (4:00 PM PST) and MRN will provide an internet audio broadcast of the race on their website. Want something a little more text based? Well, you're in luck! Just as I've done for Le Mans, Sebring and the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I will be running a special edition Jalopnik live blog during tonight's event, starting at the beginning of the heat races at 7:00 PM EST and continuing all the way to the end of the feature race. This won't be nearly as ornate as the three endurance race live blogs, but it will be in the same vein.
(Practice video above via Kyle Busch Motorsports)