Eldora Truck Series race represents NASCAR's past, present and future

Chris Graythen

The Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway is the first time in four decades a NASCAR national touring series is competing on a dirt track.

On Wednesday, arguably the most anticipated race in the history of the Camping World Truck Series will commence at Eldora Speedway. It has been a date the NASCAR community has had circled since the announcement was made in November.

But why the significance over an event on a half-mile short track? The direct answer is because it will mark the first time a NASCAR national touring series has competed on a dirt track in nearly 43 years.

In short, the sport is returning to its roots.

"It's such a historical moment for our sport," Austin Dillon said last week. "Eldora is a great track. It's probably one of the best dirt tracks in the world."

NASCAR has a long history of getting dirty, but the last time on a national scale was at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in 1970 won by a driver some might have heard of, Richard Petty. But as NASCAR grew in stature one of the casualties were the many small, dusty tracks spread across the schedule.

The irony is even though dirt tracks became obsolete at the top levels of NASCAR, the discipline of driving on a surface where the conditions are ever-changing has become the best way to hone one's skills to compete and win in NASCAR's premiere division, the Sprint Cup Series.

A look at the current Cup standings shows six of the top 15 drivers have extensive backgrounds racing on dirt.

The most prominent is Eldora owner Tony Stewart, who can regularly be found during the week somewhere on a small dirt track. Also included are Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who began his path to superstardom by running in off-road truck races.

"One of the things driving on the dirt you have to adjust all the time," Johnson said in May. "Your car or truck in my case is never perfect. Grip level is always changing and I think that experience helped me come (to NASCAR) and get a feel for this place quicker than some others."

And it's not a coincidence 12 of the previous 18 Cup champions fine-tuned their craft on dirt tracks. Nor is it that Kyle Larson, NASCAR's next budding superstar, is also a dirt tracker.

The argument why dirt is a better proving ground is a cogent one. The rationale is a driver who has been successful on a dirt surface tends to be more astute compared to someone who has run almost exclusively on pavement. Racing on dirt requires finesse and the ability to make adjustments.

It also requires a greater feel for car control.

"Dirt racing is tough," Dillon said. "It's a different type of grip level that you're not used to. You can kind of compare it to some slick tracks and asphalt, but you never know, dirt changes and it evolves a lot.

"You have to change your driving style throughout a race in a dirt track probably 10, 11 times, depending on what transition it goes through. It's always changing. The track is changing. You're having to change with it, and that's what makes the guys being able to adapt to different tracks very good to have dirt experience."

That's not to say asphalt drivers no longer have a place in NASCAR.

All one has to do is look at Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, each of whom came up through the ranks via the more traditional method of competing on paved bullrings. Busch, Kenseth and Harvick have won a combined eight races this season and are solidly in the Chase. And Keselowski is the defending Cup champion.

But the Mudsummer Classic is more than just a test of a driver's ability. As NASCAR revisits the past, this week's stop at Eldora in a way also represents the future.

It's an old school, midweek race in front of a sold-out grandstand on the kind of track foreign to some and familiar to others. Much in the vein of how NASCAR drivers used to barnstorm from one track to the next multiple times a week throughout the 1950s and 60s.

No matter the outcome, one way or another it will leave people talking. And isn't that a good thing for all involved?

"I am really excited about that race," said Keselowski, who is fielding two trucks for Dave and Ryan Blaney. "I think inside the sport the drivers and teams think it will go one of two ways. It will either be by far one of the coolest and best races we've ever seen or the dumbest thing we have ever done in NASCAR. I don't think it is going to be anywhere in between.

"I will just be in the grandstands eating a snow cone and smiling. It should be a lot of fun."

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