Tony Stewart hasn't had much to be happy about lately. Slogging through the worst slump of his career, he's 26th in the standings, winless over the past 25 months and unlikely to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for a third straight season.
This week, however, Stewart has ample reason to smile. For the third straight year, his beloved Eldora Speedway plays host to the Camping World Truck Series with the Mud Summer Classic on Wednesday night. Stewart's ties to Eldora, located in Rossburg, Ohio, run deep; it's where he spent his formative years competing in a variety disciplines and has been a fixture ever since. And when Eldora founder Earle Baltes, who constructed the track in 1954, decided to sell 10 years ago, there was just one person whom he thought should purchase the half-mile oval.
"It was a phone call from Earl Baltes, and him saying that him and his wife thought that we were the right guy to continue on with Eldora down the road," said Stewart, who had never operated a track previously. "When you get an endorsement like that, it's like, ‘I need to figure this out and I need to figure out how to do it.'"
Under Stewart's management, Eldora has continued as one of premier dirt venues in the country, playing host to a vast array of different racing events including the Kings Royal for World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, run this past weekend, and the World 100 for dirt late models -- the largest dirt race in the world.
While preserving Eldora's historic charm, Stewart has also overseen numerous improvements to ensure the track didn't become a relic. With Baltes as a consultant, Stewart expanded Eldora's seating capacity to 20,000. This year a new infield medical center, media center and concession stand were erected.
"I'm a race fan, too," Stewart said. "If I go there and the show runs smooth, watch a good race, then you see people when they're leaving, they're smiling, they're talking about what they saw, you know, that makes all that worthwhile.
"A lot of it is you got to be passionate about it. You've got to love what you're doing. I love dirt track racing. Always have, always will. I love Eldora Speedway. That's what I'm meant to do. That's what I do on the side. That's what my energy goes to."
But of all the initiatives Stewart has overseen, it was bringing the Truck Series to Eldora in 2013 that may be his grandest accomplishment.
No one knew what to expect when Eldora staged NASCAR's first national division dirt race since 1970. The trucks are built for paved speedways, not dirt. And Eldora wasn't conceived with cumbersome 3,400-pound trucks in mind.
Nevertheless, the Mud Summer Classic quickly emerged as one of NASCAR's eagerly anticipated races. The inaugural event harkened back to a simpler time in NASCAR history when blue collar, homey tracks were commonplace and close-quarter slam-bam racing was the rule, not the exception.
The most memorable moment of the enchanting night came when Norm Benning, an owner-driver for a small team, raced his way into the main event after a charged back-and-forth exchange with Clay Greenfield in the Last Chance Qualifier heat. Their tussle made Benning, who gave Greenfield the middle finger on the cool down lap, into a folk hero.
Last season, Kyle Larson and eventual winner Darrell Wallace Jr. had an unforgettable fight for the lead over the final laps, a battle that saw Larson clobber the wall countless times as he desperately tried to catch Wallace. Eventually, Larson's truck gave out in a smoldering heap with two laps remaining.
Because of the allure, the Mud Summer Classic entry list has never lacked star power. This is year no exception. Among the non-Truck Series regulars racing Wednesday night are Austin Dillon, the 2013 winner; Ty Dillon, Austin's younger brother, who's third in the Xfinity Series points; 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and longtime NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader.
Three segments consisting of 60, 50 and 40 laps comprise the 150-lap race. Five qualifying heats will set the 32-truck field. The feature takes the green flag at 9:16 p.m. ET, with Fox Sports 1 providing television coverage.
How to watch the Mud Summer Classic
Practice: 10:30 a.m. ET, Wednesday, Fox Sports 1
Qualifying: 5:15 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Fox Sports 2
Heat races: 7 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Fox Sports 1
Mudsummer Classic: 9:16 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Fox Sports 1