COMMENTARY | Now that was fun!
Wednesday night's Truck Series race at Eldora was what I would call a perfect storm of awesomeness.
- The Truck Series races feature some of the best, most competitive racing you'll see, week in and week out.
- Night racing is almost always more exciting than day racing. There's just something about the lights.
- Dirt racing on a short track is some of the most exciting racing you'll find in the world, and Eldora is one of the best of these type of tracks you'll find anywhere.
Put it all together, and what do you get? The highlight of this week in racing, or dare I say, the highlight of the entire 2013 racing season.
When I first heard NASCAR would have the trucks racing at Eldora, I was excited but had one minor concern -- that it would become a crash-fest due to some drivers' inexperience on this type of racing surface. But, thankfully, the folks who didn't know what they were doing on dirt stayed away and we got to watch dirt-track standouts like Dave Blaney, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and many others do their thing.
The entire setup was great -- from the heat races to the main feature and it's three segments, and the race more than lived up to fans' expectations.
Tony Stewart deserves a lot of credit for making sure the track's surface was in the proper condition, and you can bet he's still smiling after the show we got to see Wednesday night.
I loved seeing Ken Schrader win the pole. This is definitely his type of race (Schrader will basically race anything with wheels) so it wasn't really a shocker that he got the pole, but he did make some history by becoming the oldest pole winner in NASCAR history.
Then the racing all night was fast and furious. Some guys stuck with the high line, while others were diving down low -- making the racing four-wide at times. You never knew who was going to come out in front until all the trucks finished the turn; there were spirited battles throughout the field all race long. I'm betting the 20,000 fans in attendance didn't sit down all race other than the intermissions.
My highlight of the night was just watching Kyle Larson race. Sure, Austin Dillon took home the trophy and ran a great race and deserves kudos, but the highlights were heavily centered around young phenom Larson, who had a lot of previous Eldora experience and showed it off Wednesday night. His battles with Ryan Newman in the closing laps of the race were among the kind you see often at the end of races in the Truck Series, but were even more exciting due to the fact this was a dirt track and they seemed impossibly sideways as they battled.
Just like I believe road courses help expose who are the best and most well-rounded drivers in NASCAR, dirt-track success is also a sign of a quality driver. Seeing how guys like Newman, Blaney and Larson raced Wednesday shows they have tremendous racing talent, even if they might sometimes be in less competitive cars in Cup and can't compete with the usual suspects (as is currently the case with Blaney).
"This is real racing right here," Austin Dillon said in Victory Lane at Eldora.
I couldn't agree more.
In just a few days, we'll be watching the Cup cars fly around the Brickyard, the hallowed ground of auto racing that NASCAR has now been competing at for 20 years.
The very first track to include the word "Speedway" over a century ago is no doubt one of motorsports' biggest treasures, and I recommend every fan go there at least once -- whether it's for NASCAR or Indycar -- just to experience what it is like. You'll have a great time, and it's really a great city to visit in general.
But let's not sugarcoat the reality of racing at Indy when it comes to NASCAR -- it's not always that great. Compared to what we saw on Wednesday at half-mile Eldora, chances are Sunday's race at the 2.5-mile track will be a bit of a snoozer. The cars get very spread out, there is little actual racing most of the day, and it's usually pretty clear who is going to win. Think hard, race fans: Can you name even a handful of truly exciting Brickyard 400 races off the top of your head? I'm going to guess no. And we even had that horrific one in 2008 where tires were lasting 10 laps or less, which was basically unwatchable.
Even worse, NASCAR recently moved the Nationwide race from the short track at O'Reilly Raceway Park (formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) over to the big stage of the Brickyard. It was great for publicity and the drivers now have a more prestigious location where they can claim a victory (like Brad Keselowski did in 2012), but for fans that's a terrible move. A short track like ORP offers much better racing than the Brickyard, but, sadly, that's not what is important anymore.
I distinctly remember the weekend in 1998 I went to watch a weekend of racing in Indianapolis -- a truck race and a Busch race at IRP, and then the Brickyard on Sunday. I can say with 100-percent certainty that the racing was a ton better Friday and Saturday nights at the short track than it was on Sunday. And that fact remains true today.
Years from now, this inaugural Eldora truck show will almost assuredly be remembered as a classic, while Saturday and Sunday's races at the Brickyard will likely be quickly forgotten by everyone other than the winning drivers.
NASCAR needs more short-track races, dirt races
So what's the solution here?
Well, I understand the importance of the Brickyard. It's a historic place and NASCAR wants its name attached to those places. Many drivers say it's the race they want to win the most, other than the Daytona 500, and I have no problem letting them go for that glory. It gives me a good chance to catch up on an often-needed nap one Sunday in late-July.
But I say that the biggest lesson of this juxtaposition of the guaranteed Eldora excitement and the likely Brickyard boredom is that NASCAR should reconsider its overall strategy of where it places races. There are far too many cookie-cutter tracks on NASCAR's Cup schedule, and many of the tracks with two races don't deserve them. I would like to see a return to more short tracks (adding an Iowa race to Cup schedule would be a nice start, as it produces some of the best racing in the sport), because short tracks are what people want to see more of -- not the same old 1.5-mile tracks we see most weeks.
As far as dirt racing, you probably want to keep the Eldora event unique, so I would continue the Eldora every year for the trucks, but not necessarily add more dirt races to the Truck Series schedule (though I wouldn't be upset if they did, as that was some great racing).
The next step I see is getting the Nationwide series to do a dirt event at Eldora or elsewhere, and possibly even a Cup dirt race at some point. Considering how many people got excited about this Eldora truck race, can you imagine how cool it would be to have a Cup race on the dirt? It would garner huge attention, sellout attendance and huge ratings -- all things NASCAR wants.
Now excuse me, I feel like going to play in the dirt.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years.
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