When Tony Stewart and Austin Dillon tested NASCAR race trucks last fall at Eldora Speedway, they experienced both extremes of the half-mile dirt oval. The first day the track was wet, the surface was rough, and the vehicles were wide open. The second day the track was dry, the surface was hard and slick, and the trucks wanted to spin out on every lap.
Such are the unknowns at Eldora, which on Wednesday night will host a Camping World Truck Series event that will be NASCAR's first national race on dirt in more than four decades. The field will feature a mix of dirt veterans, dirt ringers, and circuit regulars for whom the surface is as foreign as the moon. The track itself presents a huge variable that will likely force everyone -- even those for whom dirt is second nature -- to adapt.
That much was evident in the under-the-radar test last October at Eldora, where Stewart and Dillon shook down vehicles to see just how practical a race there might be. A little rain, and the conditions might play into the hands of the dirt experts. If it stays dry, the surface might perform much more like asphalt, opening the door for even a dirt-track rookie to potentially break through. As for which it might be -- not even experts on the subject know for certain.
"I don't know totally 100 percent what to expect," Dillon said. "I was very lucky to be able to make some of the first laps at Eldora in a truck, and from my experience in dirt late model where you have a ton of grip and a ton of side bite, the truck is a heavy car with a smaller Goodyear tire that we're going to be running. So you're going to see a lot of guys sliding around out there. And as far as passing and stuff, I don't know what to expect. It's kind of determined by the track, how the track is run in, if it's going to be hard and slick. If it rains the day before, it could be wet and wide open, and you could see some wild stuff."
This from a driver who started in dirt late models -- so just imagine what the learning curve will be like for someone more accustomed to pavement. Teams have a pair of practice sessions scheduled for Tuesday evening, and another Wednesday afternoon before a slate of six qualifying races that will set the stage for the main event. Only the top 20 trucks in owners' points are locked into the 30-vehicle field, meaning the rest will have to race their way into the 150-lap feature.
"The heat races are definitely going to be wild for the guys that are trying to get in the race and slide-jobbing, and hopefully you see some of that stuff that dirt tracks are famous for," Dillon said. "I think you will. It's just a matter of keeping everybody calm at the beginning to not have a ton of cautions, and making sure that the guys with less experience are talking to the guys that have some dirt experience out there."
A regular on the Nationwide circuit, Dillon is one of several dirt-race specialists entered in the event -- a list that also includes dirt late model king Scott Bloomquist, NASCAR veterans Kenny Wallace and Ken Schrader, Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, rising Nationwide star Kyle Larson, and multiple-time Eldora winner Tracy Hines. For the Truck Series regulars more familiar with asphalt, Dillon said the keys will be to keep an open mind, ask questions, and watch drivers with more experience on the surface.
Series points leader Matt Crafton tried to get up to speed with a recent six-hour test session. Crafton raced some on dirt in his youth, and has competed in about 10 events this year in a dirt-modified car. But he knows he'll still be playing catch-up to drivers like Austin Dillon and younger brother Ty, who cut their teeth in dirt late model cars fielded out of the Richard Childress Racing shop.
"It's just about knowing how the track changes, and what it's going to do," Crafton said. "That's the whole key. The whole RCR group, they're (definitely going to have) an advantage because if you look at their shop, they have a late model dirt team. That's definitely going to play into their hands. I'm not giving it to them by any means, but we better go in there swinging if we want to keep up with them."
So much depends on the conditions. Stewart, who purchased the Eldora track in 2004, knows the surface will test many in the field. But the three-time Sprint Cup champion also believes they'll adapt quickly, especially if the track stays dry and performs a little more like asphalt.
"I think it's going to be a big challenge for the teams and drivers. Obviously, (I) never ran the trucks on dirt. When we went and did the test there, we actually battled a little bit of weather ourselves. The track conditions were very, very sticky. But I think when the track slicks off there, it will slow the pace down a little bit, make it a little more comfortable for some of those guys," said Stewart, who is not competing in the event.
"Even though it sounds like slicker would be more trouble, I think when the pace slows down due to a slick track like that, they'll run more like pavement. They'll run straighter through the corners and not sideways as much. But I think they'll enjoy it. It's a neat facility. ? It gives you a lot of options of where you can go and what you can do. I think it gives those guys an opportunity. The practice day on Tuesday should help a lot of those teams be able to get acclimated before they come back to the track on Wednesday."
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