The likes of Timothy Peters, Darrell Wallace Jr. prove they can hang with the dirt dogs
ROSSBURG, Ohio -- The last time Timothy Peters raced on dirt, the year was 1994 and he was wheeling a go-kart during nationals at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach. The last time Darrell Wallace Jr. raced on dirt was -- well, never.
And yet there they were Wednesday night, outshining even some dirt specialists in a Camping World Truck Series event on the hard-packed clay of Eldora Speedway, and showing that even a few asphalt experts were capable of holding their own in NASCAR’s first national-series race on dirt in more than four decades.
Despite their combination of inexperience on the surface, Peters finished sixth and Wallace seventh in a race dominated at the front by drivers raised on dirt. While Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and eventual winner Austin Dillon dueled for the victory at the end, Peters and Wallace held down top-10 spots that allowed them to improve their positions in the standings -- the bigger picture all of the Truck Series regulars kept in the back of their minds.
“I’m proud of it,” said Peters, who had won the most recent truck event two weekends ago at Iowa. “But as a racer, you show me somebody who’s happy with finishing sixth, and it’s time to trade in the driving shoes.”
Even so, the outcome was markedly different from what many expected -- which was for Ty Dillon, like his older brother raised in dirt late models, to have a big night and close the gap on series leader Matt Crafton, who has competed mostly on asphalt in his career. But Dillon suffered damage in an accident that started when dirt late model driver Jared Landers bounced off the wall, and wound up 16th in the 30-truck starting field.
Meanwhile, some other dirt specialists -- most notably Scott Bloomquist, a six-time winner of The Dream late model race at Eldora, who fell a lap down early fighting a loose truck -- were never really a factor. That opened the door for Truck Series regulars like Peters, Wallace, Joey Coulter, Brendan Gaughan, and Crafton, the latter of whom raced down in the bottom lane whenever he could, and managed an eighth-place finish that increased his series lead from 38 to 48 points over Jeb Burton.
Mission accomplished? “Yes,” Crafton said. “I think we definitely could have run a little better than what we did, but we couldn’t take the chance. There at the end, we just had to play defense instead of playing offense, and try to pick off more spots and be aggressive and make something happen. We just had to play defense there at the end, because we knew all the points guys were behind us, and we needed to keep them behind us, and just do what we had to do right there.”
Crafton, though, raced on dirt as a youngster, and still competes occasionally in a dirt-modified car. Coulter, who finished fourth, often runs a dirt late model, and won in that discipline as recently as last year. Gaughan, who came home fifth, has an extensive off-road background. By contrast, Peters and Wallace were veritable babes in the woods, making their results all the more impressive.
“There for a little bit we were seventh, and the top four were all dirt guys, so really, we were third. And that was just outstanding,” Wallace said. “That all goes back to my guys and (crew chief) Jerry (Baxter) for giving me a great setup that allowed me to just be smooth on the wheel and on the throttle to keep us up front and in the game.”
Both drivers adapted relatively quickly, despite some first tentative steps in the opening two practices Tuesday evening. Wallace was the first driver out for final practice Wednesday morning, and set a fast lap that held up as the best of the session. Peters -- who spent some time Tuesday on a viewing stand, watching dirt ace Larson do his thing -- ran away to a victory in his qualifying heat race. He also stuck the nose of his truck into the mix early in the main event, passing pole winner Ken Schrader and leading 23 laps in the first of the race’s three segments.
“I’m disappointed with sixth, but I’m happy with sixth because I don’t have any dirt experience at all,” Peters said. “All these guys you see right here at Red Horse Racing really worked hard. … It’s a great feeling to come into an unknown. But it’s like I said coming in, this race team excels at challenges, and this was going to be a challenge for us. We came out on top, I feel like.”
And in the final results, moved up two positions in the standings to sixth, 73 points behind Crafton. Wallace, a Kyle Busch Motorsports driver battling Burton and Ryan Blaney for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors, improved one spot to ninth. The secret to Wallace’s quick adjustment to an alien surface?
“It’s just taking it easy. Not forcing the issue on much,” he said. “With the two breaks we had, you kind of give and take there at the beginning, and then go for it at the end. Just have fun, that was the biggest thing. We’ve had an up and down season, and I told the guys from here on out, we’re just having fun. And that’s what we did tonight. I had loads of fun. With 10 laps to go, I was pumped. It’s an honor to be here at Eldora. First time on dirt for me, and it’s a blast.”
Although it wasn’t without a few white-knuckle moments, particularly at the end when Larson and Newman were hammering away at one another for second place, throwing sparks off the wall and sliding in unison through every turn. For Wallace it was all part of the learning process, one which unexpectedly resulted in his sixth top-10 finish of the season.
“I’ll be honest, that’s the most nerve-wracked I’ve ever been, watching trucks (sideways) coming off the corner, slapping the wall, not knowing where they’re going to go, and just knowing we’re going to be in it wadded up on the hook,” he said. “That’s just part of dirt racing. You watch these dirt racers here, like the (Landers) -- he seemed out of control, but that’s just how dirt races are, and you have to get over that and learn from that. That was just the biggest thing. But it was action-packed from lap 1 to lap 150. It was fun.”