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Title contenders in survival mode at Eldora

July 24, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Title contenders in survival mode at Eldora
Series regulars balance will to win with staying in the points race

ROSSBURG, Ohio -- Jeb Burton stood in the garage area at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday afternoon, watching his crew use saws and sanders to repair a right-rear corner on his race truck that had already been repaired the previous night. There was the dirt-track racing learning curve at its essence, in the form of the one part of the vehicle that had to whack the wall again and again in an effort to maximize speed.

“This is totally different, man,” said Burton, whose previous dirt experience encompasses four-wheelers, one year in motocross and two years in go-karts. “It’s a little frustrating because it’s so different. It’s so different, and I just don’t know. Kyle Larson is helping me a little bit. He’s obviously really good. It’s different. But tonight, we’ve just got to try and gain some points on the 88.”

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That would be the truck of Matt Crafton, current leader in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and another competitor without a wealth of experience on dirt. For drivers chasing a season championship, that’s the dichotomy within NASCAR’s first national-series race on dirt in over 42 years -- how to master the sliding and skidding it takes to excel on this type of surface, and yet protect a points position that could be critical in the bigger picture.

“It’s a race for survival,” said reigning Truck Series champion James Buescher. “We’ve definitely got points to look at. We’re sitting third; we’ve got ground to make up. We definitely can’t take too many risks, and at the same time, we need to get a solid finish. So I think just being out there is risky enough.”

Of the top five drivers in Truck Series points, only fourth-place Ty Dillon comes from a dirt background. Crafton raced dirt some as a kid and occasionally competes in dirt modifieds, but those experiences are of little help to him this week. Buescher’s dirt background is comprised of just a few ARCA races and one Legends car event. Fifth-place Johnny Sauter had never competed on dirt until he arrived at Eldora on Tuesday.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Sauter said. “Anytime you can go home and sleep on something, you’re going to feel a lot better coming back the next day. We made so many changes to our truck from yesterday. We’ve never changed so many springs and things like that. Today I felt more comfortable saying, ‘Yes, this was better; no, this was worse.’ I’m still not completely sold that I even know what I’m talking about.”

He’s not alone. Dirt-track racing is a skill unto itself, one which requires careful management of the “cushion” of dirt that’s pushed up the banking. The best -- like Larson, a former dirt tracker turned budding Nationwide Series star who’s emerging as the favorite here -- know how to ride that cushion, their vehicles slinging around on the edge of it, tossing up a plume of dirt in their wake. Those less adept are more likely to jump the cushion, plowing into the dirt and then into the wall beyond, something even four-time champion series Ron Hornaday Jr. experienced in opening practices Tuesday.

As far as the Truck Series is concerned, Eldora is emerging as something akin to a dirt Darlington Raceway -- where the fastest way around is right up against that cushion, the right-rear of the vehicle thwacking against the wall. In between practice runs, circuit regulars schooled on asphalt have crowded the frontstretch viewing stand to watch Larson ply his trade. Crafton was among them -- but understands that as points leader, he’s in a very different situation.

“I was super, super impressed to watch that guy run that thing against that wall lap after lap,” he said of Larson. “Now, at the same time, he had the tail bent over. But he has nothing to lose. I wanted to go do that really bad, stand on the cushion and lay down a lap, but at the same time, if you do overstep it and do something stupid, you have to bring out your backup truck and make a lot of guys unhappy on this crew. At the same time, we’ve got to think big picture, and this is one where we’ve got to say, we’ve got to be there at the end of the day. We have to be there each and every week, but this is such an unknown, you really have to protect yourself.”

After all, for the Truck Series regulars, Eldora is just one of 22 events that all count the same. Wednesday night’s event is sold out, has created a buzz around the circuit, and brought in dirt-track experts like Larson, Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, Nationwide star Austin Dillon and late model king Scott Bloomquist. But championship contenders are well aware that the points will carry over into the next race at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 3.

“Our goal tonight is, we want to finish the race,” said Burton, second in points, 38 behind Crafton. “If we’re three laps down and we finish 10th, it would be a whole lot worse. We’ve just got to remember, we’ve got to be patient and just not get ourselves in bad situations. Bad stuff is going to happen anyway so we’ve just got to try to miss it, and hopefully we’ll be there at the end.”

And yet, no one seems willing to rule out the possibility that an asphalt driver will pull a stunner in the 150-lap main event. From Tuesday to Wednesday, the progress was obvious. Darrell Wallace Jr., who had zero dirt experience coming into the week, was fastest in final practice, while Buescher, Crafton and Sauter also ran in the top 10.

“There were a lot of fast (trucks) out there today,” Austin Dillon said. “Crafton was pretty good when he bolted on some tires. Timothy Peters has been good all weekend. Guys who are good on slick tracks, slow-speed tracks that are hot during the summer. Johnny Sauter will figure it out. Those guys will be fine.”

His little brother Ty, though, doesn’t face the same learning curve. The younger Dillon, who started out in dirt late models and has looked completely at home at Eldora from the beginning, is fourth in the Truck Series standings, 48 behind Crafton. He’s also well aware of the chance he has to make up ground on the drivers ahead of him.

“This is definitely an opportunity for us,” Ty said. “I think we also have an opportunity to win the race. So our plan is to run in the top five all night and hopefully we’re there with 10 to go and can make something happen if our truck’s good enough. But I think there is a huge opportunity in this race for our team.”

For the other Truck Series title contenders? “I think it’s going to be survival,” Buescher said. Burton agreed -- Larson and Bloomquist are the drivers to beat, he said, while his goal is to “survive the night” and try to gain ground on Crafton. As far as the points leader is concerned, it’s all about managing risk versus reward, and always keeping the bigger picture in mind.

“A lot of these guys who have the dirt experience and are posting big numbers, that are running right up on the wall and on the cushion and all that stuff, they have nothing to lose,” Crafton said. “We have a lot to lose. So we have to be just patiently aggressive.”

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