Eldora has Sprint Cup stars dreaming of dirt
July 26, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Because he was in New York doing some media appearances, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t get the chance to watch Wednesday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway. So he avoided anyone who might spoil the outcome for him, and set his DVR to record NASCAR’s first national race on dirt in over 42 years.
Then he got home, and realized the recording had cut off after an hour and half. “Some kind of communication error,” Earnhardt said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It was disappointing, to say the least.”
But not the event itself, which was action-packed from beginning to end, and earned rave reviews despite taking place on a surface that NASCAR had not competed on in four decades. Sprint Cup Series drivers took notice, and at the Brickyard faced inevitable questions about whether the sport’s premier circuit should one day return to the dirt as well.
“I would love to see a Cup race at Eldora. Yes. I think that would be awesome,” said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. “I don’t know. You don’t know until you get out there and try. Those guys looked like they were having a lot of fun. I think I’d rather have Kyle Larson drive my car, because he was awesome. He was unbelievable. But I love Eldora, I love the dirt. I enjoyed racing the dirt late model there, so I would love to see what a Cup car could do.”
Larson, a budding Nationwide Series star who like Gordon started out on dirt, was the talk of the event before finishing third. Gordon is no stranger to Eldora -- like many other top NASCAR drivers, he’s participated in the Prelude to the Dream, a charity dirt late model event track owner Tony Stewart has hosted at the facility. That’s always seemed about as close as the sport’s premier series would get to ever competing on anything beside asphalt or concrete.
What about now, in the wake of a sold-out Eldora truck race that saw Larson and Ryan Newman leaning on each other over the final laps?
“Why not?” asked Clint Bowyer, another Sprint Cup star who started on dirt. “You know what I mean? Again, if the fans liked it and it was well-received and people enjoyed it, then why not. This is a fan-driven sport, and it always has been, and we've always been able to deliver to the fans greater than most other sports and continue that. That's my opinion on it. It's all about the fans. These tracks didn't build as big as they are not having that fan base and not being able to deliver to fans. Whatever it takes. In my opinion, it doesn't matter as long as they're happy so I've got a place to make a living and have a lot of fun doing it.”
First things first. Stewart and NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell, the circuit’s senior vice president for race operations, have indicated that the Truck Series event at Eldora could go on beyond this season. But there are no immediate indications that the sanctioning body is ready to move in the same direction with the Nationwide or Sprint Cup circuits.
Still -- guys can dream, right?
“Everywhere I’ve gone this week, I’ve had people who are huge NASCAR fans and people who aren’t big NASCAR fans at all who watched it, and they were blown away,” Gordon said. “They did not expect it to go the way that it did. And I thought, why not have more races on a dirt track? I don’t think you’ll ever see a Cup race there, at least while I’m driving. But I’d vote for it. I think it would be very cool to do.”
“The Trucks are such a neat choice because of the side force that they create, with the way the bodies are on the trucks. I’m not sure how the Nationwide cars or even the Cup cars would run there,” Earnhardt added. “But I think it would be fun for the series to have a couple of dirt races, to be honest. I know Eldora is the perfect place to have this all tested out, and it seems to have been really awesome for the fans and something they really enjoyed, so I expect it’s something we could see more of. We just have to see what NASCAR wants to do.”
No question, the rare weeknight night national-series event provided a boost to NASCAR heading into one of its biggest Sprint Cup weekends of the season. “Proud of NASCAR for taking a chance with that, and I believe that many great things came out of it,” Bowyer said. “I think it opened some eyes to some options with this sport. Not just talking dirt racing, but I thought the Wednesday night deal was a different appeal that I liked, and kind of gave us a chance to showcase our sport to maybe a different crowd.”
Earnhardt’s recording cut off before the main event, so he didn’t get a chance to see Austin Dillon hold off Newman and Larson for the victory. But he saw enough to recognize that Wednesday night at Eldora was something special for NASCAR, despite all the unknowns going in.
“I really thought that was extraordinary, for the race track, for the series, for the sport. What a risky, gutsy call to go do that,” he said. “I thought it was just extraordinary that NASCAR was willing to make the leap, and that Tony was there at the right place at the right time with the perfect race track and a historical place to run it. It’s awesome that it came together so well. And I thought the race was fun to watch. I really enjoyed what I saw. I think it would be fun to run there if they ever did an exhibition or something. I don’t know about a full-on event. But maybe we end up doing that one day. What I saw was entertaining, and exciting, and something that I hope I see more of from a viewer’s standpoint.”