Drivers prepare to get groove on at Eldora
July 22, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Drivers and fans alike felt plenty of energy in the atmosphere surrounding the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway. What the drivers felt to a greater degree was the inherent tension in running a race with so much uncertainty.
Truck teams unlocked some of the mystery of racing on dirt during last year's first running, but for their return visit Wednesday night, many are expecting at least a fair share of the unknown in the second annual 1-800-CarCash Mudsummer Classic (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1).
"It's going to be wild, crazy, wrecking," said Jeb Burton, who finished 18th at Eldora last year and ranks 11th in series standings this season. "… I just wish points weren't involved because so many things can happen. Hopefully we can have a good run there."
With the dicey nature of big, lumbering trucks on narrow tires, drivers -- especially those with little dirt-track experience -- tiptoed early on to run the first 54 laps without a caution period during last year's debut event. It wasn't without obligatory short-track scrapes and bumps along the way, but for the most part the race was cleanly run until the intensity picked up in the closing laps.
This year, some drivers aren't so sure there will be a repeat.
"I called this a year ago after the race. I said now that everybody's got one of these races under their belt, I'm scared to think of how brave they're going to be this time going back," said Johnny Sauter, a dirt-track newbie at Eldora last season and Burton's teammate at ThorSport Racing. "I think setups will have evolved a lot, I think obviously everybody's got a lot better idea of what they needed or what they should've tried last year. ... The racer in me, forget everything else, I just think about some of the moves that I saw and what some of the other competitors saw when they went home and rewatched the race, just how brave they're going to be."
When drivers call up the year-old footage, they'll be reminded of how the high line became the preferred groove as race day progressed. The majority of drivers rode the cushion, making frequent contact with their trucks' right-rear fenders against the outside wall, so much so that most trucks showed signs of damage -- cosmetic or more -- before the main event ever went green.
Ryan Blaney, son of Eldora master Dave Blaney and the 15th-place finisher last year, said that while he was looking forward to getting his Brad Keselowski Racing-owned truck dirty again, he was hopeful more racing grooves would open up at the Western Ohio half-mile. This spring, speedway owner Tony Stewart said his staff removed some of the banking from the outer edge of the racing surface, blending it into the middle of the track in hopes of creating a second line and potentially a third.
"So unlike a pavement track that you can't make any changes to it, but a dirt track like that, we have that opportunity to try to tune the race track and make it better and more competitive," Stewart said. "So we did do that, and that was something that right after the event, after getting the first one done, we were able to look at that and say maybe we can tweak the race track and make a difference. So we'll see if those changes work."
Some teams hope to remove some of the uncertainty with recent tests at non-NASCAR dirt tracks. Kyle Larson, John Hunter Nemechek and Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers Darrell Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones were among those taking their trucks to the half-mile clay of Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia, to prepare in the weeks leading up to Eldora.
"I'd say I made about 200 laps and got more and more comfortable as we went along, but could've probably used about 200 more," said the 18-year-old Jones, the series' most recent winner who will be making his first career start on dirt.
Much like the equalizing superspeedway events at Daytona and Talladega, the close-quarters racing and the fickle nature of Eldora's unfamiliar surface have the potential to produce turmoil in bunches. It's why drivers still consider the Mudsummer Classic a wild-card event on the 22-race schedule.
"We're still going to be cautious," said Timothy Peters, who ranks seventh in the series standings entering Wednesday night's race. "It was fun for the fans. We finished sixth and still had to re-do our whole truck. That's probably going to be the norm going back into it, just seeing how we can keep our equipment safe for the longest, if that makes sense. We're still going to be cautious, but it's still an educated guess any way you look at it."