There was no mistaking the tone or level of excitement during a series of interviews with NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors about their expectations for the annual — and much anticipated — Wednesday night race at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway dirt track (9:30 p.m. ET, FOX Business Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Drivers coming from a dirt background are champing at the bit for a chance to show off their long-honed skills. Those with primarily pavement experience see it more as an anomaly — a “let’s see what we’ve got” chance to maybe nab a trophy and drop some jaws.
Either way, the one-of-a-kind stop at Tony Stewart’s facility makes for a win-win show for the spectators and the sport.
You certainly can’t get more optimistic than 22-year-old second-year Truck Series driver Christopher Bell, who won this race in his debut in 2015 and finished runner-up last year.
The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver arrives in Ohio this week with a series-best three victories this season and having won the most recent race at Kentucky two weeks ago.
“Eldora is my favorite race track in the whole world,” Bell said. “I think over my dirt career, I’ve run more laps at Eldora than I have anywhere in the world.”
Echoes 22-year old Truck Series rookie Chase Briscoe, “This is the one track I’ve been looking forward to more than any. Eldora, for a dirt guy, is Daytona and Indianapolis. Definitely going to be an honor to run there finally.”
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Unlike Bell, who has logged miles and hoisted trophies at the iconic half-mile dirt track, this will be Briscoe’s debut — and he obviously is eager. Briscoe has plenty of dirt experience racing sprint cars and midgets, but he said his father never let him race at the track in a sprint car growing up because their family-based team only had one motor.
While this week may feel a bit like Christmas for Briscoe and others in the field, there are some championship contenders who freely admit Eldora likely will be a challenge to race.
“I have fun at Eldora. … Obviously a good atmosphere and a lot of great race fans there,” said reigning series champion and current points leader Johnny Sauter. “But for me, it’s just a place where I just haven’t figured it out yet. I guess my mindset going there is just to have fun, first and foremost.”
Sauter is able to say that considering he’s already secured a place in the 2017 playoffs. The 39-year-old Wisconsin native has won at Dover and hasn’t finished worse than ninth in the nine races since the season-opener at Daytona. That includes a string of three consecutive runner-up finishes leading up to his Dover victory.
Sauter said he’s likely to go to a half-mile dirt track in Wisconsin and run a street stock car for several hours to prepare for Eldora.
“I can honestly say this is my way to try to get prepared a little bit on my own, if I can do anything,” explained Sauter, whose best finish in four Eldora starts is eighth place in 2014. “Last year, I had the liberty of having Kyle Larson as a teammate. You would think I could learn something from that, and I didn’t take much from that. I think it’s a ‘feel’ thing.
“Like he told me, ‘Man, I’ve done this my whole life and I’ve raced 100 times a year, it’s something you have to get a feel for. If you only do it once a year, it’s hard to grasp the concept.’ ”
Two-time 2017 Truck Series winner John Hunter Nemechek agreed with that concept. Like Sauter, he is less familiar with dirt racing. Because he has the victories that should ensure his place in this season’s playoffs, he can approach Eldora with a more open mind than if his title hopes depended on a win there.
His team is taking a truck already run at Martinsville earlier this season. It suffered “quite a bit of cosmetic damage,” as Nemechek tells it. But he said the team repaired it and prepared it sufficiently for Eldora’s busy night run.
“You definitely don’t need to take the nicest piece you have to Eldora because most likely afterwards the right side will be torn off of it from the beating it off the fence. Hopefully not. Hopefully we can run a clean race and run up front and just make sure we finish.”
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These full-time truck championship contenders will be joined this week by longtime “dirt specialists” such as 62-year-old veteran Ken Schrader.
“It is truly a classic event and I enjoy every aspect of the race — the fans’ excitement, the level of competition and the fun of running at this iconic track,” Schrader said last week in confirming his plans. “Driving the Bolen Motorsports Silverado will be a blast. As a track owner myself, I see and appreciate what Tony Stewart and his team have done.”
And the popular NASCAR veteran would probably get a kick out of Bell’s recommendation leading into race week.
“I’d say, let’s just go ahead and switch Homestead and Eldora,” Bell suggested of the series’ season-finale location in South Florida. “Let’s race for a championship at Eldora. And we can put another dirt track to fill Eldora’s place at the beginning of the year.”
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Although that’s highly unlikely, the excitement Bell and others feel for the race this week is widespread and well-taken.
“You get a crossover between asphalt and dirt fans,” said Nemechek, driver of the No. 8 Fire Alarm Services Chevrolet. “And I mean everyone that I see fan-wise, I tell them to come out and watch the race live in person. It’s definitely something to watch.
“It’s something that puts on a great show.”