When it comes to racing a 3,200-pound truck on a high-speed dirt track, there are those who can and those who are simply trying to survive an unfamiliar experience.
Matt Crafton is one of those who can hold his own on a dirt track, and he‘ll be one of the favorites to win the March 27 Pinty‘s Truck Race on Dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has covered its concrete racing surface with dirt for a series of NASCAR, late model, modified and sprint car events in March and April.
“I love dirt racing,” says Crafton. “It‘s become such a passion. When we first went to Eldora, I got addicted to it.”
In fact, it was the Camping World Truck Series that pioneered NASCAR‘s return to dirt racing in 2013, at Eldora Speedway, Tony Stewart‘s half-mile bullring in Rossburg, Ohio. Crafton, a three-time series champion, won the fifth edition of that race in 2017. In the weeks leading up to this year‘s Truck Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, Crafton raced his own dirt modified car at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida.
Now he‘s trying to convince ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter, a dedicated pavement driver, to succumb to the mystique of dirt.
“I‘m excited about it,” Crafton says of the upcoming race at Bristol. “I know Johnny, that‘s where he‘s not really excited about the dirt racing. He needs to embrace it and just go with it. I love the thought that we‘re going to do so many different things—the road courses and the dirt races and bringing us to new race tracks.”
Stewart Friesen, who won the last race held at Eldora in 2019, came to NASCAR from a dirt racing background and doubtless will be a strong contender for the win. His wife, Jessica, will make her Truck debut in the No. 62 machine, setting up an interesting finish should the two be battling for the trophy when the checkered flag waves.
Perennial Truck Series Playoff driver Austin Hill will toil at the opposite end of the spectrum from his more experienced rivals.
“I‘m just going there to make laps and try to finish the race,” Hill says. “That‘s my number one goal, to go out there and finish the race, and, hopefully, a few guys wreck out or have some issues or whatever happens, and we can come home with a decent finish.
“I‘m definitely putting in some work to kind of prepare, but I don‘t expect to go out there and compete with those guys that are constantly running dirt week after week, just ‘cause I don‘t do it enough. It‘s going to be definitely a wild card, and it‘s going to be just who can survive.”
However, it‘s not as if the Truck Series competitors will have to race at Bristol completely cold. There‘s a full day of practice on Friday, March 26, with Bush’s Beans Practice Day, both for the Pinty‘s Truck Race on Dirt and for the Food City Dirt Race that follows for the NASCAR Cup Series on March 28.
Drivers will get their first taste of competition in four 15-lap heats that will determine the starting order for Saturday‘s race in the Bush’s Beans Qualifying Heats.
Driver-turned-broadcaster Clint Bowyer, who grew up racing on dirt near Kansas City, had nothing but praise for Scott Miller, NASCAR‘s senior vice president of competition, and the team that developed the format for the Bristol dirt races.
“Give props to Scott and his team,” Bowyer says. “This qualifying procedure is true to dirt form. I like that. Hey, we’re dirt racing, man. It is a little bit different than what we see on any given Sunday.”
Success at Eldora may be a good predictor of success on Bristol dirt, but it‘s not infallible. And it‘s certainly not justification to rule out certain drivers with limited experience on the surface. Bowyer knows that only too well.
He recalled a time, years ago, when he and Kevin Harvick made a road trip to Sharon Speedway in Ohio—the home track of the legendary Blaney family—and raced dirt modifieds. Harvick had never run a modified before.
“He not only spanked me, he won the race,” Bowyer said. “I saw it with my own eyes, I witnessed it. It blew me away. I watched Jimmie Johnson at the Prelude (to the Dream at Eldora) get in my dirt late model and won that race before I did, the year prior to me. I think that’s the best way to answer, ‘Can anybody win this race?‘
“Look at the (Eldora) truck race. When that first came to the table, teams went out there thinking, ‘All right, we got to completely get away from any kind of NASCAR mentality that we know with these vehicles. We got to take sway bars off, do this, do that.‘ Honestly, the team with just the standard old approach that he takes any given weekend won that race, the first race out. Again, something that I remember.”
Indeed. Austin Dillon won the first Eldora Truck race, and to Bowyer, that wasn‘t an aberration.
“This isn’t so farfetched and completely out of your normal realm that you just have to throw everything out the window,” Bowyer said. “Expectations are going to be difficult because I came from racing dirt cars since I was a little boy.
“I don’t know what to expect. This is a bad-fast racetrack when you’re talking about short tracks. (They) did take banking out. Make no mistake about it, this is the action track. It is the action track, baby. I think it’s going to be probably more action than it’s seen in a long time.”
There‘s the interloper factor, too. Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Chase Briscoe have entered the race. Briscoe, another former Eldora winner and an annual competitor in the Chili Bowl Nationals on dirt, announced in early March that he will join the Truck race field in the No. 04 Roper Racing Ford.
“Excited to be back in the truck series!” Briscoe posted on Twitter. “Looking forward to it with some great partners and team!”
Larson, who has tons of experience racing on dirt and won more than 40 feature races on dirt last season around the country, will drive the No. 44 Chevy for Niece Motorsports in the race.
Harvick, meanwhile, will drive the 17 truck for David Gilliland Racing, Truex will pilot the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Wallace will drive the 11 truck for Spencer Davis, Suarez is in the 02 for Young’s Motorsports and Newman will drive the No. 39 truck for DCC Racing.
Truck Series regulars may not be quite as excited to see such a formidable list of competitors join the race—all of whom have a shot to win and those who are just trying to get to the finish.
— Bristol Motor Speedway —