Five years ago, NASCAR was introduced to slide jobs, push trucks and pizza burgers.
And since that 2013 race, the Eldora Dirt Derby – NASCAR’s first national series race on dirt since 1970 – remains one of the sport’s most anticipated events. Despite somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Eldora’s unforgiving high-banked, half-mile oval, Camping World Truck Series points leader Johnny Sauter looks forward to his return to the famed track owned by three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Sauter, who comes from an asphalt background, has struggled getting a feel for an Eldora track that – unlike asphalt – changes as the race goes on. But rolling into the infield pits, seeing the 20,000 fans packing wooden bleachers and filling grassy hills with lawn chairs reminds Sauter of being home in Wisconsin.
“I get the same kind of vibe when I ran the Slinger Nationals the other night,” Sauter said of the Super Late Model race on July 11. “It’s a huge race. The crowd is awesome. That’s the same kind of feel when I get to Eldora. It feels like Saturday night short-track racing. People at Eldora to watch the Truck race are hardcore, avid fans.”
The track even converted some of racing’s most ardent asphalt supporters into dirt fans. At the inaugural Dirt Derby, a few NASCAR employees were overheard questioning why the sport was visiting a village surrounded by corn fields and with a population that had a few more people (196) than the race had laps (150). And the idea of eating a pizza burger – Eldora’s most popular concession stand item – left them unsatisfied.
By the end of NASCAR’s visit they were digging the dirt action and buying pizza burger t-shirts.
The green flag is scheduled to drop about 9:15 p.m. Wednesday. Vince Welch, Michael Waltrip and Kyle Larson will call the race for FoxSports1. The pit reporters are Hermie Sadler, Christopher Bell and Kenny Wallace.
Austin Dillon won the Dirt Derby in 2013. He’s since been followed by Bubba Wallace, Bell, Larson and, last year’s winner, Matt Crafton. Sauter wants to add his name to the list Wednesday.
But just like finding Eldora without a GPS for newcomers, he knows it won’t be easy.
Sauter’s average starting position at Eldora is 10.8. His average finish is 19.0. His best finish was eighth in 2014. Since then he’s finished 22nd, 13th and 23rd.
“If you want to know the truth I feel like I’m regressing instead of progressing,” Sauter said. “It’s a tough one for me. I’ve spent 40 years asphalt racing and it’s just a tough deal to learn. But I love the atmosphere and I love going out there. I think it’s a really cool place. … It’s tough when you only do it once a year. I don’t do any extra-curricular dirt racing. I do asphalt. I’m 40-years old. It’s hard to undo everything you know.”
The mid-week classic often attracts NASCAR Cup drivers or standouts on the dirt circuit. Among them, Cup driver Ryan Newman is schedule to make his first start since finishing third in the inaugural event. Chris Windom, the 2017 USAC national sprint car champion, returns for the second straight season. He finished 19th last year.
Still, those asphalt veterans aren’t there to be field fillers. Crafton proved that last season by leading 24 of the 150 laps for the win.
Sauter, who drives the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS Racing, said a good finish would be anything between fifth and 10th.
“I would be totally satisfied,” Sauter said. “I just wish I knew more about (racing on dirt). If I was 20 I’d be more apt to go out and really try to learn it. But I’ve got four kids at home that like time with their old man.”
Sauter enters Eldora with a series-high four wins. He’s finished among the top five in 10 of his 12 starts. He’s locked into the postseason – along with Brett Moffitt (3 wins), Noah Gragson (1), Ben Rhodes (1) and Justin Haley (1) – so racing for points isn’t a concern. That allows Sauter to take some chances, which can be key at a track like Eldora.
“If I’ve got an opportunity to win at Eldora I’m taking it,” Sauter said. “The points at this point aren’t a concern to me at all. We’re pretty much locked in. We have the opportunity to win that race – which would take a miracle – we’re going to take it.”