In his previous two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series visits at Eldora Speedway, Kyle Larson left his mark on the famed track.
He left racing stripes along the outer concrete walls and he banged and bounced off them chasing the leaders. He left pieces of his truck littered all over the track in his relentless pursuit of a victory. And he left fans wanting more.
The roughly 22,000 in attendance got it Wednesday night at Eldora, the track owned by three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Larson, 23, stayed off the wall and out of trouble – well, for the most part – to win the Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby. He took advantage of Bobby Pierce’s tough luck, then held off defending champion Christopher Bell to win by 0.767 seconds.
The victory was Larson’s second in 12 career NCWTS starts. And it was almost as improbable as his stunning USAC 4-Crown Nationals sweep at Eldora in 2011 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in his first ever visit to the intimidating high-banked oval.
“It means a lot, especially losing the way I did the two years I ran,” Larson said after putting the No. 24 DC Solar Chevrolet in Victory Lane. “I had to put on a show.”
He usually does.
In 2013 at the inaugural race (then called the Mudsummer Classic), Larson led 51 laps before banging up his truck chasing winner Austin Dillon. He finished second after leading with 27 laps to go.
In 2014, Larson nearly totaled his truck in pursuit of winner Darrell Wallace Jr. He finished 26th after leading with 23 laps to go.
On Wednesday, Larson passed Pierce on lap 35 of the 150-lap event. But 50 laps in he told his crew his right rear tire was going down. Larson lost it two laps later and spun in Turn 4. Larson spun his tires and then stopped on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Larson might have been able to make it to the pits, but NASCAR ruled he caused the caution intentionally. He was penalized one lap, dropping him from first to 21st.
Two cautions later Larson, who spent 20 laps one lap down, rejoined the leaders as the beneficiary of the free pass.
“I knew we would get a lucky dog,” Larson said, “I just didn’t know if I could get back to the top three as quick as I did. It just worked out where I got by Bell when he got in the wall and I think Bobby had a gear issue. He was definitely better than I was for sure.”
Pierce, who led a race-high 102 laps, paced the field from laps 51-118. But bad luck struck on a restart with 32 laps left. Pierce radioed his crew his transmission was stuck in fourth gear. Larson roared past Pierce in the double-file restart and clicked off the final 32 laps for the win.
As for Pierce his race ended with 24 laps to go. He nosed his truck ahead of Larson when the Sprint Cup driver bobbled in Turn 4, but Pierce drifted up the track and tagged the outside wall with the tail. His truck bounced back down the track and went nose first into the inside wall. He finished 25th.
“I went in there a little too hard, it was super-slick and I got the wall and knocked the right-rear off the rim and that was that,” Pierce said.
Bell then gave chase in a list-ditch effort to reclaim his title, but couldn’t close the distance enough for a slide job.
“Tony did an awesome job with the race track tonight,” Bell said. “It was really technical, it was really tough to get around and it was really fun, too. Kyle’s been trying to win this race for a long time and it was cool for him to win tonight. The guys at (Kyle Busch Motorsports) worked really hard to put me in this position. I was disappointed we couldn’t repeat.”
The victory was the second major milestone for Larson at Eldora. On Sept. 24, 2011, he swept all three USAC sprint car features – midget, sprint and Silver Crown – in one night. He joined sprint legend and Troy resident Jack Hewitt (1998) as the only two drivers to do so in the event that started in 1981.
“I love to be back here on dirt,” Larson said. “This definitely means a lot, especially losing the way I did the two (previous) years I ran here.”
Fan favorite Rico Abreu finished third. He started the Dirt Derby buried deep in the field at 27th. His struggles continued when NASCAR penalized him for jumping a restart on lap 34. He served a drive-through penalty in the pits before rallying.
Jake Griffin and Tyler Reddick rounded out the top five.