Curiosity factor sky-high for Eldora

7/23/2013 - NASCAR

Dave Blaney was trying to envision what it would be like on Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway if the windshield gets coated in dirt, a scenario drivers normally don't have to consider when competing in one of NASCAR's national series.

"You're going to pit," he said.

He paused.

"If you can find pit road," Blaney added with a laugh.

This week will be all about vision for NASCAR.

First comes the inaugural Truck series race at Eldora Speedway, the first time a major NASCAR series has run on dirt since Sept. 30, 1970, when Richard Petty won at State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, N.C.

This half-mile track surrounded by cornfields in Rossburg, Ohio, is part of a vision by the governing body to return to its roots, complete with heat races, a last-chance race and the main event.

It is part of a vision that three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has had since he purchased the track from Earl Baltes in 2004, calling it a "dream come true" when the decision was made official.

"NASCAR is trying to find something different, something that can bring new energy to the series," Stewart said at the time.

This should do it.

Then comes the Saturday Nationwide Series race two hours away at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, part of a vision that became reality last season when track officials moved NASCAR's second-tier series to the 2.5-mile track to boost interest and attendance for the weekend.

The week concludes with the 20th running of the Brickyard 400 at IMS, part of a vision by former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. to move stock car racing into a venue that until 1994 had not hosted an event outside the Indianapolis 500 since 1916.

The inaugural race won by Jeff Gordon in front of more than 250,000 fans remains the most-attended event in NASCAR history.

But first up is the return to dirt, as anticipated as much for the uncertainty of how the trucks will perform as the historical significance. It could range from being the greatest show the series has seen in years to a train wreck.

"I'm sure the curiosity factor is pretty high," Blaney said. "I really have no idea what to expect, but I'm sure looking forward to it."

Blaney has competed at Eldora more than most, just not in trucks. It is the home track of the Ohio native, who will pit his skills against 19-year-old son Ryan, dirt-track ringers such as Scott "Dirtrax Dominator" Bloomquist, Cup regulars such as Ryan Newman and Truck series regulars who have little to no experience on dirt.

"It's going to be wild," said Austin Dillon, who made the first laps in a truck at Eldora in October as NASCAR tested the track to see if it could host an event. "I don't know totally 100 percent what to expect."

Nobody does.

The trucks have been modified a bit. The splitter has been replaced by mesh shields to keep dirt out of the grille, the rear spoiler is larger for more grip and there are hood deflectors to keep rocks and other debris off the windshield.

In some ways, it is like the first Cup race at IMS. There is the curiosity factor that creates more interest.

Blaney expects the speeds will be slow, as in less than 100 mph. The quality of racing depends on the specially built Goodyear tires with grooves, and the weather.

Mud isn't conducive to good racing, as Dillon found out the first of the two days he tested.

"It was rough and wet, and for me I like it in a dirt car," he said of the first day. "Now in a truck it's a little tougher, but it was fun, even though they had the track wet and wide open."

If the track remains hard, dry and slick, you could have three- and four-wide racing all the way around. It could be spectacular.

"It's going to be who can get the most grip on their truck on a really slick surface," Blaney said. "We'll see."

The field has been cut from its normal 36 entries to 30 with only the top 20 teams in owner points guaranteed a starting spot. Traditional qualifying has been abandoned in favor of five eight-lap heat races with five trucks transferring from each to lock in the top 25.

Then there will be a 15-lap last-chance race in which the top four will transfer into the main event into positions 26-29, with one spot saved for a champion's provisional.

The main event will be 150 laps divided into three segments -- 60, 50 and 40 laps -- with pit stops between each for teams to change tires and make adjustments.

If you pit at any other time, something probably has gone terribly wrong.

"The heat races are definitely going to be wild for the guys that are trying to get in the race & and hopefully you see some of that stuff that dirt tracks are famous for," said Dillon, who runs full-time in the Nationwide Series and part-time in Cup.

"It's just a matter of keeping everybody calm at the beginning to not have a ton of cautions and making sure that the guys with less experience are talking to the guys that have some dirt experience."

Said Blaney, "The surface is the big thing. The track could be low grip or it could get some rubber down and be three seconds a lap faster. You just have to play it by ear."

It's going to be wild. I don't know totally 100 percent what to expect.

-- Austin Dillon

Stewart won't be among the participants, but he may be more nervous than the most neophyte on dirt as he watches his track take the spotlight.

"Tony wants to be there to make sure everything goes off the way he hopes," Blaney said.

Stewart's focus is on winning the Brickyard 400 for the third time and making the Chase. He's 13th in the standings, five points out of the top 10 guaranteed a spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff with only seven races left in the regular season.

He has a victory that currently puts him in the second wild-card spot, but there are no guarantees with only 25 points separating 17th-place Jeff Burton and 10th-place Kasey Kahne. Three other drivers are within 36 points of 10th.

All still have visions of making the Chase, even those who have been quiet most of the season.

"We don't think we are out of the Chase," said Burton, coming off a third-place finish at New Hampshire. "I know everybody else in the world does, but we don't. We feel like we can still do it.

"There's a lot of stuff that's going to happen between now and Richmond. Everybody is racing each other that's racing for those spots, and if we can knock off some -- get on one of those streaks that I used to get on, we can make it. And we intend to. I know it's a long shot, but I think we can."

Vision. It's what this week is all about.

Fortunately for those at IMS, their vision won't be impaired by a dirty windshield, as those at Eldora could be.

"That's definitely a different scenario," Blaney said. "Nobody has ever run a dirt track with a windshield before. That's the only silly thing to me about this whole thing.

"But I can't wait. It's going to be fun."