Dirt, NASCAR, Eldora are big winners after Mudsummer Classic

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Occasionally, you just need to tip your cap to someone on a job well done.

In this case, a tip of the cap to two parties: NASCAR, for taking a chance on a dirt track race for the first time in 40 years, and to Eldora Speedway, its track president Roger Slack and track owner Tony Stewart.

It looked weird at first glance – the sight of these lumbering, overpowered and under-tired NASCAR Camping World Trucks attempting to “slide job” and ride loose around the top groove of the half-mile oval in Rossburg, Ohio.

But after just a few minutes and few laps, it looked massive, and it looked like a spectacle.

From the sold-out crowd, to the heat race format, to Norm Benning making the feature race after holding on in his last-chance qualifier, to the four-wide tribute start and salute to the fans, to the race itself. It looked like authentic racing without appearing contrived. It wasn’t a crash fest; it was fairly clean. It was three hours of racing action, but it was never three hours of tedium.

In fact, the only disappointment was that it seemed every time the leaders were approaching traffic, a caution flew for debris. Now in all cases, the big pieces of debris were shown, so you can put the “phantom debris caution” theory to rest on this occasion.

Kyle Larson drove the wheels off his truck but race winner Austin Dillon came through the field just as much, in fact more so than the widely accepted wunderkind who has been hailed by many as NASCAR’s next big thing.

The immediate cries on social media and in some reports was for “MORE DIRT RACING!” or something along those lines.

The challenge for NASCAR, and perhaps for other domestic forms of motorsport, is not to lose the unique nature of this first, one-off dirt track NASCAR experience.

Some of racing’s most iconic races are that way because they’re sparse. Because they’re unique. Monaco, Indianapolis and Le Mans are iconic; Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland are not.

Over-saturation of a certain kind of racing – the preponderance of 400-mile snooze fests on 1.5-mile ovals as an example – pretty much reduces those races to also-ran, can-miss status because there’s no differentiating one from another.

NASCAR’s most exciting races have tended to occur on slower tracks visited infrequently. Bristol and Martinsville, the two half-mile tracks, are among the most fun to watch, as are the two road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Eldora fits this bill to a T.

For NASCAR, perhaps one or two more dirt track races in a year could go a long way toward building up enough sustained season-long interest in dirt, but not overdoing it.

The easiest way to get “MORE DIRT RACING” from here is to simply visit your local short track and see the action there. They need the support.

But as for last night, it was an excellent dirt-digging, groundbreaking ceremony for a form of racing that seeks to make a resurgence in the minds and wallets of race fans.

Here’s a few extra takes on the race from AP/Dan Gelston, USA Today’s Jeff Gluck and Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass.

And here are tweets from Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”