At times it resembled amateur night at a demolition derby, not the showcase race for the Camping World Truck Series. Instead of exciting dirt-track action, caution after caution slowed the first stage, making it seem as if the winner Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway would be whichever driver could best avoid the carnage.
But when the dust settled and the checkered flag waved, the only dirt track to host a NASCAR national division race delivered as expected. Matt Crafton passed pole-sitter Shane Friesen, who led a race-high 93 of a possible 150 laps, with 16 laps remaining to take the win.
It was Crafton’s first victory of the season and first since May 21, 2016 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, snapping a 27-race winless streak. Friesen finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Grant Enfinger, and John Hunter Nemechek.
“My first dirt win,” Crafton said. “In the second part of that race we downright just stunk. It was my fault. We over-tightened it a little bit in the first run. It got free and we just went back to the way we started the race.
Lacking a dirt-track background, Crafton’s approach initially when the Truck Series began visiting Eldora in 2013 was to merely try and stay out of trouble and leave hopefully with a top-10 finish. That approach paid off with the two-time Truck Series champion doing just that in every edition, though he never led any laps and never finished higher than eighth.
But seeking to improve and wanting to win a race that has evolved into one of NASCAR’s most popular, Crafton had purchased a dirt modified car and raced it at various tracks. That effort paid off Wednesday night with Crafton winning the first stage, then exercising patience as his truck faded in the second stage.
“It has helped a lot, learning what the truck does and seeing what spots to pass,” Crafton said. “Previously, I didn’t know what I was looking at but I just kept studying and studying.”
2015 race winner Christopher Bell entered the night as the favorite, but the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver spun and was slammed into by Kaz Grala on Lap 34. Bell’s Toyota suffered considerable damage with the front suspension askew.
Surprisingly, Bell was able to continue. He then charged to the front, using the high groove to counter the right front that was out of alignment and moved into the lead on Lap 92. A flat tire dropped him back into the pack again with 25 lap remaining, and he would rally to finish ninth.
“My crew is really, really good on pit road,” Bell said. “They were able to get it fixed back up. I’m just really bummed for them because they gave me a really, really fast truck and I made a mistake there early on and it cost us the race.”
Bell’s early spin was one of 10 cautions on the night, including six over the first two stages that slowed the race for 43 of 90 laps. Eventually the rash of yellow flags subsided and drivers found a rhythm navigating the half-mile oval owned by Tony Stewart, who was actively involved throughout the night in prepping the surface.
“It should be called the demolition derby, not the dirt derby because our truck is destroyed,” said Ben Rhodes, who crashed out in the second stage.