ROSSBURG, Ohio — Austin Dillon grabbed the golden shovel and scooped a pile of dirt. His dirty work over, Dillon dumped the black clump in a small jar, a nice souvenir for a victory four decades in the making.
Dillon left the rest of the field in his dust to win NASCAR’s return to dirt racing in the Truck Series races at Eldora Speedway. He pulled away in the green-white-checkered finish Wednesday night to complete a thrilling return to the muck of the clumpy dirt track.
“This is real racing right here,” said Dillon, a regular in the Nationwide Series who won for the fifth time in 53 career Truck starts.
The last time one of NASCAR’s top touring series competed on dirt was Sept. 30, 1970, when Richard Petty won a Sprint Cup — called the Grand National Division at that time — race at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh.
That drought ended with racing that started early in the day and bled into late night at the Tony Stewart-owned half-mile track. Dillon was joined by his father, Mike, and his grandfather, owner Richard Childress, for the victory celebration.
“The coolest thing is, you’re out of control out there for a few laps,” Austin said. “You’re on the edge for every lap.”
NASCAR returned to dirt in an attempt to reconnect with its roots and give fans raised on asphalt and stock cars a taste of the slides and wall-banging that are staples of the surface. Looks like NASCAR will have to come back.
Fans absolutely packed the track that opened in 1954, a rare feat for a series that often runs in front of mostly empty grandstands as a support race in a Sprint Cup weekend.
About 20,000 fans spread out on the grassy hills or creaky wooden bleachers; most seats with a hand-painted number. They camped out along the street entering the track and turned Eldora into the site of Ohio’s biggest party.
Not bad considering rural Rossburg had a population of 201 in the 2010 census.
If fans weren’t chugging beers, they sipped the track’s signature drink, Toilet Water. Just some vodka, with orange juice and 7-Up. Oh, and a Tootsie Roll plopped in the yellowish concoction for fun.
They got quite a show. The trucks drove four wide in a parade lap. Then they skidded and slid around the track, mashed and bashed against the wall and doors, living up to the hype of one of the most anticipated races of the season in any NASCAR series.
Kyle Larson was second, Ryan Newman third, Joey Coulter fourth and Brendan Gaughan fifth. Darrell Wallace Jr. finished seventh.
“If I can get the dirt out of my eyes, I’ll be all right,” Wallace said, rubbing his eyes at the podium.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, was on hand to take care of every last detail of the track he bought in 2004. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer also were on hand.
Cup drivers Newman and Dave Blaney were in the 30-truck field. “I think our sport really needed something different,” Newman said. “I think it’s a monumental day. It’s something special. It’s over tonight, but hopefully it happens again.”