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.”
“How far that goes, we’ll have to wait and see,” NASCAR President Mike Helton told Speed. “I think that’s what makes tonight very special, the fact that it is a combination of Wednesday night racing, on a dirt track, which has been a long-time coming from a lot of our fans who requested it. So, tonight is very unique, and that’s what makes it special. What the future holds? We’ll see.”
There sure seemed to be more excitement for the Truck Series race than the Cup stop Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Leave Indy, get off the highway, and there’s nothing but farmland, corn, a small town that could be mistaken for Mayberry — and then, Eldora.
Keselowski said on TV “there was more energy than for a Cup race.”
The track issued 130 media credentials and boasted that tickets were purchased from 48 of the 50 states.
Eldora hosts some of the largest dirt racing events in the country, including the Dream, Kings Royal, and World 100.
Qualifying was pulled out of the dirt racing playbook. There were five, eight-lap qualifying events and a 15-lap last-chance race to come up with the 30 competitors (regularly 36 in the series) for the 150-lap Mudsummer Classic. The feature race was broken into three segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps.
Norm Benning rode the wall in the last-chance race to become the final driver in the field. But his No. 57 Chevrolet looked as if it went through 150 laps, not 15, with the exhaust pipes dragging along the dirt.
The 61-year-old Benning flipped the middle finger to Clay Greenfield after their trucks connected on the final lap.
It was a good race for older drivers. Ken Schrader became the oldest pole winner in a NASCAR series. The 58-year-old Schrader won the pole and a qualifying heat race. Dick Trickle was 57 years old when he won the pole for the June 1999 Nationwide Series race at Dover.
The trucks weren’t built to race on dirt, so some adjustments were needed.
The Goodyear dirt tire was widened from 10 to 11 inches to provide a larger contact patch with the track and give the trucks more grip. While the Eldora right-side tire basically remained the same height as a NASCAR tire run on asphalt tracks, the left-side was 3 inches shorter (85.8 inches) to build in more stagger, which helped the trucks turn better.
The trucks were fitted for mesh shields and hood deflectors to hold off debris kicked up from the muck.
The trucks were dirty, but the racing was clean, with the first big wreck not coming until the 116th lap.