By Cole Cusumano
On March 27, all eyes will be on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as 40 drivers are met with inconceivable amounts of uncertainty surrounding the enigma that is Bristol Motor Speedway with dirt. Competing at an unfamiliar venue is one thing, but when you throw in the plethora of athletes using this race as a glorified test session, it presents a whole different element of difficulty for the series regulars.
The Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt boasts one of the most talent-heavy fields in series history featuring seven NASCAR Cup Series drivers. Headlined by Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., the 150-lap event could serve as the pinnacle of entertainment for 2021.
But what’s the rhyme or reason for the star-studded entry list?
“I feel like everyone’s kind of in the same boat, because no one’s really got experience at all,” Derek Kraus told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “They’re doing it because they’re questioning and don’t really know what to do either.
“We’re all trying to do the same thing and learn as fast as we can, and I feel like the people who will adapt quickest will be the Cup drivers, but I feel like there’s no reason any of us Truck drivers can’t — or even myself — can’t compete against them.”
There’s nothing wrong with getting some track time before the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday, but the presence of these veteran will certainly impact the Truck Series regulars. While the Cup drivers have nothing to lose by gaining experience and pushing it for the win, there are still over 20 teams competing for points with season-long aspirations in mind.
“I think it’s definitely going to be really tough for the Truck Series guys to get a lot of stage points,” Todd Gilliland told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “That’s the biggest thing — you can gain or lose a ton of points this weekend. You still have to be really aggressive and take what you can, but I think you always have to keep in the back of your mind there’s a lot more to lose on weekends like this.”
The question then becomes, how do the Truck drivers plan on handling the Cup guys? In the end, this is their series that they compete in on a weekly basis, and they have much more to lose than premier level athletes.
“The big thing is being smart,” Ben Rhodes told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “You can’t control what the other people are going to do, but you can kind of influence their behavior and certainly put yourself in a better position.
“I’m going to race others how they race me. If people start racing really stupid like they have in years past at Eldora (Speedway), I’m not going to be the same guy that would just layover. Depending on where it’s at in the race, they’re going to get it back and then some.”
Kraus is taking a “cautiously aggressive” approach to racing around the Cup drivers on Saturday, with endurance for 150 laps being the main objective. He believes if you’re still running towards the end of the final stage, you’ll have a shot at a quality finish and maybe even the victory.
For Gilliland, he’s utilizing the experience scattered throughout the field as a method of growth, while also remaining competitive.
“I think we’ll still be able to definitely compete with them and our goal is still to win this weekend,” Gilliland said. “You have to keep in mind, these are the best guys in the world and it’s just a good opportunity to learn from them.”
The driver of the No. 38 is most eager to race with Harvick, who will somewhat be a teammate driving for his father’s team, David Gilliland Racing. While the 2014 Champion is someone he’ll be in contact with, he’s excited to take notes from guys like Larson on the track and is grateful to compete with all the athletes migrating from different series.
Rhodes is taking a cue from his counterparts at the premier level in asserting a sense of dominance being a series regular.
“I really hope the people who are not regulars in the series respect the fight and the effort that the regulars are putting in for the whole season that’s still ahead,” Rhodes said. “If you look at Eldora and these dirt races in general, they can get pretty wild and it seems like there’s not a lot of emphasis put on the preservation of trucks that are racing for the whole season.
“A lot of these guys come in and they say, ‘it’s checkers or wreckers for me,’ and they don’t really consider the other folks that are out here still racing for points and stages.”
Whether you’re a driver, analyst or fan, no one knows what to expect in the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt. A sellout crowd of 30,000 and millions at home will be watching intently as the Truck Series becomes the first NASCAR race on dirt at the Last Great Colosseum. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, March 27.