Dirt, road ringers prepare for Eldora, Watkins Glen

by Justin Nguyen

The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck and Xfinity Series will ring in the month of August with special trips to the dirt track of Eldora Speedway on Thursday and the first of three road courses with Watkins Glen International on Saturday, respectively. To best prepare for the break from the usual ovals, various teams have hired special one-off drivers with experience on dirt and circuits.

Truck Series dirt track drivers

As NASCAR’s only national series race on dirt, the Eldora Dirt Derby frequently attracts special names who have raced in disciplines like sprint cars, late models, dirt modifieds, and quarter midgets. Of the 32 drivers currently entered, as many as 12 are either returning to the series for the first time in 2019 or newcomers entirely.

Defending race winner Chase Briscoe, who currently sits seventh in the Xfinity standings, makes his Dirt Derby return for the second straight year with ThorSport Racing in the #27 Ford F-150. He won the 2018 race after beating out ThorSport team-mate Grant Enfinger by just .038 seconds.

Alongside Ross Chastain, Niece Motorsports will field the #44 Chevrolet Silverado for Jeffrey Abbey, who won the IMCA Nationals Point Championship in 2016. He made his Truck début for Niece in 2017 at Eldora, where he finished fourteenth, and returned to the race in 2018 with Reaume Brothers Racing and finished seventeenth. He also has a twenty-second-place run at Martinsville Speedway in 2017 with Niece.

Mike Affarano Motorsports, whose team owner raced at Eldora in 2014, has a #03 Chevrolet for Jake Griffin. Griffin failed to qualify for the 2015 race with Affarano, but rebounded in 2016 when he finished fourth with Red Horse Racing. He did not compete in the 2017 and 2018 races.

Late model driver Justin Shipley will also be back at Eldora for the fourth consecutive year. All of his Truck starts have come at the dirt track with Jacob Wallace Racing‘s #80 Ford; although he struggled with mechanical issues that led to retirements in his first two races, he finished twenty-sixth in 2018.

Kyle Strickler, nicknamed the ‘High Side Tickler’, joins DGR-Crosley‘s #54 Toyota Tundra. A dirt late model driver by trade, Strickler’s first and only Truck start came at the 2018 Derby with MB Motorsports, where he finished thirty-first after a wreck.

While not a previously-scheduled new driver, Landon Huffman will replace Spencer Boyd in the #20 Young’s Motorsports Silverado while Boyd is treating a back injury.

Series newcomers

Truck Series debutants include Devin Dodson, Colt Gilliam, Carson Hocevar, Mike Marlar, Mark Smith, and Tim Ward.

Dodson and Marlar will both race for Reaume Brothers Racing in the #34 and #33 Chevrolets, respectively. Dodson finished in the top ten in three of his four K&N Pro Series West starts in 2018 and has raced on dirt since his youth. Marlar competes in dirt late models, including currently being fourteenth in the World of Outlaws Late Model standings.

An ARCA Menards Series driver, Hocevar is driving Jordan Anderson‘s #3 Silverado for Eldora. The two developed a friendship through sponsor LTi Printing, leading Anderson to hire Hocevar for the Derby. Open-wheel driver Smith will drive the #38 in an alliance between Jordan Anderson Racing and Niece Motorsports.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to compete at the NASCAR level,” Smith said. “These types of opportunities typically don’t present themselves at 48 years old. I’m looking forward to strapping into the #38 Chevy Silverado and compete at a track that I’m very familiar with.”

Gilliam, who races dirt tracks in the Carolinas, joins NEMCO Motorsports‘ #8. John Hunter Nemechek was originally expected to drive the truck, but obligations in the Xfinity Series and pre-existing sponsorship allowed Gilliam to step in. Kart Idaho will field the #08 for Ward, who races in IMCA Dirt Modifieds.

Xfinity Series road course drivers

Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The road course ringer has seen a decline over the years, especially in the Monster Energy Cup Series (whose Go Bowling at The Glen‘s drivers have competed in at least one race in 2019), as the playoffs, costs, and driver versatility have led to oval drivers developing a skill for the road races. Nevertheless, special drivers will run their first Xfinity races of the season in the Zippo 200 at The Glen.

B.J. McLeod Motorsports will field the #5 Chevrolet Camaro, typically driven by Matt Mills, for Scott Heckert. A sports car driver and race winner in the Blancpain GT World Challenge America, Heckert finished second in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2015, with three of his four series wins coming at road courses (Watkins Glen and Virginia International Raceway). All but two of his five career Xfinity starts in 2016 and 2018 have also been road events, with a best finish of sixteenth at The Glen with McLeod in 2016. Mills, who has attempted every race in 2019, is currently not entered in any car for the race.

Stuntman Stanton Barrett, who has 203 Xfinity starts between 1992 and 2016, returns to the series with MBM Motorsports. Barrett’s lone NASCAR start of 2019 came in April at the Cup SeriesTalladega Superspeedway race, where he finished thirty-fifth. In 2016, he ran the Xfinity road course races for MBM and McLeod, finishing nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-seventh at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Road America, respectively. His best Xfinity finish at a road course is seventeenth at Road America in 2010. He will drive the #42 Toyota Supra for MBM; Chad Finchum usually drives the car, but will move to the #13 for The Glen.

Other non-one-off entries of note include Tommy Joe Martins driving the #66 in his first race for MBM, while H2 Motorsports and Shane Lee will not contest the road course races to relieve the workload during their inaugural season. Cody Ware will compete in his first Xfinity race since Talladega in April with McLeod.

Although the Cup Series race will not feature any special drivers, many Cup regulars will also compete in the Zippo 200, including Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Ryan Preece. Since the event’s return to the series calendar in 2005, Cup drivers have virtually dominated as so-called “Buschwhackers” have won every edition with the exception of Marcos Ambrose in 2008; even after going to Cup full-time in 2009, Ambrose won the 2009, 2010, and 2014 races.

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