With a drag racer competing on a dirt track, the penultimate round of the Superstar Racing Experience is its most varied yet. The final two races to determine the series champion are both on dirt ovals, and the first is Eldora Speedway, which is owned by series owner and founder Tony Stewart.
Thursday Night Thunder is back as the series takes to the half-mile dirt track in New Weston, Ohio (9 pm ET on ESPN).
Seven fulltime drivers – Stewart himself, Marco Andretti, Hailie Deegan, Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, and Ken Schrader – are all in the points hunt. Paul Tracy, the eighth full-timer at the start of the season, has since been suspended for the remainder of the season, as series CEO Don Hawk revealed, and he’s out of the championship fight.
It’s a tight battle at this point. Ryan Newman leads over Brad Keselowski by 33 points, but Keselowski only has a one-point advantage over Marco Andretti. Stewart, Schrader, Deegan, and Labonte trail, but the four are only separated by three points.
A full-time driver has only won once in the four completed rounds so far this season, though, when Ryan Newman beat Daniel Suarez in the second race at Stafford. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have won all the remaining rounds.
Another win from a championship-eligible driver would shake up the standings.
But that’s going to be tricky with a stacked field of part-timers entered at Eldora. The lineup features champions from NASCAR, IndyCar, and NHRA drag racing. Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon, Tony Kanaan, and Ron Capps, while Chase Briscoe is the last-minute replacement for Tracy.
Brad Keselowski knows that a win would help his championship hopes, but acknowledges that the dirt isn’t where he’s strongest.
His first dirt experience came in the NASCAR Truck Series, where he owned a team, after deciding he’d like to compete in the series’ dirt race at Eldora. He ended up 28th out of 32 entries.
“That was my first experience on dirt,” Keselowski explained, “and since then we’ve run the Cup races and some other things have happened and I probably understand it a little better than I did going into it.”
“But it was an interesting experience. It was very humbling. But I’m glad I got that experience, and glad I got the chance to do it.”
Despite that, he feels ready for the challenge. He said he feels more confident on the dirt now that the Cup Series races on dirt at Bristol. Plus, he noted, the SRX-spec cars are different to anything the drivers with dirt experience have driven.
“I feel like with the little bit of NASCAR experience that I have on dirt I’ll have a good opportunity to run up front,” Keselowski argued.
“Ryan Newman’s going to be tough, obviously he’s leading the points and he’s got some pretty good experience at these type of tracks, but regardless of that, anything can happen and I think we’ve seen that in all the SRX races to date.”
Keselowski is yet to score a top-ten finish at the Bristol dirt track in NASCAR, though. He believes that running in the SRX series makes him a stronger NASCAR driver, though, so that may change.
“There’s always something you learn when you drive a racecar,” he explained. “Probably more it’s just being active with the reps that means a lot to me. I want to race, I’m a racecar driver. The more reps I get, the more confident I feel in the car.”
Since the SRX season began, Keselowski’s results – and those of his entire RFK team – in NASCAR have improved markedly. He believes there is a correlation.
“I think that carries over to the Cup side as well,” said Keselowski, “and getting these reps as of late has certainly done well for me and I’m looking forward to getting some more.”
“I’m probably more of a rhythm person than I like to admit,” he added. “When that rhythm gets disrupted and you’re not racing enough, I personally lose confidence.”
One thing Keselowski certainly won’t be is complacent. In both of the last two races, he was leading before contact with Kyle pushed him aside, in one case sending him spinning.
He admitted that the emotions in an SRX race are just as high as they are on Sunday in the Cup Series, and he was just as angry at Kyle as any other time Busch wrecked him.
“I don’t know if my relationship with Kyle could be any more strained,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any room for growth there.”
But Keselowski is no longer afraid to be the one making more aggressive moves.
“I’m still trying to figure out the ebbs and flows of how this series races,” he said. “It’s shorter races with high-durability cars and the heat race format… it’s a different type of racing, and you’re rewarded for different things. It clearly took me a couple of weeks to understand that. And now that I understand that and I’m more successful.”
However, he stopped short of saying that he’s willing to wreck another driver.
“I would say always adapting would be my best answer. I don’t know if I want to commit beyond that.”
As the series draws to a close in its third season and the first with the reborn Thursday Night Thunder format on ESPN, series CEO Don Hawk said it’s been a big success.
He said the enthusiasm from racing fans towards the final dirt rounds demonstrates it.
“For the racing community, if you look at it from the dirt side, they’re all over it. A bunch of people in the dirt world are coming out just for that race. We’re looking forward to it,” Hawk said.
And he said that getting Chase Briscoe, who has years of dirt experience, as a local ringer for Eldora – plus Jonathan Davenport, a dirt track legend, for the final round at Lucas Oil Speedway – brought new fans to the sport.
But Hawk doesn’t expect it to be easy for Briscoe though.
“He’s going to have his hands full: there’s a lot of guys that can drive on dirt here and the SRX is a different kind of car, so it’s not going to be a runaway.”
Finally, Brad and Don detailed a conversation with NASCAR executives following the race at Berlin Raceway where they detailed that SRX is not a competitor for NASCAR but rather an enhancement, providing short races on summer weeknights before the big spectacle on Sunday.
“SRX just wants to be a part of the high tide that lifts all ships, and if we could that with IndyCar or NASCAR or even NHRA, that’s great. We know where we belong, we know our place, and we’re having a blast,” Hawk concluded.
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