Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – ROSSBURG, OH – Four drivers from the Northeast Big Block Modified world traveled to Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway for Wednesday Night’s Eldora Dirt Derby. With varying amounts of seat time in a NASCAR Camping World Truck, some were considered favorites and some flew mainly under the radar. However, by the end of the 150 laps on one of the most famous dirt track anywhere, all four had left an impression on the NASCAR world.
Stewart Friesen is by and large the most experienced of the four in NASCAR’s third tier series. His third place finish was no great surprise, however his path to a podium finish was not without incident.
After winning his heat race, Friesen started the race’s first 40 lap segment in the 5th position. Working his way up to second place, The Sprakers, N.Y. racer looked to be a serious contender all night long. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case as Friesen was turned around by the No. 54 of Chris Windom early in the event. This put Friesen and crew behind the eight ball for the remainder of the race.
Friesen’s pit strategy of staying out during the second stage break helped him to gain much needed track position but by race’s end his machine was lacking for grip.
“We just lacked forward bite.” Friesen said. “We just weren’t good enough to win. There’s still three open spots (for the playoffs). Chase (Briscoe), Grant (Enfinger) and Matt (Crafton) were all fast both days and we just had to play catch up. That’s so hard to do. It’s so competitive.”
Max McLaughlin has a last name both Big Block Modified and NASCAR fans can relate to. As the son of former modified and NASCAR competitor Mike McLaughlin, the second generation racer showed signs of speed during practice and his qualifying heat in which he transferred to the feature.
His night was a solid and steady debut. Keeping himself in and around the top ten all evening long, McLaughlin never wavered under the pressure of the NASCAR spotlight. McLaughlin finished a solid 12th.
Tyler Dippel was fast all day long in his DGR Crossley No. 17 Toyota. Dippel’s first start in the Camping World trucks was an eye opener for many as the young competitor on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series circuit melded his pavement stock car racing knowledge with his experience on the dirt tracks of the Northeast to move to as high as third in the feature event.
Unfortunately for Dippel, multiple mid-race incidents seriously damaged the handling on his truck, which relegated Dippel to a somewhat disappointing 13th place finish. However Dippel turned a few heads as in his debut the truck had both the speed and handling to be considered a serious threat.
JR Heffner’s fifth start in the Eldora Dirt Derby was more promising than some of his prior attempts at the tricky half-mile. Heffner has had an up and down history with the one-off event. This year his No. 15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet was one of the fastest trucks in practice over a ten lap run and it showed in his heat race as he finished fourth and transferred into the main event.
Heffner ran solid most of the event running in the top 15. However during the race’s first segment break, Tommy Baldwin’s adjustments took the vehicle in the wrong direction and Heffner struggled for grip the rest of the evening. Baldwin informed Heffner of the miss step on his radio saying. “That was my one chance to get it right for you, I’m sorry.” JR simply replied. “This isn’t over yet.” Heffner settled in to a comfortable pace and finished 24th with his ill handling machine, but brought it back in one piece for another shot at Dirt Derby glory in the future.
With such strong performances by all the Big Block competitors, it’s clear the talent in the Northeast is as strong as ever and given the right opportunities, can shine on the national stage.