ROSSBURG, Ohio – The question heading into the final stage of Thursday night’s seventh annual Eldora Dirt Derby was whether tires or track position would be the key to unlocking victory lane.
Stewart Friesen answered that question in convincing fashion, staying out at the end of the second stage and taking a lead he wouldn’t relinquish en route to his first NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win.
Friesen was out front for the final 57 laps after making the decisive strategy call, turning back every advance that the rest of the field could muster and holding off Sheldon Creed on a two-lap sprint to the checkered flag.
The win erased a long series of heartaches for Friesen, the likable Canadian who set the Truck Series record of six runner-up finishes without a victory before finally triumphing in his 63rd start.
“Man, I don’t even know what to say,” said Friesen. “Thank you to everyone, all the race fans and sponsors who stuck with us for all this time. Today is the day. This is the week. Right here is the moment. This was meant to be. We needed to get it done here, on the dirt, at Eldora … and we did.
“What a special event this is,” he added. “We came here four years ago just wanting to have fun, but this was the goal and tonight, we finally checked that box at last.”
Though Friesen was the dominant truck when it counted, for most of the night it appeared that NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Chase Briscoe was poised to become the first repeat winner of the Dirt Derby.
Briscoe led the first 93 laps in succession, won the first two stages and had a truck so dominant that no one could really get close to his ThorSport Racing-prepared No. 27 DiaEdge Ford F-150.
However, Briscoe ducked to pit road during the second stage break, hoping to replicate the same call and late-race charge that he used to wrest victory away from Logan Seavey a year ago at Eldora.
Unfortunately for Briscoe, he couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.
Mired back in 12th when the final stage went green, the Mitchell, Ind., native saw his race unravel. He was caught in an accordion-style melee when Ross Chastain spun in front of the field from fourth, getting damage to the front and rear of his truck, and then got pinned down low on several restarts.
Briscoe finally began making some moves late in the going, marching up to eighth with 33 laps left on the bottom and fighting up to as high as third with 19 laps left, but another caution put the pressure on – and Briscoe finally cracked on the next restart.
When the green lights clicked on with 12 to go, Briscoe was caught on the bottom and shuffled back to fifth, then overdrove the entry into turn one with 10 laps left and was finished off by Ben Rhodes.
That knocked Briscoe out of contention, while Friesen stayed true out front and Grant Enfinger was elevated onto the front row for what turned into a green-white-checkered finish.
Enfinger slid back quickly on the bottom, while Creed found a hole on the outside and forced his way up to second in a half lap, though the Californian could get no further after the white flag was displayed.
That left Creed .728 seconds shy of victory, while Friesen celebrated with the iconic Golden Shovel.
Grant Enfinger, reigning World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion Mike Marlar and Todd Gilliland completed the top five, while Briscoe fought back from the tail of the lead lap to finish seventh.
The race was marred by a 14-truck pileup in turn one on the 64th lap, though only Austin Hill was officially eliminated due to damage sustained in the accident.
Friesen, however, kept his truck clean – and his focus on the joy of the night after taking the checkered flag.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “This is why we kept fighting all this time. I’m so proud of this team.”