ROSSBURG, Ohio – Of all the dirt ringers taking to Eldora Speedway for Thursday night’s seventh annual Eldora Dirt Derby, there’s few who understand the mystique of the half-mile oval like Kyle Strickler.

Strickler, a two-time winner of the World Short Track Championship at The Dirt Track at Charlotte and an accomplished UMP dirt modified veteran, is driving the No. 54 Toyota Tundra for DGR-Crosley and longtime friend David Gilliland this week at the legendary venue.

It’s a place that holds many special memories for Strickler, who has won at Eldora multiple times in UMP modified competition and knows just how big the facility is to the dirt-track racing community.

In fact, he circled one of his biggest career moments as leading the Dirt Late Model Dream field to green at Eldora earlier this season, driving for Wells & Sons Motorsports.

Now, Strickler has a shot at another memorable experience.

“Eldora is the greatest place on Earth, for me,” Strickler said. “I love this race track, and I love what Tony’s done with it. Coming here earlier this year for the first time in a super late model, starting on the pole at the (Dirt Late Model) Dream and leading some laps there … that was special. When you add that to all the races that I’ve won here in a modified, there’s just nothing like it. There really isn’t.

“It is awesome to be able to come here in really, really good equipment and with a team that’s super excited to have me here as their driver,” Strickler added. “I feel like we have a good shot at winning.”

The connection between Strickler and Gilliland goes back more than a decade, to the beginning of the Pennsylvania native’s time in the Southeast, when he was just trying to scrape by and Gilliland’s then-Busch Series team loaned the young gun a helping hand.

“When I moved down south in 2006, David had a startup deal going with Hype Motorsports (and team owner Clay Andrews), and I actually worked in the fab shop there. It was my first job in NASCAR,” Strickler recalled. “David and I stayed close through the years after that, and last year … when I got my first opportunity to come run this race with Mike Mittler, I talked to David and told him that I’d really like to drive one of his trucks if we could ever put something together.

“He pays attention to my dirt racing some, and Frankie Kerr – the crew chief for this deal – was one of the first guys to help me out when I first got my dirt modified,” Strickler added. “There have been a lot of people pulling for me behind the scenes, but I’m just glad we were able to make all the pieces fit.”

Kyle Strickler (8) races alongside Ricky Thornton Jr. during Thursday's second Dirt Late Model Dream preliminary feature at Eldora Speedway. (Jim Denhamer Photo)
Kyle Strickler (8) races alongside Ricky Thornton Jr. during a Dirt Late Model Dream preliminary feature at Eldora Speedway. (Jim Denhamer photo)

Aside from his Truck Series opportunity this week, Strickler has been busy for most of the season. He landed late model and modified rides with the Wells team early this spring, and has spent the middle part of the year learning as much as he can about the full-fendered discipline as he makes the transition.

“The late model deal has been absolutely awesome,” said Strickler. “Everyone at Wells Motorsports has been awesome to work with and they have a great thing going on. They have great equipment, and that’s so important in all forms of racing. The distance from me to them is the only thing that’s a little tough now, because I still live in North Carolina and I’m traveling four and a half hours each week to go to the shop and work on the late models. We have two wins already though, so we’re making progress.”

Strickler raced in the 2018 Eldora Dirt Derby for the late Mike Mittler, who passed away earlier this year. However, he was swept up in a crash and finished 31st, unable to truly show what he was capable of.

This time, Strickler knows he doesn’t just have a truck that can survive the race, he has a truck capable of thriving – and perhaps winning – at one of the most legendary dirt tracks in the United States.

“I’m a kid in a candy store with this,” Strickler noted. “This type of a deal gives us short-track dirt racers some hope that if you work hard and win races, you’re going to get your shot.

“I feel like this is my shot; I don’t think you could wipe the smile off my face right now if you tried.”