As I milled through the infield after the SRX race at Eldora Speedway, Michael Waltrip slipped past me walking back to the driver's lot. He had high hopes for Eldora, overachieving last week to the point Tony Stewart joked he "still had the therapist's number" in case Waltrip, who had only four career NASCAR Cup Series wins to his credit, gave the three-time Cup champion a run for his money.
On this night, the strength Waltrip showed on dirt last weekend at Knoxville Raceway never materialized. He finished no better than ninth in any of the races and was caught up in a five-car crash in Heat 2. It left him with a battered race car, dirt covering his face, hat and firesuit like he stepped right out of a dustbowl.
But Waltrip was grinning, ear-to-ear like he'd just had the time of his life. He acknowledged the fans while leaving with the same cheery demeanor as a mid-race interview with CBS Sports' Brad Daugherty. The sheer excitement of racing again, the fun of fooling around on dirt far outweighed the disappointment of a subpar finish.
That's the beauty of SRX three races in, side-by-side action so exhilarating for those competing the cool factor doesn't wear off. Camaraderie is palpable within this 12-car field, with one lone exception as we look at five takeaways from Stewart's second straight SRX win.
1) Paul Tracy is playing with fire
Tracy entered the weekend a man on a mission after posting a season-worst SRX average finish of 9.3. He wound up with a good night on paper, posting three top-5 finishes along with 27 main event laps led.
But success came at a cost, late-race contact with Bobby Labonte destroying Labonte's No. 18 and taking out Bill Elliott in the process. It ruined a potential podium effort from Labonte, his first since Heat 1 at Stafford and left him all fired up at Tracy's aggression on the dirt.
"I know I'm going to have some Bobby Labonte fans after me because he's super pissed at me, and rightly so," said Tracy, who offered him a failed apology after the event. "I was running on top and I decided I was going to cut to the bottom and I just got it all wrong."
It was the third incident in three SRX races with Tracy, who's also crossed paths with Michael Waltrip and Willy T. Ribbs. Some dicey restarts up front with Helio Castroneves, an old rival who beat Tracy in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, leave Tracy a target for nearly half the field at Lucas Oil Raceway next weekend.
Tracy shrugged off the criticism and simply hopes a week is enough for everyone to get over it (a normally mild-mannered Labonte left the track without further comment).
"I couldn't be happier with how we ran overall tonight," he said. "We picked up a lot of points and hopefully made some new fans. I'm sure we made some enemies [though] because those Bobby Labonte fans probably hate me."
2) The "E" in Eldora stands for exciting
This dirt show was easily the best SRX race to date. Eight different drivers led, only one of them twice (Stewart in Heat 1 and the Main Event). A flurry of action reignited on-track rivalries (Castroneves-Tracy) while creating new ones (Tony Kanaan and Ernie Francis Jr. got into it, twice).
By the end of the main event, just two drivers (Castroneves and Speed) made it through without being involved in a caution. Three, sometimes four-wide action left fans loving the results although SRX fabricators have a little work on their hands.
"As race director, I've got a couple of phone calls to make to some people this week where I'll have to say, 'Look, this is for fun,'" said SRX co-founder Ray Evernham. "We've got a lot of torn-up cars, but it sounds like the fans like it."
3) Tony Stewart was on cruise control
Stewart overcame multiple obstacles at the track he owns. Two incidents during the second heat left his car banged up and forced to plow through traffic. Then, right before the main event, he went from pole sitter to the rear of the field after hitting the kill switch.
It didn't matter. Slicing through the pack, he passed local legend Kody Swanson with seven laps to go, making the win look easy on a night the on-track fireworks were crazier than the pyrotechnics Stewart's track shot off before the race began.
"Kody got just crushing everybody on the bottom," said Stewart of their late-race battle. "But the good thing was when he went by, everybody else followed him down there like they were in a parade and left the top open. And the longer we went, I finally got the momentum going on the top to get back by him."
Stewart also made racing history by holding a conversation with CBS analyst James Hinchcliffe under green. He explained his setup to pass SRX competitor Marco Andretti, then pounced moments later to the delight of fans (and other racecar drivers) watching at home.
4) IndyCar had itself a night
It's been tough sledding for the four IndyCar mainstays competing for the championship. The quartet of Andretti, Castroneves, Kanaan and Tracy had just two podium finishes entering Eldora.
They left with six as Castroneves also jumped to second in the SRX title race, 33 points behind Stewart. Each one spent time at the front but I'd argue Andretti was the most impressive, winning a heat and posting an average finish of 3.3. Just a two-time winner in IndyCar, Andretti had no dirt experience and hasn't even been racing full-time in 2021.
5) Kody came close
Second place may be the first loser but give a call to Swanson. That five-car wreck in Heat 2 wiped out his primary car, forcing him to start ninth in the main event driving a backup. For Swanson to jump to the front, leading 16 laps before Stewart caught him shows the talent of this five-time USAC Silver Crown champion.
Unfortunately for Swanson, he was snake-bit again at a track where he's never won in any type of competition.
"I hate to lose," Swanson said after the race. "I just didn't hit the bottom perfect and [Tony] got back around.
"It's awful hard to beat him here at Eldora."