Fast Talk: World Finals and Eckert's title
Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Joshua Joiner gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who's hot, who's not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing:
Todd Turner: The World of Outlaws Late Model Series has had some dramatic points chases in its history, and the tour added another one this weekend at Charlotte with Rick Eckert capturing his first championship. It appeared Josh Richards had a lock on his third consecutive title before the white flag flew and suddenly Richards slowed with a flat right-rear tire. Some topsy-turvy emotions for both Eckert and Richards for sure. How did you guys see the conclusion of the Lowes Foods World Finals?
Michael Rigsby: Honestly — and I've talked to many people who felt the same way — I thought the race was over. It all happened so fast, that when I saw Josh slowly rolling around the top of the track, I was like, "Well surely, he didn't just blow a tire on the last lap, and lose this title, did he?" I'm not overstating it, that was probably the most dramatic thing I've ever seen in Dirt Late Model racing. It was over — and I mean over.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that you'll never see again, I promise you. You'll notice, not us, not Speed, no one has a great shot of what happened, because no one shooting video expected it. In a word, wild.
Joshua Joiner: It was crazy and completely unexpected. Eckert made a strong bid midway through the race, even moving by Josh for a few laps just after halfway. But after Richards put cars between them following the last restart, it really looked to be over. And it would have been if it wasn't for the flat tire.
You have to feel for Richards that it ended that way, but it provided a wild, dramatic moment that really topped off what was a good battle between the two drivers earlier in the race.
TT: For Eckert, it's been a long climb back from his last national title in 2001. Ten years ago he was among the elite drivers, but amid crew changes, chassis changes and eventually the death of long-time car owner Raye Vest, he's had his share of struggles in recent seasons.
I guess I see Eckert as a classic example of how unforgiving and difficult Dirt Late Model racing is, and he certainly seemed to be the sentimental favorite to complete his climb back to the top.
MR: I'd rank it right up there with Don O'Neal's Dream win this year as far as crowd reaction. People in the crowd, even the sprint car fans, knew that this one meant something more. I think more than a few people had written Eckert's career off. This is a nice welcome back to one of the nice guys in the sport.
JJ: I don't think I've ever seen a bigger celebration in Dirt Late Model racing than Eckert's on Charlotte's front straightaway Saturday night. And there were even more people it seemed waiting for him to get back to his pit area. It was a special moment for him, no doubt.
TT: I know Richards has his critics for a variety of reasons, but after watching Michael's postrace interview with him, I'm reminded that I'm often struck how even-tempered and magnanimous he is in defeat. The 23-year-old really knows how to look at the big picture with a degree of maturity some drivers much older don't seem to be able to do sometimes.
MR: I'll just say it here and now — people don't realize just how much we're about to miss Josh Richards. If people are critical of him on a personal level, they don't know him. He's gracious, well-mannered, polite, and honestly a great kid in every sense of the word. Last night during the banquet he got very emotional at the thought of leaving Dirt Late Model racing for good, and even said to me Saturday night after the race, "thanks for all you've ever done for me."
Obviously Josh's accomplishments stand alone with no help from us, but it was really nice to hear something like that from a driver, let alone one who is so young. He's so well-grounded. You can say what you want about him, but I promise you, it won't be the same without him, which I think even his critics will find out soon.
JJ: Immediately after the race ended, I expected Richards to be really heartbroken with the way it turned out. But if you think about it, he did everything he could to win the championship. He had it won, and something beyond his control took him out. He's had a great year and won a lot of races. That has to help the sting of losing the title.
TT: Not to ignite Series Wars all over again, but it's notable that the drivers who recently battled for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series championship were battling for the victory in the WoO finale, while the WoO title drama was mired in the middle of the pack. We've seen a shift in power the last few years tilting toward Lucas Oil ... is this just another example of that?
MR: I'm not sure this in particular has anything to do with that specifically. Owens and Bloomquist have always been fantastic at Charlotte, event before they were Lucas Oil regulars. Now, obviously, those are the guys who are the faces of the Lucas Oil Series, and were the best drivers in the country the entire year, so you give them the nod overall, but I'm not sure it's a glaring example of one series being better than another. I'll be very interested to see what next year brings personally.
With Richards leaving the World of Outlaws, that's an enormous void that needs filled, and I've heard some really wild things regarding guys that could be running WoO next year — from house car drivers to others. We'll have to wait a few months to officially find out, but 2012 is an important year in the "series-talent-search" department, for both series I believe. One thing in particular I heard over the weekend regarding a driver and a team has me very excited — if it happens, it would be one of the top stories of the off-season.
JJ: It's hard to argue against that when the top two Lucas Oil drivers controlled the Outlaws' season finale and at one point were threatening to lap Eckert and Richards. Then again, neither Owens or Bloomquist were in the top five Friday. And it's hard to judge the health of the two tours based on one race or one weekend.
Richards's departure to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will definitely hurt the Outlaws talent level, but you never know what could play out as far as new drivers joining the series. It'll be interesting to watch and see who's where come next season.
TT: It's hard to believe Jonathan Davenport's late-season hot streak could be overshadowed, but series title chases will do that. His five-race win streak came to an end with a third-place finish at Charlotte, but there's big money still on the line for him at East Alabama Motor Speedway's National 100 this weekend ($25,000), Cherokee Speedway's Blue-Gray 100 ($10,000) and Swainsboro (Ga.) Raceway's big Crate Late Model event at the Turkey 100 ($20,000). He has to be the odds-on favorite at all three events.
JJ: I'll go ahead and predict he wins all three. He's that good right now, and those three races are tailored-made for him. It's really unbelievable how much of a turnaround he and the Barry Wright team have made.
MR: He could easily win all of those races, and really, have one of the most memorable late-season runs in recent memory. There are some really good cars going to East Alabama next weekend (Scott Bloomquist, Steve Shaver, and Tim McCreadie driving for Warrior's Sanford Goddard), so he'll have his hands full, but why not? When Jonathan gets dialed in, he's among the sport's best, and right now, he's dialed in.