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East Bay Raceway Park

Francis fends off Owens for $10,000 at East Bay

February 18, 2012, 5:01 pm
By Joshua Joiner
DirtonDirt.com staff writer
Steve Francis celebrates his win in East Bay's Winternationals finale. (neilericmiller.com)
Steve Francis celebrates his win in East Bay's Winternationals finale. (neilericmiller.com)

GIBSONTON, Fla. (Feb. 18) – Steve Francis’ debut as the Barry Wright Race Cars house car driver during East Bay Raceway Park’s 36th annual Dart Winternationals had already surpassed all expectations even before Saturday’s finale for the six-race miniseries.

For good measure, Francis put an exclamation point on the week by claiming a $10,000 victory in a wild Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series feature at the third-mile oval. | Complete Speedweeks coverage

After taking the lead from polesitter Donnie Moran on lap 25 of the 60-lap race, the fourth-starting Francis turned back a strong challenge from Scott Bloomquist around the 50-lap mark and later held off a furious charge by defending series champion Jimmy Owens following a restart with four laps remaining.

The victory was Francis’ second of the week at the Tampa-area racetrack and the 10th Winternationals triumph of his career.

“What a week this has been. Probably the best East Bay trip I’ve had in I can’t tell you how long,” said Francis, who was also in position to win on Wednesday night and Friday night until suffering flat tires while leading both races. “We’ve had a solid week down here and if it wasn’t for a couple flat tires it would have been even better. But to come back and cap it all off like this, it’s a great way to the end the week.”

Owens of Newport, Tenn., gave Francis all he could handle after the late restart, but his high-side charge on the final lap came up short. He settled for second while Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., overtook Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., on the final lap for the third position. Thursday night winner Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., finished fifth to wrap up the $5,000 Dart Winternationals championship.

For the second straight night, East Bay’s abrasive surface brought tire wear into play during the later stages of the race. Francis, who was leading Friday’s 50-lapper when he suffered a flat right-rear tire with just three laps remaining, was once again out front with a badly worn right-rear tire.

Nursing the tire as best he could to make it last to the finish, Francis withstood Bloomquist’s challenge, but quickly felt pressure from Owens, who used a strong high-side move to climb from fourth to second on lap 54.

With Owens looking to his outside in heavy traffic, Francis intentionally turned the lapped car of Moran on the back straightaway on lap 56 in hopes of causing a caution. But Moran, who was involved in a lap-27 caution after losing the lead, spun a complete circle on the bottom side of the racetrack and continued running.

Francis got the caution he wanted one lap later when Jason Riggs spun at the exit of turn four. Clear racetrack following the restart allowed Francis to keep Owens at bay by simply protecting the track’s dominant middle groove in the closing laps.

“I was wanting a caution to get clean racetrack because I knew we had a good car in open air. I actually turned Donnie kinda on purpose, hoping to get a caution,” Francis said. “Then the racetrack got a little bit narrow toward the end and that helped us out a good bit.”

Even with the clear racetrack, Francis wasn’t able to relax. The veteran driver worried he’d once again be knocked from the lead by a flat tire.

“When you’ve been leading that many and had that many flats, you’re always worried something’s gonna happen,” Francis said. “We were fortunate we were able to finish and win the race. I’m glad there wasn’t two or three more laps ‘cause we were out of tire. Our right-rear was gone at the end.”

The solid week at East Bay marks a complete turnaround for Francis from a year ago when he left the Winternationals having missed both of the Lucas Oil tour’s points-paying races that ended the week after four non-points events. With his new Barry Wright house car team he partnered with over the offseason, Francis hopes to parlay the strong start into a solid season on the Lucas Oil tour.

“I think I left here last year as far back in points as you could get because I didn’t even make the last two shows,” said Francis. “This year we won one of them and was leading the other one and had a flat tire. Other than the flat I think we’ve had about as good of a start to the season as we could’ve hoped for. We’re ready to go and chase after the championship this season and I’m probably as excited as I’ve ever been.”

The 10th-starting Owens settled for the runner-up finish, rebounding from poor performances in his first two races of the week on Thursday and Friday.

“We had a good car and was really able to maneuver better than the other guys,” said Owens. “I jumped up to the top and was able to roll by Scott and Dennis and nearly got the lead before that caution came out. I actually thought I was gonna get him, but that caution gave him clear track where all he had to do was block the groove.”

O’Neal, who notched back-to-back Winternationals victories to open the week, was one of 11 cars that pitted during a lap-27 caution in hopes that a fresher right-rear tire would allow him to charge to the front late in the race, much like Erb did to win Friday’s feature after pitting on lap 23. The move nearly paid off for O’Neal, but he came up two spots short.

Of the 11 cars that pitted, O’Neal was the fourth to come back out on the racetrack for the restart. He felt that those three extra cars he had to pass to get back to the front may have cost him the race.

“We let four or five cars get out in front of me when we pitted and that cost us a lot of time getting back up to the front,” said O’Neal. “I think we would’ve been better off if we’d come out ahead of those cars, but swapping tires in a hurry isn’t something our guys get much practice at in the kind of racing we do.”

The race was slowed by six cautions with the most serious coming after a major pileup on lap 37. At least 15 cars received damage from the turn-two wreck that was spurred by contact between Randy Korte of Highland, Ill., and John Blankenship of Williamson, W.Va., who were battling among the top five at the time.

Dart Winternationals: (1) Steve Francis, (2) Jimmy Owens, (3) Don O’Neal, (4) Scott Bloomquist, (5) Dennis Erb Jr., (6) Duke Whiseant, (7) Scott Creel, (8) Earl Pearson Jr., (9) Austin Hubbard, (10) Jonathan Davenport, (11) Scott James, (12) Tyler Reddick, (13) Randy Korte, (14) Chad Stapleton, (15) John Blankenship, (16) Eric Wells, (17) Donnie Moran, (18) Bobby Pierce, (19) Jack Nosbisch Jr., (20) Jason Riggs, (21) Jared Landers, (22) Ray Cook, (23) Morgan Bagley, (24) Shelby Miles, (25)Terry Casey, (26) Shannon Babb. Fast qualifier (among 41 cars): Blankenship, 14.398 seconds. Heat race winners: Moran, Korte, Casey, Francis. Consolation race winners: Whiseant, Hubbard. Dash winner: Miles. Provisional starters: Pearson, Wells, Creel.

Pre-feature notes

Officials took a short break in the program for track prep following the Stawberry Dash. .... Late Model rookie Shelby Miles won the Strawberry Dash to earn the final feature starting spot. ... Earl Pearson Jr. and Eric Wells will use Lucas Oil Series provisionals to start the race, while Scott Creel is the fast-time provisional.

Second consolation

Austin Hubbard overtook polesitter Morgan Bagley on lap five of the 10-lapper and crusied during the remaining distance for caution-free race. A fading Bagley held off Bobby Pierce in a close battle for second. Pierce settled for third and will join Hubbard and Bagley in the main event.

Finish: Austin Hubbard, Morgan Bagley, Bobby Pierce, Dillan White, Shelby Miles, Chad Hollenbeck, Travis Varnadore, Shane Cottle.

First consolation

Polesitter Duke Whiseant cruised to the victory in the first consy, leaving Jack Nosbisch Jr. and Tyler Reddick to battle for the runner-up spot. Nosbisch held the spot at the finish while Reddick settled for the third and final transfer spot. Josh McGuire challenged Reddick for third early in the caution-free race, but he fell back after nearly tagging the wall exiting turn two.

Finish: Duke Whiseant, Jack Nosbisch Jr., Tyler Reddick, Josh McGuire, Chris Brown, Danny Mitchell, Justin Rattliff, Danny Mitchell, Jim O'Hara, Todd Frank.

Fourth heat

Polesitter Steve Francis moved to the lead on the start of the final heat and built a slight advantage over Ray Cook in leading the entire distance. Cook crossed the line second with Dennis Erb Jr. and Scott Riggs farther back in third and fourth. They'll join Francis and Cook in the main event. The race was slowed by one caution when contact sent Dillan White for a spin early in the race.

Finish: Steve Francis, Ray Cook, Dennis Erb Jr., Scott Riggs, Bobby Pierce, Shelby Miles, Dillan White, Chad Hollenbeck, Travis Varnadore. Scratched: Victor Lee.

Third heat

Second-starting Terry Casey moved out front on the start and held off a strong mid-race challenge from John Blankenship to score the victory. Blankenship pulled alongside Casey through turns one and two on three consecutive laps, but never completed the pass and settled for the runner-up finish as Casey pulled away in the closing laps. Jimmy Owens was third with Chad Stapleton taking the fourth and final transfer position. The race's only caution came with one lap complete when second-running Earl Pearson Jr. spun in turn one, collecting Eric Wells, Scott Creel and Austin Hubbard.

Finish: Terry Casey, John Blankenship, Jimmy Owens, Chad Stapleton, Morgan Bagley, Earl Pearson Jr., Austin Hubbard, Eric Wells, Shane Cottle.

Second heat

After dropping to second on the start of the race, polesitter Randy Korte moved to the lead when Jared Landers slid high on lap threeand led the remaining distance. Landers topped Shannon Babb in a tight battle for the runner-up finish while Scott James was a distant fourth to also make the main even lineup. The race's first start was waved off when Landers jumped the start, and the second start failed when Jim O'Hara got into the wall in turn one. O'Hara exited the track with front-end suspension damage. The race's only other caution came with four laps complete when Eric Jacobsen spun in turn four.

Finish: Randy Korte, Jared Landers, Shannon Babb, Scott James, Jack Nosbisch Jr., Chris Brown, Josh McGuire, Leon Henderson, Eric Jacobsen, Jim O'Hara,

First heat

Polesitter Donnie Moran grabbed the lead on the start over fellow front-row starter Scott Bloomquist and led every lap for the victory. Bloomquist settled for the runner-up finish, while Don O'Neal moved past Jonathan Davenport on a mid-race restart to finish third. Davenport held on to fourth and will join the top three finishers in the main event. The race's only caution appeared with four laps complete with Dale Hammond spun in turn four.

Finish: Donnie Moran, Scott Bloomquist, Don O'Neal, Jonathan Davenport, Duke Whiseant, Tyler Reddick, Danny Mitchell, Justin Rattliff, Todd Frank, Dale Hammond.

Time trials

John Blankenship of Williamson, W.Va., topped 41 qualifiers Saturday night during time trials for the sixth and final round of the 36th annual Dart Winternationals at East Bay Raceway Park.

Blankenship, who is looking for his first Winternationals victory, posted a lap of 14.398 seconds around the third-mile oval to earn the pole for the third of four heat races coming up for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. Other heat race polesitters: Donnie Moran of Dresden, Ohio; Randy Korte of Highland, Ill.; and Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky.

The four eight-lap heats will each transfer four drivers to tonight’s 60-lap, $10,000-to-win main event, while two 10-lap consolation races will each transfer three more drivers. The Strawberry Dash winner, a fast-time provisional and two Lucas Oil Series provisional starters will make up the final two rows of the starting lineup.

Saturday night’s program was delayed by roughly an hour due to extended track prep at the Tampa-area racetrack.

Heat race lineups

Eight laps; top four transfer to main event

First heat
Row 1: Donnie Moran, Scott Bloomquist
Row 2: Don O’Neal, Jonathan Davenport
Row 3: Tyler Reddick, Duke Whiseant
Row 4: Justin Rattliff, Mark Andersen
Row 5: Todd Frank, Danny Mitchell
Row 6: Roger Hammond
Second heat
Row 1: Randy Korte, Jared Landers
Row 2: Shannon Babb, Josh McGuire
Row 3: Scott James, Eric Jacobsen
Row 4: Jackie Nosbisch, Jim O’Hara
Row 5: Chris Brown, Leon Henderson
Third heat
Row 1: John Blankenship, Terry Casey
Row 2: Earl Pearson Jr., Scott Creel
Row 3: Jimmy Owens, Eric Wells
Row 4: Austin Hubbard, Chad Stapleton
Row 5: Morgan Bagley, Shane Cottle
Fourth heat
Row 1: Steve Francis, Ray Cook
Row 2: Dennis Erb Jr., Bobby Pierce
Row 3: Shelby Miles, Jason Riggs
Row 4: Travis Varnadore, Chad Hollenbeck
Row 5: Dillan White, Victor Lee

Pre-race notes

Qualifying is about to hit the track at 7:20 p.m. after a lengthy delay for track dry-in. ... The evening’s action kicks off with two-lap time trials to set the lineups for four eight-lap heat races. The top four finishers from each heat will transfer to the 60-lap main event, while a pair of consolation races will each transfer three more drivers. The Strawberry Dash will return to the program to transfer the winner to the feature, while provisional will include two for the Lucas Oil Series and one fast time provisional. ... Saturday’s race is the sixth and final round of East Bay’s Florida Speedweeks miniseries. Friday night’s $10,000 winner Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., leads the Winternationals points standings, which pays $5,000 to the top points earner for the six races. With 1060 points, Erb leads Thursday’s winner Steve Francis (1005) of Ashland, Ky., by 55 points. Wednesday’s winner Ray Cook (995) of Brasstown, N.C., is third with the week’s only two-time winner Don O’Neal (990) of Martinsville, Ind., fourth and Randy Korte (960) of Highland, Ill., fifth. ... O’Neal’s race-ending mechanical woes during Friday night’s feature were caused by a broken rear end. O’Neal was battling for the lead in the 50-lapper when he slowed on lap 31.

Qualifying (unofficial)

First group

  1. Donnie Moran (99), Dresden, Ohio, 14.44
  2. Randy Korte (81), Highland, Ill., 14.564
  3. Scott Bloomquist (0), Mooresburg, Tenn., 14.581
  4. Jared Landers (5), Batesville, Ark., 14.649
  5. Don O'Neal (71), Martinsville, Ind., 14.681
  6. Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., 14.69
  7. Jonathan Davenport (15), Blairsville, Ga., 14.71
  8. Josh McGuire (41), Grayson, Ky., 14.74
  9. Tyler Reddick (11), Corning, Calif., 14.766
  10. Scott James (81), Lawrenceburg, Ind., 14.773
  11. Duke Whiseant (A1), Texarkana, Ark., 14.866
  12. Eric Jacobsen (5), Seacliff Beach, Calif., 14.914
  13. Justin Rattliff (16), Campbellsville, Ky., 14.947
  14. Jack Nosbisch Jr. (01), Riverview, Fla., 15.237
  15. Mark Andersen (85), Blanchard, Mich., 15.438
  16. Jim O'Hara (44), Daleville, Pa., 15.588
  17. Todd Frank (21), Green Bay, Wis., 15.669
  18. Chris Brown (21), Spring, Texas, 15.691
  19. Danny Mitchell (18), Clarksburg, W.Va., 15.999
  20. Leon Henderson (10), Laurel, Miss., 16.031
  21. Dale Hammond (9), Nicoles, S.C., 19.315

Second group

  1. John Blankenship (23), Williamson, W.Va., 14.398
  2. Steve Francis (15), Ashland, Ky., 14.42
  3. Terry Casey (42), New London, Wis., 14.555
  4. Ray Cook (53), Brasstown, N.C., 14.605
  5. Earl Pearson Jr. (44), Jacksonville, Fla., 14.654
  6. Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., 14.698
  7. Scott Creel (31), Franklinton, La., 14.724
  8. Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., 14.806
  9. Jimmy Owens (20), Newport, Tenn., 14.821
  10. Shelby Miles (76), Bloomington, Ind., 14.851
  11. Eric Wells (18), Hazard, Ky., 14.878
  12. Jason Riggs (81jr), Jason Riggs, 14.918
  13. Austin Hubbard (11), Seaford, Del., 14.936
  14. Travis Varnadore (51), Dover, Fla., 15.058
  15. Chad Stapleton (32), Edinburgh, Ind., 15.061
  16. Chad Hollenbeck (4DS), Kingsley, Pa., 15.067
  17. Morgan Bagley (14m), Longview, Texas, 15.113
  18. Dillan White (54), Croften, Ky., 15.529
  19. Shane Cottle (11), Kokomo, Ind., 15.922
  20. Victor Lee (4), Stanford, Ky., no time

Feature lineup

Row 1: Moran, Casey
Row 2: Korte, Francis
Row 3: Bloomquist, Blankenship
Row 4: Landers, Cook
Row 5: O’Neal, Owens
Row 6: Babb, Erb
Row 7: Davenport, Stapleton
Row 8: James, Riggs
Row 9: Whiseant, Hubbard
Row 10: Nosbisch, Bagley
Row 11: Reddick, Pierce
Row 12: Pearson, Wells
Row 13: Creel, Miles

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