O'Neal rules Florence for Latham Memorial repeat
By Todd TurnerDirtonDirt.com managing editor
UNION, Ky. (June 2) — Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., led all 50 laps Saturday at Florence Speedway for a $10,000 payday in the 26th annual Ralph Latham Memorial, his tour-leading eighth victory on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
“To win this race the way the racetrack’s slick, and to outrun the guys you outrun, you’ve done your work,” said O’Neal, who won the Latham Memorial for the second straight time and third of his career.
While O’Neal racked up another checkered flag on the national tour, he didn’t gain many points on reigning series champion Jimmy Owens of Newport, Tenn., who posted another runner-up finish.
“As long as we keep winning races, that’s all that counts,” O’Neal said. "Hopefully one of these nights Jimmy’s gotta have a bad night. You can’t make up nothing on that guy when he’s running second.”
After Ray Cook’s battery failure ended his night on lap 29, Owens took up the chase of O’Neal and cut his half-straightaway margin in half with 10 laps remaining. But after creeping a bit closer, O’Neal stretched his margin out a little more and was never in serious danger.
“Don, he could pull out on us a little bit,” Owens said. "We got to second and I was really hoping to be able to run up on him in traffic. We could run him down just a little bit, but he able to maneuver through traffic just a little bit better than we were.
“Don’s just really good right now. If he wasn’t here, we’d have a whole lot of wins. It’s good for him. I’m glad to see he’s having a great year, and we’re having a great year. We’re just kind of the runner-up a lot.”
Two-time series champion Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., started and finished third while Eddie Carrier Jr. of Salt Rock, W.Va., charged from his 10th starting spot to finish fourth. Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., rounded out the top five finishers.
Yellow flew for a lap-four caution, a turn-four scramble that saw Earl Pearson Jr., Jared Landers, Darrell Lanigan and Mike Jewell get stacked up. Landers spun for a lap-11 yellow, then Dustin Neat spun on lap 23 in turn two. Cook, who started outside the front row and held the second spot through the first half of the race, sputtered to a stop just past the halfway point to draw the final caution.
The series will return to Florence in August for the Sunoco Race Fuels North-South 100, a race O’Neal has narrowly missed and definitely has his eye on. Saturday’s 50-lapper served as a tuneup.
“I just started off fairly tight, and the longer we ran, it got to steering better,” said O’Neal told fans from victory lane. "With 100 laps, maybe, we probably would’ve had a good car.
“I can’t wait to come back. I appreciate all of you, thanks!”
Notes: O’Neal’s Keith and Tader Masters-owned MasterSbilt Race Car is powered by a Jay Dickens Racing Engine and sponsored by Optima Batteries, Independence Lumber, Seubert Calf Ranches, Superior Cleaning Services, Jones Core, Budda Bert Transmissions, Dragon Race Fuel, Ohlins, Tarpy Trucking and O'Neal Mulch. ... Sixteen of 25 starters finished 50 laps. ... Hometown driver Darrell Lanigan was piloting a John and Linda Weber-owned car, a lookalike to his own Darrell Lanigan Autosports No. 29. ... Earl Pearson Jr. was piloting a backup MasterSbilt of former Bobby Labonte Racing teammate Brad Neat after Pearson’s team had a hauler breakdown en route to the track. .... Greg Johnson piloted the No. 24H James Hines-owned car he drove part of last season; Jerry Rice has driven the car frequently this year but spent the night in the pits helping his son James. ... Among drivers failing to make the feature: John Gill, Jesse Lay, track points leader Robby Hensley, Rod Conley and former track champion Steve Landrum. ... With Friday’s rainout at Tazewell (Tenn.) Speedway, the series heads back south on Sunday to make up that $10,000-to-win event.
Ralph Latham Memorial: (1) Don O’Neal, (2) Jimmy Owens, (3) Scott Bloomquist, (4) Eddie Carrier Jr., (5) Steve Francis, (6) Steve Casebolt, (7) John Blankenship, (8) Brad Neat, (9) Tyler Reddick, (10) Brian Birkhofer, (11) Darrell Lanigan, (12) Jared Landers, (13) Earl Pearson Jr., (14) Austin Hubbard, (15) Jonathan Davenport, (16) Joe Janowski, (17) Josh Williams, (18) Greg Johnson, (19) Dennis Erb Jr), (20) Eric Wells, (21) Dustin Neat, (22) Chad Smith, (23) Ray Cook, (24) Mike Jewell, (25) Scott James. Fast qualifier (among 41 cars): O’Neal, 17.308 seconds. Heat race winners: O’Neal, Bloomquist, Cook, Owens. Consolation winners: Lanigan, Williams. Provisional starters: Landers, Wells, James.