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Fast Talk: Dream XVIII ... and heading for Hell Tour

June 11, 2012, 3:44 pm

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 (edited for clarity and length):

Todd Turner: Lots of interesting issues to tackle after Shane Clanton’s $100,000 victory at Eldora Speedway’s Dream XVIII, so let’s get right to it.

We all know Clanton is accomplished — his World 100 victory among other major events — but the 36-year-old Georgian came into this race with three modest regional victories to his credit, but not much success on the national stage this season. Was this an out-of-nowhere victory?

Michael Rigsby: I'd say absolutely. We all know that Shane Clanton is a really good driver, but I'm not sure ANYONE would have picked him to win the Dream after the start to the year he's had. He just didn't look like he was in the type of zone to go up there and win the race, let alone dominate it. I'm trying to think of big, off-the-wall wins like this at Eldora before, and the last one I came to was — Shane Clanton's — in 2008 at the World 100. Maybe this is a notice that he's not only good right now, but will be very good the remainder of the season.

TT: I suspect there's still some skepticism about the Capital Race Car, but it's hard to argue against how it performed in this crown jewel.

Joshua Joiner: To be honest, it was out of nowhere. Clanton hasn't been terrible this year by any means, but he was no where near my list of potential winners going into the weekend. And really, I probably wouldn't even have mentioned him as a sleeper. But he no doubt dominated the race. That's a huge momentum builder for him, not only for the year, but for the long term as well, as he and Marshall Green continue to develop the Capital cars.

TT: Fans who missed the race but note that Clanton started on the front row led all 100 laps might think it was a ho-hum race or subpar racing surface. But that wasn’t the case at all with plenty of drivers making progress through the field, including runner-up John Blankenship’s ninth-to-second run, Darrell Lanigan’s 16th-to-third performance and Eddie Carrier Jr. coming from the tail of the 26-car field to seventh. Drivers seemed quite complimentary of the surface at a track that’s always under the microscope.

MR: I was struck by how smooth the track was. It's not rare back to the Earl Baltes days for the surface to have that "smooth shine" to it, but it was amazingly smooth Saturday night. Steve Francis called it the best Eldora track in years. Mark Richards commented that it's come "light years" from where it was, and overall, everyone seemed to think it was almost perfect come race time.

No one can help that Clanton was just better than everyone else, but people who think the track was bad — if there are any — really don't know what they're talking about. You could see new promoter and general manager Roger Slack obsessing over the way it was going to play out all weekend, and really wanting badly to make sure he gave the drivers a surface they could race on. I think the best part is, they're not done, they'll keep tweaking, they'll keep modifying, and it's only going to get better. Kudos to Roger, Chad, and everyone at Eldora for hammering things out.

JJ: And earlier in the night, the heat races were very entertaining. Drivers were able to move around quite a bit, especially in the later heats. There were definitely three distinct grooves, which didn't work out too well for Jimmy Mars in the sixth heat, unfortunately.

TT: We’ve (perhaps) belabored the changes in the format, particularly the additions of Friday’s qualifying features and the consolation race scrambles that gave fans extra laps and gave drivers a chance to earn extra money and UMP points. Michael mentioned to me that even without making the feature, Chris Wall salvaged the weekend with a decent payday through those events, and the changes seemed well-received overall.

MR: This is the one thing that I know I'll get the "you're an Eldora homer” comments, but honestly, if people don't think they format changes didn't make a difference, they're blind. Here's the thing: the race may have only gained eight cars over the 2011 car count, but it's actually more than that. For six consecutive years the car count had fallen, and trends pointed toward car counts in the 70s.

Instead, they get right under 100. They actually probably net-gained 25 or more because of the format changes. Most importantly, guys like Chris Wall, Leon Henderson, Scott Creel and others all leave the place with a good taste in their mouth. Leon is hooked. Wall salvaged the weekend. Tony Knowles got a ton of good laps. Those are things it's hard to put a quantifier on that go a long way. I think they'll make these changes for the World 100 as well, and get back over 120.

JJ: I think the changes turned out great. What's not to like about extra laps and extra money for drivers and extra on-track action for fans? I liked the changes from the time they were announced. My only concern was the affect the extra laps would have on the track surface, but that seemed to be a non-factor as far as I could tell. While we can't determine it for sure, I would bet the changes helped the car count to be higher than it otherwise would have. And I think — provided they keep the changes — it will attract more drivers in future events.

TT: It looked like the Billy Moyer-Don O’Neal battle for second in a heat race was an Eldora Classic. Scott Bloomquist was stymied, in part, by another penalty at a track where he’s had his share. And more than one teenager (Tyler Reddick and Brandon Sheppard) made the race for the first time.

Can you guys react to those, or share some other moments and highlights of the Dream weekend that struck you?

MR: There is more than a little "hangover" with O'Neal and Moyer from Eldora years gone by, and I think you saw that during that episode. I tweeted during that race that I had "Eldora goosebumps” — the feeling you get at Eldora that you don't get anywhere else, when thousands of people are on their feet reacting to a classic slide-job battle.

JJ: One of main thoughts leaving Eldora was just the overall surprise of the finish. Obviously, Clanton's victory came from left field, but then you have John Blankenship finishing second. Blankenship has never been considered among the best in the sport, but now he's finished second in the first two traditional crown jewel events this season.

And Dennis Erb Jr. joins him as the only other driver to finish in the top five of both races. Before the Show-Me, I don't think anyone would have picked those two drivers to make that list. As fun as it is to talk about the Big Five, it's nice to see other drivers having success.

MR: It was interesting to watch Reddick adapt all weekend, and I think in September he'll be very good, especially if the bottom of the track is there. I was also caught up in Clint Smith's run, an eye-catcher for a guy who's not normally great at Eldora. Felt terrible for Chris Ferguson. Yet another great qualifying lap at Eldora, yet more bad luck in the heat race.

TT: Let’s finish out with a little back-and-forth about the UMP DIRTcar Summernationals, the grueling 29-race trek that begins Wednesday at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway and ends a month later at Ohio’s Oakshade Raceway.

There are plenty of compelling storylines, but one is that some of the Illinois-based series regulars haven’t exactly been knocking ‘em dead this season. Three-time and reigning series champion Shannon Babb has a single victory this season, 2010 champ Jason Feger has been struggling, and long-time series contender Ryan Unzicker has had his ups and downs. It’s pretty rare for those three guys to enter the Summernationals with five victories among them, and it might mean some new faces in victory lane.

JJ: It definitely opens things up for other drivers, which definitely should make things interesting. It seems like there's always that feeling that someone is going to get on a hot streak and dominate going into the tour, but I just can't pick anyone out in particular this year — at least not of any of the drivers who have confirmed they're starting out with plans of running the whole tour.

TT: I agree Joshua. I'm tempted to say it's about as wide open as I can remember ... of course, the first week could establish a favorite quickly, though.

MR: Hard not to look at Brandon Sheppard in the Rocket House Car and think, “Wow, that guy could bust out a few victories — or 10.” It's also amazing to think how good these first few races could be. Billy Moyer is doing the first five, guys like Duke Whiseant and others will start out at Brownstown, with the possibility of Terry Casey as well. This will sort of define the seasons for Babb and Feger — can they turn it around in this month?

TT: Two other Illinois drivers are expected to start the series, drivers that have been more in the national spotlight this year, including Sheppard, as Michael mentioned. Three-time series champ Dennis Erb Jr. has followed the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series — and was a top performer at Florida Speedweeks — while young Sheppard’s new ride in replacing two-time World of Outlaws champion Josh Richards this spring has been big news.

Michael, I know you’ve long wanted Mark Richards Racing to give the so-called Hell Tour a run, and while it won’t be with Josh, it might make it all the more interesting with Sheppard, who’ll come loaded with a potent team at tracks where he’s got some legitimate experience.

MR: The take at the Dream was Brandon is going to tear things apart over the next month. I know Mark and the guys at Rocket are keeping expectations under their hats, but with the backing and knowledge they have, along with Brandon's experience on the tracks, makes it hard for me not to think he can't win at least four or five races.

JJ: Sheppard could be the driver to watch for the hot streak. Starting the tour, if he gets hot early and the Rocket house car team sticks with the whole series, he could really, really dominate. On the other hand, I'm not sure what to think about Erb. He goes out and runs well in races like the Show-Me and the Dream, but then struggles to crack the top 10 in lesser races. Maybe the Hell Tour is what he needs to hit full stride.

 
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