Notes: Neat's long day pays off at World 100
By Todd Turner and Joshua JoinerDirtonDirt.com
ROSSBURG, Ohio (Sept. 8) — With rain washing out Friday’s scheduled time trials and qualifying races, Saturday’s day-long program at Eldora Speedway was a long day for everyone at the 42nd annual World 100. But perhaps no longer for anyone than Brad Neat’s team.
The Dunnville, Ky., driver made a race-record 159 laps around the historic half-mile oval on Saturday, a day that ended up much better than it started. | Complete World 100 coverage
“Those 159 laps, this bunch is showing it. We’re all dragging around here,” Neat said after his third-place finish in the feature event. "We’re ready to take a nap. It’s been a long day, but it turned out good.”
The 32-year-old Neat’s day started with his No. 41 MasterSbilt Race Car smacking Eldora’s concrete wall during time trials, the fate of many drivers during the afternoon qualifying sessions. Qualifying just 90th among 123 entries, Neat was forced into a qualifying race, which he won to advance to an eighth-row starting spot in a heat race.
He finished ninth in his heat race, transferring to a consolation race where he started 18th. He roared into contention in the consy that sent five drivers to the main event, posting a second place finish to earn his seventh starting berth in the World 100.
“It makes you feel good to know that you’re race car is capable of doing that,” Neat said. "You know, we messed up there qualifying and got ourself behind the 8-ball starting, but it seemed like ever since then the race car’s been good all day, so we sure can’t complain.”
Before even starting the 100-lapper in the 23rd starting spot, Neat had clicked off three hot laps, a qualifying lap, 20 laps in a qualifier, 15 laps in a heat and another 20 laps in a consolation.
“We were thankful for every spot we got,” said crew member Ryan Durham. “We passed a bunch of cars all night.”
Neat kept on passing cars in the feature. He broke into the top 10 just past the halfway point, was up to seventh for a lap-91 restart, then worked his way all the way up to third during three late-race restarts.
“We were hard on (tires), but it never felt like it slowed down any,” said Neat, who hadn’t finished better than 12th in six previous World 100 starts.
"We were on a different combination I think than most people. It seemed to work out. A lot of guys were harder on the left-sides than us, but it seems like all year, whenever we’ve gotten that hard, we’ve struggled a little bit, and it seemed to work out.”
Contenders fall by wayside
Two top-five runners fell out early, and two fell out late in a race where mechanical bugaboos played a major part. The most significant departure came when fifth-starting Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., looking for his first World 100 victory, slowed on the backstretch just three laps after taking the lead from Chad Simpson.
O’Neal’s No. 71 MasterSbilt house car lurched to the left, then dropped off the pace, handing the lead to eventual winner Brian Birkhofer on lap 35.
“We blowed the transmission up,” a disappointed O’Neal said. "I felt like we probably had the car to beat.”
It was just a few laps before that when six-time race winner Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., slowed to draw the race’s first caution. Brake problems doomed his chances, even though he made a few pit stops and returned to the track.
“A $5 part broke. You know ... it shouldn’t have never broke,” Moyer said. "I’ve never broke one of them things, just a little fitting, a bulkhead fitting that just broke for some reason. I don’t know.”
There were fewer than 10 laps remaining when Simpson, of Mount Vernon, Iowa, and Jimmy Mars of Menomonie, Wis., gave up top-five spots and retired. Simpson, who ran in the top three virtually throughout the race, broke a right rear axle on a late-race restart.
"I just started to roll into the fuel a little bit and it just went,” Simpson said.
The air cleaner on the No. 28 of Mars began sucking shut, restriction air from getting to the carburetor. It was the second time a collapsed air cleaner had doomed him at Eldora.
“It still could run, but then it kept getting worse and worse, and it finally went and then shut completely off,” said Mars, who was running fourth when his race ended. “I don’t know. We got racing kind of wrong there, let’s say about lap 50, it was losing power, and they’d pull away, and then they’d have a restart, and we’d be all right. It was just one of them deals. Bummer. But that’s the way my season’s went.”
Birkhofer not holding back
Before Brian Birkhofer worked his way into the lead of the World 100 on lap 35, his most significant moment of the night came during the second heat race when he wrestled the second spot away from Steve Casebolt, the prelim’s early leader.
Casebolt had fallen to second behind Don O’Neal when Birkhofer pulled a slide job that sent Casebolt into the turn-four wall, ending his race. The damaged knocked Casebolt out of the race and he was only left with the unsatisfying retaliation of showing Birkhofer his displeasure during the lap-nine caution period.
"He crashed me," Casebolt said later in the pits. He then pointed to his left-side body damage: "Does it look like he was clear?”
During his victory lane interview, Birkhofer didn’t so much as apologize as explain his strategy at do-or-die Eldora.
“I kind of learned the last few years, the guy that tries to drive timid or take care of yourself, somebody’s going to come in and take your left-front off,” Birkhofer said. "I got into Casebolt, or I kinda got in there and slid ‘em, and I got into the guy that actually does my decals (Chad Simpson) in some of that racing. But I was like, ‘Well, I’ve seen it done on many people and it’s been done to me, and if I’m going to win here again, I’ve gotta be aggressive somewhat.’ ”
Bloomquist still learning
Even after his race-record 23rd start — and the inglorious accomplishment of his eighth runner-up finish — Scott Bloomquist says he’s still trying to figure things out at Eldora, a track that has confounded dirt racers for more than 50 years.
“These deals, you just don’t get very many opportunities to try things. We had some different things we’ve been trying this year that I thought would apply here,” said Bloomquist, who couldn’t manage to keep up with winner Brian Birkhofer on late-race restarts. “The car didn’t feel like, or even look like, it should’ve. After thinking about it and discussing it with the guys after the race, I think I’ve gotta a pretty good handle on it with what I think we can do to get better again. ...”
“It’s another live and learn lesson for Eldora. But Eldora’s really not like it used to be, and I think everybody’s kind of learning a little bit every time we come here. The dirt’s different, the banking, the racetrack doesn’t get near as slick as it used to. It’s a different place, and we enjoy the challenge. We just keep coming back.”
Tire change boosts Sheppard
Just after Brandon Sheppard walked off the Eldora stage for driver introductions, car owner Mark Richards emerged through a break in the concrete wall and intercepted the young Rocket Chassis house car driver before he headed for his car.
Gesturing toward the turn-one pit entrance, Richards instructed the 24th-starting Sheppard to pull to the pits during the pace laps, a move that would put him on the tail of the 30-lap field but give the team the opportunity to take a tire gamble.
“To run the top up there like that the whole race, you’ve gotta have hard tires on,” said the 19-year-old New Berlin, Ill., driver. "Being what they did to the track before the feature, (since) we were starting so far back, we thought, ‘Well hell, there’s nothing to lose.’ You know what I mean? So we came in and bolted on a soft left-rear and soft right-front.”
Sheppard picked off spots throughout the race, reaching the eighth spot by the halfway point and briefly breaking into the top five late in the 100-lapper. He ended up seventh.
"It paid off,” Sheppard said. “I mean, every other year we’ve put hard (tires) on and end up getting lapped because it’s just follow the leader around the top. But we had a good racetrack this time.”
Sheppard got shuffled back a bit during the finally flurry of racing.
“I didn’t really have enough tire left at the end to run the bottom,” he said. "If we’d have had the second-to-last caution work out for us, where we restarted on the top, I think we probably could’ve ended up about third. I don’t think we had anything for Scott or Birkhofer, but it was a good night.”
McDowell’s fast time fizzles
Dale McDowell of Chickamauga, Ga., the 2005 race winner, was the fastest qualifier at the World 100 for the first time, but that turned out to be the highlight of the day.
Confusion during a start in his heat race — McDowell and other drivers said the caution lights were on even as the green flag waved — sent him shuffling back, and contact with another car bent a spindle, forcing him to pull out of the race. While his fast time guaranteed him a provisional starting spot for the main event, it meant he’d start in the 10th row instead of as high as the third row.
In the feature, McDowell’s tire combination didn’t produce successful results, and he was mired mid-pack.
“About lap 50, I looked up and was kind of about in the same place,” he said. "Fifty laps on our engine program here at the end of the year’s big, so I just pulled off. I didn’t feel like I could get up in there to the top five or six or anything, so it was just call it off and try again next time.
“We got to 13th there, and the racetrack’s just not very racy with the tires we and on. I think some of those guys that got soft tires on are pretty good coming up through there, but we just weren’t very good. If you’re not going forward, there ain’t no sense in wasting laps on a motor. That’s a complete race on a motor, another 50 laps, so we’ll just try it when we’re better one night.”
Feger’s fifth-place run
Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., knows what it’s like to run a 100-lapper at Eldora and come into the pits to discover your rear spoiler has been ripped off by the track’s unforgiving concrete wall. He was determined not to let that happen this time, choosing a measured pace early in the race to make sure he’d have something left at the finish.
Feger not only had something left, he ended up with a solid fifth-place finish, the first time he’s been better than 16th in a 100-lap race at the Big E.
“Real good run,” Feger said. "We made it 100 laps with the spoiler on the car. The car was really good at the beginning of the race. I just didn’t know how hard to push it. I was trying not to push it too hard and have something left at the end. We were good and got up through there and slowed down for a few laps — I don’t know what happened, I think I just kind of spun a tire there and it took a while to get it back.
"At the end, we were able to have some stuff left to make a little bit of a charge and had some luck with some guys dropping out. But man, any time you get a top five here, that’s pretty awesome. We’re working at it and getting better.”
It left him wondering if he’d been too conservative early in the race, but he’ll have to sort that out on his next trip to Eldora.
“I probably could’ve went a little harder earlier and I think maybe got a couple of more (spots). It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of good cars out here, and just to be top five is awesome,” he said. “When you look at them guys in front of you, it feels really good. It’s building steps. We’ve been out here a few times with some bad luck. We’ve won some heats or run up front, but we’ve always faded. To be able to go the other way feels really good. Hopefully we’ve got some stuff we can build on when we come back.”
Odds and ends
Winner Brian Birkhofer’s MB Customs Chassis has a Pro Power engine and sponsorship from J&J Steel, Zen’s Flooring, Baileigh Industrial, ASI Racewear and Port City Racing. ... Eight drivers finished on the lead lap and 13 of 30 starters were running at the finish. ... Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., ran as high as third in the Barry Wright house car, but he lost two cylinders in his engine and fell back to sixth after three late-race restarts. “We kind of knew we were a sitting duck on them restarts,” he said. ... Greg Johnson of Bedford, Ind., who finished 18th, was hampered when a left-front brake locked up. ... Last year’s runner-up Eddie Carrier Jr. of Salt Rock, W.Va., was disappointed with his eighth-place finish. "I guess it’s pretty bad when you come to Eldora and you’re disappointed with an eighth,” He said. "You used to just come up here and hope to make the show. I guess that means we’re getting a little better and more competitive here.” ... Wayne Chinn, Bub McCool and Jeep Van Wormer retired with overheating cars. ... Dan Schlieper, driving a Mark Saul-fielded car as a tribute to former ARCA champion Patrick Sheltra's late father, retired because the car’s right-rear hub was packed with grease. ... Rear-end problem forced front-row starter Tyler Reddick out before halfway; he led the first two laps.