FAIRBURY, Ill. (July 30) — Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., searched and searched for the right line to preserve his place at the front of the pack in Saturday night’s 100-lap Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury American Legion Speedway.
Ultimately the 28-year-old superstar never really found the “happy spot” he was looking for, but he didn’t need it. His varied routes around the high-banked, quarter-mile oval proved sufficient to keep the hungry Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., at bay over the race’s final 25 circuits, giving the three-time World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series champion and current runaway points leader a $27,000 victory in a race that has quickly become one of the most prestigious in the Midwest.
“This track is just phenomenal,” Richards said after his series-leading 11th WoO triumph of the 2016 season. “It’s a lot of fun to race on. You get to move around and go wherever you want to go — but that being said, you also don’t know where to go when you’re leading.
“I knew Erb was in the bottom and I tried to get down there but I was just a little bit too free so I knew I had to carry speed. I couldn’t carry too much, though, because then I’d lose it up the track, so I just tried to move around the best we could and hold him off. He definitely didn’t make it easy, but that made it that much more special to win it.”
Richards, who started 11th, was never headed after inheriting the lead when polesitter and race-long pacesetter Steve Casebolt of Richmond, Ind., retired on lap 41 due to a broken water pump, but he nearly ceded the point on several occasions. First Richards survived a mid-race challenge from Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., whose charge from the 22nd starting spot to Richards’s back bumper by lap 44 ended when a folded-under front bumper caused steering problems that sent him into the fence between turns three and four and his car onto its side on lap 47, and for the final quarter of the feature he was stalked relentlessly by the 44-year-old Erb.
Erb repeatedly nosed under Richards’s Rocket Chassis house car during the 25-lap run of green-flag racing that closed the 27th annual PDC — including one especially strong inside thrust entering turn one on lap 97 — but Richards’s lane-changing kept Erb guessing enough to get him to the checkered flag 0.544 of a second ahead of this year’s $100,000 Dream XXII winner.
Reigning WoO titlist Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., was passed for second by Erb on a lap-74 restart but chased the top two drivers from third place for the remainder of the distance and claimed the final podium position. Eighth-starter Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., settled for fourth place after briefly climbing as high as second early in the race and former PDC winner Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., finished fifth after starting ninth and overtaking Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., on lap 78 to crack the top five.
Richards, who kicked off the PDC weekend with a $5,000 victory from the 10th starting in Friday night’s unique 25-lap #FALS Draw event, authored a virtually flawless performance to add another long-distance win to his ever-growing resume. He reached the top five by lap 16, took fourth from teenager Kolby Vandenbergh of Ashland, Ill., on lap 17 and passed O’Neal for third on lap 38. A lap-40 restart surge past McCreadie for second place put Richards in position to assume command one circuit later when Casebolt, who led by a straightaway margin for much of the race’s first 40 laps, suddenly slid high in turn one because his car’s water pump let go and sprayed moisture onto the track.
“We got up through there in the first part of the race and just kind of rode, tried to save our stuff and get up there the best we could without wearing everything out,” said Richards, who nearly ran into the back of Casebolt’s car when it suddenly slowed. “Casebolt was setting a real fast pace up there on top and I was just trying to manage our time.
“At that point (when Casebolt dropped out) I was back a little bit and running middle-low and I never got to really race with him. It was just a bummer that happened to him.”
Richards had a slider thrown at him by the charging Pierce on lap 46 — the two sons of noted chassis builders swapped crossed each other through turns one and two with Richards maintaining command — but that proved to be the only pressure he faced from the 19-year-old UMP DIRTcar Summernationals champion, whose machine ended up lying on its side in the middle of turn four on the 47th lap. Pierce wasn’t injured in the incident but his car was towed back to the pit area dangling between two wreckers.
No one provided a major another major threat to Richards until Erb, who started 16th, emerged as Richards’s prime challenger for the final 25 circuits. Richards certainly wasn’t surprised he had to deal with Erb.
“He’s really good at pacing himself in these long races and just knowing where to be and how to run low,” Richards said of Erb. “I knew I had work to do. We weren’t as good as we wanted to be, but I knew if I could do my job it was my race to lose at that point.
“I knew when I saw that (Erb) got to second that he was working the bottom really good,” he continued. “We had been running the top the whole time and trying to get some momentum going, and then I saw him a couple times and I was like, ‘Man, I better try going down there.’ I never really felt comfortable down there … we were just a little bit free to run down there, but it worked out.”
The moment of truth for Richards came on lap 97 when Erb surged to the leader’s inside entering turn one with slower cars ahead. Richards lurched forward to cut off Erb’s bid and carried the slight gap he created on Erb for the remaining pair of tours.
“I saw (Erb) and there were lapped cars (ahead) so I just tried to keep my speed up,” Richards said. “I didn’t want to get pinned under the lapped cars and then let him just roll right around the outside, so it was definitely a work out out there mentally.”
Erb, who was passed for the lead on the last lap of last year’s PDC by Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., put up a stern fight in his Black Diamond car but couldn’t avoid settling for his second consecutive runner-up finish in his home state’s richest event.
“We started a little bit further back then I wanted to this year, but we had a great car and worked our way up through there,” Erb said. “We got to second, got behind Josh, and it was just one of them deals where his car was good, my car was good … he was just throwing the blocks, I was just trying to get around him.
“It was fun racing with him, getting up alongside of him. We just swapped spots around there. I just tried everything I had, but we just couldn’t get by him. There was a chance there that I could’ve slipped up a little higher, but we were running such a great race … we just had to get him the way I wanna race. I tried everything we could, just come up a little short.
“At least we had a great car and was able to keep it there for the whole 100 laps and battle it out at the end for the win.”
Clanton, meanwhile, had a front-row seat for the Richards-Erb race to the finish. The standout from the Southeast was strong throughout the distance but had his Capital Race Car slowed slightly by damage to the right side of its roof that occurred when he caught of piece of Pierce’s rolling racer on lap 47.
“After Pierce got in the fence there in (turns) three and four and turned over it (the damage) like killed the air on the car,” Clanton said. “I just got so tight getting in the corner that I couldn’t really steer and I was just making the best of it, just banging off the cushion trying to hold on to what I already earned.
“At one point (after the midway point) I thought I was catching Josh and got him squirming a little bit, and if it would go green the rest of the way I had a chance to win the race. But I sealed a tire up or something because I got ‘em hot so fast.”
Clanton had the leaders in his sight over the final laps but couldn’t summon enough speed to pull off a dramatic victory.
“Dennis was laying out as much as he could down the front straightaway and I could just wait, wait, and just gas it a little bit getting in the corner,” Clanton said. “If I could’ve just steered just a little bit better getting in turn one I may have had a better chance of just making a big circle around one and two and getting a better run down the backs straightaway. But they did what they had to do to hold the lead and run second, so I was just doing all I could just to keep up with ‘em.”
Five caution flags and one red flag — for Pierce’s accident — slowed the feature, all coming between laps 40 and 75.
Derek Chandler of Pontiac, Ill., brought out the first caution flag when he slowed on lap 40 and pitted for a tire change. Subsequent cautions were caused by Casebolt; Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., who stopped on the backstretch on lap 55; Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., who slowed on lap 74; and Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., who slowed with a right-front flat tire on lap 75 while running 12th.
Preliminary results and notes:
The 29-car field for the 100-lap Prairie Dirt Classic began rolling onto the track shortly after 11 p.m. CT, setting the stage for the start of the $27,000-to-win event.
Prairie Dirt Shootout
Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., dominated the 25-lap Prairie Dirt Shootout, scoring a flag-to-flag victory off the pole position.
The defending PDC was never seriously challenge on his way to a 3.100-second winning margin over Chase Junghans of Manhattan, Kan., who was roughly a straightaway behind Davenport at the checkered flag.
With the triumph giving Davenport the option to accept the $2,000 first prize or move on to start scratch in the feature, he unsurprisingly decided to bypass the money and try his luck in the headline event.
“Something’s still wrong with this thing … it’s still not a hundred percent,” Davenport said of his Longhorn car. “We’re gonna change cars and for a hundred laps.”
Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., advanced from the 12th starting spot to finish third, followed by Earl Pearson Jr. of Jacksonville, Fla., and Jay Morris of Watseka, Ill.
The race went under red-flag conditions on lap one when a multi-car tangle on the homestretch sent Cole Swibold of Fairview, Ill., barrel-rolling several times along the turn-one wall. His car came to rest upside down with its nose perched on the wall, but he climbed out of the cockpit after his machine was righted by safety crews and walked to the ambulance for a ride back to the pit area.
Shortly thereafter, on lap 10, the red flag was needed again after Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., and Tyler Erb of Magnolia, Texas, hit together hard entering turn one while battling for third place and both cars flipped. Erb’s car rolled wildly on the inside of the corner and came to rest on its wheels while Unzicker’s machine skated across the track and flipped onto its roof with Austin Smith of Cedartown, Ga., and Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., among the drivers who also slid into the fracas.
Both Erb and Unzicker emerged from their cars uninjured.
Finish (25 laps): 1. Jonathan Davenport, 2. Chase Junghans, 3. Billy Moyer, 4. Earl Pearson Jr., 5. Jay Morris, 6. Joey Coulter, 7. Boom Briggs, 8. Bob Gardner, 9. Steve Thorsten, 10. Billy Hough, 11. Glen Thompson, 12. Ryan Unzicker, 13. Tyler Erb, 14. Jason Feger, 15. Austin Smith, 16. Jason Jameson, 17. Mason Zeigler, 18. Daniel Flessner, 19. Cole Swibold, 20. Don Hammer.
Prairie Dirt Shootout lineup
Row 1: Jonathan Davenport, Earl Pearson Jr.
Row 2: Ryan Unzicker, Chase Junghans
Row 3: Jason Jameson, Austin Smith
Row 4: Boom Briggs, Bob Gardner
Row 5: Tyler Erb, Mason Zeigler
Row 6: Jay Morris, Billy Moyer
Row 7: Jason Feger, Joey Coulter
Row 8: Cole Swibold, Daniel Flessner
Row 9: Billy Hough, Don Hammer
Row 10: Steve Thorsten, Glen Thompson
Arizona’s Jake O’Neil shot underneath polesitter Bobby Pierce for the lead in turn three on the opening lap and never looked back to capture the event and earn his way into the PDC in his first-ever visit to Fairbury. Pierce held strong in second for the entire distance, finishing 0.421 of a second behind the victor. Earl Pearson Jr. finished third while Chase Junghans and Austin Smith completed the top five. The race was slowed for the first time on lap eight when Gary Turpin and Riley Hickman tangled in turn four. Caution conditions prevailed again on lap nine after Allen Murray slowed suddenly in turn four and was hit by Billy Moyer, who had nowhere to go and spun to a stop — a turn of events that sent Moyer from his spot inside the top 10 to the rear of the field.
Finish (top 2 transfer): Jake O’Neil, Bobby Pierce, Earl Pearson Jr., Chase Junghans, Austin Smith, Bob Gardner, Mason Zeigler, Billy Moyer, Joey Coulter, Daniel Flessner, Don Hammer, Steve Thorsten, John Gardner Jr., Gordy Gundaker, Allen Murray, Gary Turpin, Snookie Dehm, Riley Hickman (DNS) Scott Bull.
Chub Frank perched his car on the ample cushion and led from flag-to-flag to put himself in the Prairie Dirt Classic. He crossed the finish line 0.354 of a second in front of Brian Shirley, who overtook defending PDC champion Jonathan Davenport for the runner-up spot with an inside move off turn two on a lap-14 restart. Davenport couldn’t stick with Shirley over the remaining circuits and finished third, putting the reigning Lucas Oil Series champion in serious jeopardy of missing the 100-lapper; his last chance to make the headliner is with a win in the Prairie Dirt Shootout non-qualifiers’ race. The race’s first caution flag flew on lap one when Cole Swibold spun on the homestretch; a second was needed on lap 14 when Kody Evans slowed in turn one.
Finish (top 2 transfer): Chub Frank, Brian Shirley, Jonathan Davenport, Ryan Unzicker, Jason Jameson, Boom Briggs, Tyler Erb, Jay Morris, Jason Feger, Eric Wells, Cole Swibold, Morgan Bagley, Billy Hough, Glen Thompson, Lyle Zanker, Kody Evans, Chris Ferguson, Scott Schmitt (DNS) Brandon Overton.
Menacing dark clouds danced around Fairbury during the afternoon, but the heavy rain they carried stayed away; just a couple short, relatively light bursts of precipitation hit the track, the last significant amount falling ending about 3:30 p.m. CT. The pit area was left with some wet spots but it appeared the racing surface would be ready for hot laps to begin only a few minutes behind schedule. … Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., who lost last year’s PDC on the final lap to Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., suffered engine trouble during Friday night’s #FALS Draw event and installed a backup powerplant this afternoon. He started 16th in the 100-lapper. … UMP DIRTcar Summernationals champion Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., starts on the pole of the second B-Main because he slipped from a transfer spot in a Friday-night heat after falling off the pace with right-front suspension damage from clipping the outside wall. … Riley Hickman of Ooltewah, Tenn., is saddled with a starting spot at the rear of the second B-Main after failing to start his heat race because his car’s battery cut out as he sat in the staging area. He has a new battery in his car for Saturday night’s action. … The accident that knocked Joey Coulter of Charlotte, N.C., out of his Friday-night heat race left him with heavy damage to repair on his Rocket XR1 car. Rocket’s Mark Richards dived in to assist Coulter’s crew, handling a cutting-and-welding operation that effectively saw half of Coulter’s front clip replaced so he could go racing tonight. … Chris Ferguson of Mt. Holly, N.C., was involved in a tangle with Rick Eckert of York, Pa., early in Friday night’s #FALS Draw and was towed off, but the damage to his Rocket XR1 machine was relatively light. He bolted a new nosepiece on his car and was ready for Saturday competition. … The battle for the four combined transfer spots in the twin B-Mains with be fierce. Nine WoO regulars — Chub Frank, Brian Shirley, Boom Briggs, Morgan Bagley, Brandon Overton, Tyler Erb, Eric Wells, Chase Junghans and Coulter — join such well-known names as Davenport, Pierce, Ferguson, Billy Moyer, Ryan Unzicker, Jason Feger and Earl Pearson Jr. in the last-chance events. … The 25-lap Prairie Dirt Shootout for non-qualifiers will offer the winner the option of taking the $2,000 top prize or moving on to start the feature, which pays $1,500 to take the green flag.
The conclusion of the biggest Dirt Late Model weekend of the season in the state of Illinois includes B-Mains, a non-qualifiers’ race and the 100-lap Prairie Dirt Classic paying a race-record $27,000 to win. It’s the richest winner’s purse ever offered for a Dirt Late Model event in the Land of Lincoln.
Two 20-lap B-Mains transferring two drivers from each will lead off the program. The PDC field will be filled by two WoO points provisionals, two track provisionals and any WoO drivers who are eligible for emergency provisionals.
Friday night’s six heat winners — Kolby Vandenbergh of Ashland, Ill., Steve Casebolt of Richmond, Ind., Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., Mike Spatola of Manhattan, Ill., Derek Chandler of Pontiac, Ill., and Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y. — will redraw for starting spots in the first three rows of Saturday night’s PDC headliner.
Saturday’s program, which also includes UMP modifieds, is scheduled to begin with hot laps at 5:45 p.m. CT.
(20 laps; top 2 transfer)
Row 1: Chub Frank, Jason Jameson
Row 2: Brian Shirley, Jonathan Davenport
Row 3: Boom Briggs, Ryan Unzicker
Row 4: Scott Schmitt, Cole Swibold
Row 5: Jason Feger, Chris Ferguson
Row 6: Jay Morris, Morgan Bagley
Row 7: Tyler Erb, Brandon Overton
Row 8: Billy Hough, Eric Wells
Row 9: Kody Evans, Glen Thompson
Row 10: Lyle Zanker
Row 1: Bobby Pierce, Jake O’Neil
Row 2: Earl Pearson Jr., Bob Gardner
Row 3: Chase Junghans, Mason Zeigler
Row 4: Scott Bull, Allen Murray
Row 5: Daniel Flessner, Steve Thorsten
Row 6: Billy Moyer, Austin Smith
Row 7: Don Hammer, Snookie Dehm
Row 8: Joey Coulter, John Gardner Jr.
Row 9: Gordy Gundaker, Riley Hickman
Row 10: Gary Turpin
Prairie Dirt Classic feature lineup
Row 1: Heat winners
Row 2: Heat winners
Row 3: Heat winners
Row 4: Frank Heckenast Jr., Don O’Neal
Row 5: Shannon Babb, Kevin Weaver
Row 6: Josh Richards, Steve Francis
Row 7: Billy Moyer Jr., Joe Harlan
Row 8: Darrell Lanigan, Dennis Erb Jr.
Row 9: Rick Eckert, Michael Kloos
Row 10: B-Main winners
Row 11: B-Main runners-up
Row 12: Provisionals
Row 13: Provisionals
Saturday’s schedule of events (all times CT)
5:15 p.m. - Drivers’ meeting
5:45 p.m. - On-track action begins
UMP modified hot laps/time trials
WoO hot laps for B-Main cars
WoO B-Mains (20 laps; top 2 transfer from each)
WoO feature qualifiers hot laps
UMP modified B-Mains
UMP modified Friday qualifiers hot laps
Prairie Dirt Shootout (3-12 from B-Mains; 25 laps)
Prairie Dirt Classic (100 laps)
UMP modified feature