LAKE ODESSA, Mich. (July 11) — If Brian Shirley keeps this up for the final two nights of the DIRTcar Summer Nationals, there’s no way he can fall short of a second consecutive series championship.
The 38-year-old driver from Chatham, Ill., was victorious again in Thursday night’s 40-lap Hell Tour feature at I-96 Speedway, making him two-for-two in the series’s concluding four-race swing through Michigan and Ohio and, thanks to the misfortune suffered by points leader Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., vaulting him back to the top of the standings.
With only Friday and Saturday’s Birthday Race doubleheader at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio, left as Summer Nationals points races, Shirley holds a 33-point advantage over Pierce. The 22-year-old Pierce entered I-96’s program leading Shirley by eight points but saw his chances of claiming the $25,000 title for the fourth time in his career take a major hit after he finished 17th due to a broken rearend that knocked him from the race on lap 24 as he held third place.
“We got a little breathing room, but two races is a long time,” said Shirley, who is pursuing his third career Summer Nationals crown. “You probably won’t know who wins until the checkered flag falls on Saturday.”
Coming off a triumphant outing the previous night at Thunderbird Raceway in Muskegon, Mich., in which he led 39 of the race’s 40 laps, the polesitting Shirley paced the entire distance of I-96’s A-main to register his series-leading sixth win of the 2019 series and pocket a $5,000 payday. But Shirley faced several stiff restart challenges from Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., before steering his Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket to a modest edge and defeating his fellow Summer Nationals traveler’s family-owned XR1 Rocket by 0.859 of a second.
David Mielke of Gladwin, Mich., registered a career-best Summer Nationals finish of third in his Rocket mount after starting fifth and running as high as second early in the distance. Ryan VanderVeen of Six Lakes, Mich., made an advance from the 17th starting spot to place fourth in his Swartz Race Car and outside polesitter Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, finished fifth in his Rayburn vehicle after rallying from a slip over the backstretch berm on a lap-10 restart that dropped him from third to near the end of the field.
Shirley’s road to victory followed a path similar to his Thunderbird success. He appeared susceptible to challengers on most of the race’s restarts — with nine caution flags dotting the feature, there were many of them — but picked up steam and build a cushion after a few green-flag circuits.
Heckenast, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Tuesday, was the driver who chased Shirley for the majority of the distance and provided the staunchest pressure. The race’s sixth starter reached second place on lap eight when he overtook Schlenk and, with the exception of a brief slip to third behind Mielke on lap 13, maintained the spot to the finish.
Following restarts on laps 14, 24 and 25, Heckenast dived inside Shirley going down the backstretch and came within inches of leading the ensuing circuit. But Shirley staved off the challenges and opened up space on Heckenast within a couple tours around the 3/8-mile oval.
“I think everybody had the same tires,” Shirley said when asked why Heckenast was able to challenge on restarts. “It was just one of those deals — with the top (lane) being so far out there, it just took me a lap or two to get going on the outside.
“I really needed to just run the bottom one lap (after each restart). I really felt like when I did run the bottom on the first lap I could get out enough and then get my speed up. Maybe I just did a bad job on that part, but luckily I stayed ahead.
“The thing is, on those restarts, we’re going so slow, you can almost make one good lap on that bottom (as a challenger) and get ahead. That’s where Frankie almost got me a couple times. Luckily it was just our night. If it was his night to win, the pass would’ve been made.”
Heckenast struggled to find an answer to defeating Shirley, who kept Heckenast winless on the 2019 Summer Nationals.
“I asked him after the race, ‘Just tell me the truth. Don’t lie to me. Are you just kind of hanging out until someone shows you their nose?’ because he did the same thing with Pierce last night,” said Heckenast, who recorded his third runner-up finish of this season’s Hell Tour. “He said, ‘No,’ he was just waiting to get a feel for his tire and then he picked up momentum.
“I had a couple shots at him on the restart early, the first couple laps, but man, once he got going … the best way I can describe him right now when he’s out front is like a ball on a chain — you hang it in the air and start whipping it, it just starts going faster and faster and faster, but it takes you awhile to get it going, kind of like bicycles inside the cage at the circus.
“I mean, this guy, he’s human the first couple laps. I started sixth and felt like I got to him, and then the caution came out and I was like, ‘All right, we’re good. Now we’re starting second.’ But it was the same thing. I could run with him for two laps, and then it’s like he just flips a switch and goes.
“I don’t think he’s cheating or anything like that,” he added. “I just think he just has a lot of confidence in his car. He’s got a couple of years under his belt with that car and he likes it … good for him, you know?”
Heckenast felt he made strides toward reaching victory lane before the Summer Nationals comes to an end, however.
“We tried something yesterday (with the right-front suspension), liked it, built on it, and I talked to Ronnie Crooks (of Penske Shocks) today and he helped with it some more,” Heckenast said. “It’s, like, really good. I wish I would’ve found it at the beginning of this series, but we had so many days off at the beginning (due to rainouts) that you weren’t even focused on racing because I’d go home, we’d work, we’d do this or that.
“I guess if we could win one of the next two I’d be happy. But I could be running eighth right now, so finishing second, I’m still happy.”
Shirley, meanwhile, is looking forward to the Summer Nationals’ conclusion at Oakshade. Emerging as the champion for the second straight year would, of course, be the cherry on top of his cake.
“Just two more days,” Shirley said. “I’m happy, but I’m ready for Summer Nationals to be over. It’s a grind and I’m just ready to get home.
“It’s definitely a different deal when you’re the (points) leader, but for me, I’m just going to win tomorrow night. We might not win, but I’m gonna go try and do the best I can do. And then when I wake up Saturday, there’s another day and we’ll try to do better. Hopefully it comes out in our favor.”
The race was slowed by nine caution flags, including three triggered by Australian Paul Stubber, who spun in turns one and two on lap three, shot off the track in turn four on lap nine and twirled between turns three and four on lap 14. He headed pitside after being charged with a third caution.
Pierce brought out the most significant caution when he suddenly fell off the pace on the homestretch while running third on lap 24. He left a trail of rearend grease on the straightaway as his charge forward from the 16th starting spot (he had to run a B-main after being disqualified from his apparent heat win because he failed to report to the scales for a post-race weigh-in) came to an abrupt end.
Other cautions were caused by Schlenk, who went off the track on the backstretch on the initial start (DIRTcar rules allowed him to restart in his original starting position); Devin Shiels of Britton, Mich., who slowed in turn on lap 10 shortly after briefly reaching fifth place; Jason Playter Jr. of Saranac, Mich. (lap 20); Hillard Miller of Defiance, Ohio (spin on lap 25); and Jake Rendel of Adrian, Mich. (spin on lap 35).
Notes: Shirley’s 25th career Summer Nationals win moved him into a tie for fifth on the tour’s all-time win list with Bobby Pierce. It was also Shirley’s second career Hell Tour triumph at I-96 (he previously won in 2014) and 12th overall victory of the 2019 season. … The 27-year-old Mielke was very pleased with his podium finish. “Last night (at Thunderbird) was a little tough on us, but tonight was definitely good,” he said. “Shirley and Heckenast, they were definitely the class of the field, but I was happy to be up there with ‘em. They seemed to take off better on the restarts. I could hang with them for a few laps but it seemed they were a little better. I made a few laps right at the top like they were but I just didn’t like it.” … Schlenk and Jeep Van Wormer of Pinconning, Mich., who ran in the top five for much of the distance before finishing eighth, traded paint several times during the race. After Van Wormer ended up slipping over the backstretch berm on lap 24 while racing with Schlenk, the former Summer Nationals regular rubbed Schlenk under an ensuing caution period to express his displeasure. … Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., who won last year’s Summer Nationals stop at I-96, contended for a top-five spot throughout the race but settled for a sixth-place finish. … Travis Stemler of Ionia, Mich., ran as high as fourth but slipped to seventh in the final rundown because he said his car’s right-rear tire continually sealed up after about eight laps of continuous racing.
Row 1: Brian Shirley, Rusty Schlenk
Row 2: Jeep Van Wormer, Brandon Thirlby
Row 3: David Mielke, Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 4: Devin Shiels, Travis Stemler
Row 5: Jason Feger, Jason Playter Jr.
Row 6: Paul Stubber, Rob Anderzack
Row 7: Scott Fisk, Hillard Miller
Row 8: Brad Harden, Bobby Pierce
Row 9: Ryan VanderVeen, Kyle Roberts
Row 10: Chuck Hummer, Jake Rendel
Row 11: Bryant Dickinson, Truck Robertson
Finish (10 laps; top 3 transfer): Bobby Pierce, Ryan VanderVeen, Kyle Roberts, Bryant Dickinson, Truck Robertson, Jake Rendel, Kevin Mack, Chuck Hummer (DNS) Logan Arntz.
(10 laps; top 3 transfer)
Row 1: Ryan VanderVeen, Bryant Dickinson
Row 2: Truck Robertson, Kyle Roberts
Row 3: Kevin Mack, Jake Rendel
Row 4: Chuck Hummer, Bobby Pierce
Row 5: Logan Arntz.
Brian Shirley paced the entire distance, maintaining a short-but-steady edge over Frank Heckenast Jr. until the final lap when Heckenast’s last-ditch bid to steal the checkered flag fell a mere 0.090 of a second short at the finish line. Jason Feger was farther back in third followed by Rob Anderzack and Brad Harden. A caution flag flew on lap one for a turn-four spin by Truck Robertson.
Finish: Brian Shirley, Frank Heckenast Jr., Jason Feger, Rob Anderzack, Brad Harden, Truck Robertson, Jake Rendel (DNS) Logan Arntz.
Summer Nationals points leader Bobby Pierce swept around the outside of polesitter Rusty Schlenk off turn two on the opening lap and marched on to an apparent runaway victory by 5.183 seconds over the Michigan native. But when Pierce didn't report to the scales for the post-race weigh-in as mandated by rule, DIRTcar officials disqualified him and elevated Schlenk to the victory. David Mielke held off Travis Stemler to place second in the revised finish while Paul Stubber was fourth with his right-rear spoiler dangling for the final laps and Hillard Smith moved into the final transfer spot.
Finish: Rusty Schlenk, David Mielke, Travis Stemler, Paul Stubber, Hillard Miller, Bryant Dickinson, Kevin Mack (DQ) Bobby Pierce.
Jeep Van Wormer scored a flag-to-flag victory, keeping Brandon Thirlby at bay to beat his fellow Michigander by 0.975 of a second. Devin Shiels placed third while Jason Playter Jr. overtook Scott Fisk on the final lap to finish fourth.
Finish: Jeep Van Wormer, Brandon Thirlby, Devin Shiels, Jason Playter Jr., Scott Fisk, Ryan VanderVeen, Kyle Robdrts, Chuck Hummer.
Racing in his native state, Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, blazed to the quickest overall lap in time trials with his clocking of 16.339 seconds in the second group. He earned the pole position for the second heat.
Other heat polesitters after registering group fast times was Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., and Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill.
Logan Artnz of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., was the only driver entered who did not log a qualifying lap. He limped to the pit area during hot laps with smoke wafting from his car.
Thursday has produced a rare occurrence on this year’s DIRTcar Summer Nationals: a day with virtually no chance of rain. Conditions at I-96 Speedway are spectacular with sunny skies and a comfortable, breeze-swept high temperature in the upper 70s. … With his 24th career Summer Nationals victory in Wednesday night’s feature at Thunderbird Raceway in Muskegon, Mich., Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., moved into sole possession of sixth on the series’s all-time win list. … Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., normally runs all the Michigan and Ohio events that close the Summer Nationals, but this year his only planned start is this evening’s program. He backed off his schedule after tweaking his lower back in a household slip before last weekend’s American Ethanol Late Model Tour event at Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich. While Thirlby toughed out a runner-up finish in Saturday’s feature, he experienced so much back pain after the checkered flag that he didn’t get out of his car during the victory lane ceremonies. He said his back feels much better now but he doesn’t want to aggravate it by racing too much this week. … Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., who finished third in Wednesday’s 40-lapper at Thunderbird, is racing exactly one year since his scoring his last Summer Nationals triumph at Shadyhill Speedway in Medaryville, Ind. … Ryan VanderVeen of Six Lakes, Mich., has switched from the bright orange No. 23v he drove Wednesday at Thunderbird to a black Swartz car for I-96’s action. … Logan Arntz of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., has joined the Hell Tour competition for I-96’s program after skipping Thunderbird’s show despite scoring his first-ever American Ethanol Tour win there on June 22.
The two-race DIRTcar Summer Nationals swing through Michigan concludes with a Thursday-night stop at I-96 Speedway, a 3/8-mile oval about a half-hour east of Grand Rapids.
Thursday’s 40-lap, $5,000-to-win show marks the second straight year that the Hell Tour has visited I-96; Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., won last year’s event. The series’s previous races at the track were won by Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill. (2014), Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill. (2005, ’11, ’12 and ’13) and Jeep VanWormer of Pinconning, Mich. (’10).
I-96 is Round 16 of the Summer Nationals, which will complete its 2019 schedule on Friday and Saturday at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio.
Heat lineups/Group qualifying results
(10 laps; top 5 transfer)
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 17.082
Jeep Van Wormer (55), Pinconning, Mich., 17.284
Scott Fisk (5), Saranac, Mich., 17.417
Devin Shiels (51), Britton, Mich., 17.741
Ryan VanderVeen (23v), Six Lakes, Mich., 17.830
Jason Playter Jr. (41), Saranac, Mich., 18.063
Kyle Roberts (113), Beaverton, Mich., 18.350
Chuck Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ohio, 19.883
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 16.339
Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., 16.938
Travis Stemler (2s), Ionia, Mich., 16.963
David Mielke (87M), Gladwin, Mich., 17.321
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 17.408
Hillard Miller (53), Defiance, Ohio, 17.801
Kevin Mack (55R), Defiance, Ohio, 18.359
Bryant Dickinson (5x), Portland, Mich., 19.192
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 16.757
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 17.039
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 17.218
Rob Anderzack (8), Swanton, Ohio, 17.588
Brad Harden (52), Elsie, Mich., 18.091
Jake Rendel (06), Adrian, Mich., 18.875
Truck Robertson (P3), Centerville, Ind., 19.096
Logan Arntz (21A), Mt. Pleasant, Mich., no time