KNOXVILLE, Iowa (Sept. 27) — Brian Birkhofer found the perfect way to end the first chapter of his racing life.
Running all out in what he said was his last race — at least for the near future — the 42-year-old driver from Muscatine, Iowa, tossed his car around the outside of Mooresburg, Tenn.’s Scott Bloomquist off turn four on the final circuit to pull off a dramatic victory in Saturday night’s 11th annual Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals at Knoxville Raceway.
Bloomquist, 50, actually slowed with rear end and driveline problems rounding turns three and four on the last tour of the 100-lapper, but it was Birkhofer’s relentless driving over the closing circuits that drew him close enough to take advantage of the two-time Knoxville Nationals champion’s heartbreaking misfortune.
Birkhofer beat the ailing Bloomquist to the finish line by 0.387 of a second, setting off a wild celebration among the family members, friends and partisan home-state fans who were pulling for him to head off into the sunset with a storybook $40,000 triumph.
Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., charged forward from the 23rd starting spot to finish third, 18th-starter Jimmy Mars of Menomonie, Wis., placed fourth and Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., slightly padded his Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points lead with a fifth-place run after using a provisional and starting 31st.
“I had an out-of-body experience those last couple laps there,” said Birkhofer, who just two days earlier had publicly revealed that he was liquidating his racing equipment and contemplating quitting the sport altogether. “Yeah, that was probably the hardest I ever drove — honestly.”
With Birkhofer deciding before the start of the evening’s action that he was going through with his plans to step out of the cockpit for an indefinite period of time — perhaps even forever — after the weekend, he had plenty of incentive to leave nothing on the table.
“Actually,” Birkhofer said, “there was a couple times with about five (laps) to go when I was like, ‘Well, man, if you crash, you go out in style anyways. You were trying hard.’”
It wasn’t just the final circuits that Birkhofer drove with extra gusto, however. He had to get up on the wheel of his Rocket machine earlier in the distance.
Birkhofer started from the pole and grabbed the lead at the initial green flag, but he lost it to on lap 31 to outside polesitter and defending Knoxville Nationals champion Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky. Bloomquist also passed Birkhofer moments later, putting the eventual winner in his first make-or-break moment of the race.
“On them restarts you just don’t know where to be,” Birkhofer said of the lap-30 restart after which he momentarily dropped to third place. “Scott’s lined up behind me, I’m trying to get a run off (turn) four and Lanigan goes in and kind of does a slider on me, so then I’m third.
“I’m like, ‘Well, let’s just try and get something back here.’ I was just wanting to stay in the top three because if you fall back into fourth, fifth, for those restarts, that’s when you start losing positions if you’re not careful.”
By lap 32 Birkhofer was past Bloomquist for second, and on lap 41 he slid inside of Lanigan off turn four to regain command. Birkhofer then controlled the action until Bloomquist, who started sixth, surged into the lead on lap 62 and began eyeing his third major score of September after victories in the Sept. 6 World 100 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, and the Sept. 20 Jackson 100 at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway.
After the race’s seventh and final caution flag flew on lap 86 for Lanigan, who pulled up lame in turn four while running sixth, Birkhofer initially watched Bloomquist get away from him. But as the checkered flag neared, Birkhofer closed in to make one final bid.
“I really found a good line in (turns) one and two where I could drive in,” Birkhofer said. “I followed Scott in and then I let myself carry more speed and hit that brown (lane), and I started being able to keep up with him down the back straightaway. That was key to being able to even be close (to Bloomquist).”
Birkhofer was right on Bloomquist’s Sweet-Bloomquist car entering turn one with two laps to go, but a slight bobble cost him ground that appeared to kill his chances — even if Birkhofer himself didn’t give up.
“I had a good run (in turn one) and then it got to that point I thought (the car) was gonna catch and keep going,” Birkhofer said. “But then it lost the front end and I just pushed up and I said, ‘Well, you better drive you ass off in three and four to catch back up a little bit.’ I was able to kind of catch back up, and that kept me alive.”
On the final lap, Birkhofer sailed into turn three on the outside of the half-mile oval. He pulled alongside Bloomquist, held tight to his car and rocketed off turn four to reach the checkered flag first and send the crowd into a roaring frenzy.
“I might have let off for a split second — I don’t remember,” Birkhofer said of the race’s deciding moment. “I just put the hammer down, and (engine builder) Vic (Hill), (his motor) sucked me right around that 0 car.
“Like I told you, I put one in his ---,” he added, referring to his comment during driver introductions — “I’m just looking to put my foot in Bloomquist’s ---” — that he blurted over the p.a. to whip up the grandstand.
Bloomquist, meanwhile, was searching for answers after falling just short of his record third career Knoxville Nationals victory. He slid to a stop between turns one and two after the checkered flag, his car too broken to reach the post-race weigh-in without assistance from a wrecker.
“Going into (turn) three either the driveshaft yoke or torque arm broke and we got fortunate to coast to second,” Bloomquist said. “That’s about all we can say. The car was really good. It was still good enough to win the race until it actually let go.
“I don’t exactly what happened at first, but I heard a loud bang going into three and I got out of the gas instead of being in the gas like normal (as) I would run to the cushion,” he continued. “I thought I had actually broke, but then I started throttling up and it pulled briefly … and then let go off of four.
“I don’t know if the torque arm had cracked or something had happened prior to that so it was coming. I felt pretty comfortable still, so I think it just broke going into three there.”
The always analytical Bloomquist wondered if a preparation mistake had cost him $20,000 — the difference between first and second place in the prestigious event.
“You gotta realize, all of this is big picture,” Bloomquist said. “You gotta finish these races. You can’t be breaking in them. It made it exciting that it happened on the last lap, but bottom line, Brian won the race.
“It’s not just about a driver, it’s about everything that you do. When I find out what it is, I’ll know more. I’m already kind of kicking myself in the butt because I built a brand-new torque arm to come to this race and looked at the one that was on there and thought that it would be all right. If that is it, I will definitely kick myself in the ass.”
The thrilling finish was seen very clearly by the 36-year-old Marlar, who was just under three seconds behind the victor in third place at the finish. He reached third with a lap-80 pass of Lanigan and was closing on the leaders over the ensuing circuits, but after the caution flag on lap 86 he could only watch the two superstars slug it out in front of him.
“I come off turn four (on the last lap) and I was like, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’” said Marlar, who scored his career-best Knoxville Nationals finish in his fourth A-Main start.
Birkhofer was just as awestruck at the turn of events. After celebrating wildly in victory lane, the ever-popular driver confirmed during the post-race press conference that he does not intend to race in 2015 and, at this point, any time beyond that.
“My heart’s set on giving it up for a while,” said Birkhofer, who noted that he turned down a ride offer for ’15 he received from Bryan Rowland of Woodward, Okla. “I’m gonna do it. Maybe I’ll come back (someday), but I have no plans for that right now.”
Winning his home state’s biggest Dirt Late Model event didn’t alter his thinking at all.
“Oh, it makes it way easier (to quit),” said Birkhofer, who previously won the inaugural Knoxville Nationals in 2004. “I just won the race. I mean, I’m gonna miss it, but I don’t think I’ll miss it for a while, so….
“What an awesome place to win,” he continued. “And the crowd … I’ll tell you what, when we looked up and seen the crowd here tonight, it’s amazing. This was the pinnacle of the sport right here.”
After his almost unfathomable weekend — going public with his plans to walk away, finishing third in Thursday’s preliminary feature, winning Friday’s A-Main, capturing the Nationals finale in the most memorable way possible — Birkhofer looked back fondly on his career.
“I guess it was a fairy tale ending for me,” he concluded. “It was a fun run.”
Notes: Birkhofer recorded his 17th career Lucas Oil Series victory. ... The race’s first caution flag flew on lap 19 when Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., slid sideways in turn three while battling for fifth with Bloomquist. Francis never stopped moving, however, and was allowed to restart in fifth. He would briefly reach third on lap 50 before falling back and settling for a sixth-place finish. … Rodney Sanders of Happy, Texas, stopped against the wall between turns three and four on lap 24. … Brandon Overton of Appling, Ga., advanced from 19th to 11th before his Troy Baird-owned car developed mechanical trouble that caused him to slow on lap 30. … A lap-49 caution flag was needed when Brady Smith of Solon Springs, Wis., was left sitting backwards in turn four. … Rick Eckert of York, Pa., had cracked the top 10 when he slowed with a broken axle on lap 62. … Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., who ran in the top five during the race’s first half, stopped in turn two on lap 66.
Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals finish
(Pos. Driver (car no.), hometown, chassis, earnings)
1. Brian Birkhofer (15b), Muscatine, Iowa, Rocket, $40,000
2. Scott Bloomquist (0), Mooresburg, Tenn., Sweet-Bloomquist, $20,000
3. Mike Marlar (157), Winfield, Tenn., Rocket, $10,000
4. Jimmy Mars (28), Menomonie, Wis., MB Customs, $8,750
5. Don O’Neal (5), Martinsville, Ind., Barry Wright, $7,500
6. Steve Francis (15), Ashland, Ky., Barry Wright, $7,000
7. Jimmy Owens (20), Newport, Tenn., Club 29, $6,500
8. Frank Heckenast Jr. (99Jr), Frankfort, Ill., Club 29, $6,000
9. Chase Junghans (18), Manhattan, Kan., Capital, $5,500
10. Chad Simpson (25), Mt. Vernon, Iowa, Victory Circle, $5,000
11. Wendell Wallace (1W), Batesville, Ark., Black Diamond, $4,500
12. Jason Hughes (12), Watts, Okla., Bloomquist, $1,500
13. Jason Papich (91P), Arroyo Grande, Calif., Club 29, $1,000
14. Denny Eckrich (50), Tiffin, Iowa, $3,400
15. Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., Barry Wright, $3,300
16. Jared Landers (777), Batesville, Ark., Rocket, $3,200
17. Eddie Carrier Jr. (28), Salt Rock, W.Va., Rocket, $3,100
18. Jonathan Davenport (6), Blairsville, Ga., Longhorn, $3,000
19. Darrell Lanigan (29), Union, Ky., Club 29, $2,900
20. John Blankenship (23), Williamson, W.Va., Rocket, $2,800
21. Brandon Sheppard (b5), New Berlin, Ill., Rocket, $2,700
22. Earl Pearson Jr. (44), Jacksonville, Fla., Longhorn, $2,600
23. Rick Eckert (1), York, Pa., Rocket, $2,500
24. Morgan Bagley (14M), Tyler, Texas, Rocket, $2,500
25. Dale McDowell (17M), Chickamauga, Ga., Warrior, $2,500
26. Brady Smith (2), Solon Springs, Wis., Rocket, $2,500
27. Kent Robinson (7R), Bloomington, Ind., Club 29, $2,500
28. Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., Longhorn, $2,500
29. Brandon Overton (5), Appling, Ga., Bloomquist, $2,500
30. Brian Shirley (81), Chatham, Ill., Rocket, $2,500
31. Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., Rocket, $2,500
32. A.J. Diemel (58), Elk Mound, Wis., MB Customs, $2,500
33. Rodney Sanders (20), Happy, Texas, Club 29, $2,500
34. Terry Phillips (75), Springfield, Mo., Rocket, $2,500
Thursday’s preliminary feature winner: Davenport
Friday’s preliminary feature winner: Birkhofer
D-main winner: Ryan Gustin
C-main winner: Billy Moyer Jr.
B-main winner: Wendell Wallace
Provisional starters: O’Neal, Owens, Hughes, Papich
Saturday's blog-style updates:
Lap 100: And the place goes wild! BIrkhofer charges off turn four and passes Bloomquist on the final lap to win the Knoxville Nationals in storybook fashion....Bloomquist finishes second, followed by Marlar, Mars and O'Neal....
Lap 92: Bloomquist leads Birkhofer by nearly 2 seconds....Marlar, Mars and O'Neal follow..
Lap 86: Caution for Lanigan in turn four (was running sixth)....Bloomquist had few car-length lead over Birkhofer, but Marlar was closing quick in third....Mars fourth, followed by O'Neal, Francis, Heckenast, Davenport, Junghans, Owens....
Lap 80: Birkhofer back within stirking distance of Bloomquist....Marlar up to third three-quarters of straight behind leaders....
Lap 75: Bloomquist leads by half-straight over Birkhofer....then it's Lanigan, Marlar, Mars, Francis, O'Neal, Heckenast, Davenport and Chad Simpson....
Lap 66: Caution for Sheppard, who stops in turn two after jumping cushion at other end while running in top 10....Bloomquist leads Birkhofer, Mars, Lanigan, Marlar, Francis, Davenport, O'Neal (from 31st), Heckenast and Landers (who pitted on lap 24).
Lap 62: Bloomquist slides underneath Birkhofer off turn two to take lead....after lap is scored caution flies for Eckert slowing on track....Lanigan runs third, followed by Mars, Sheppard, Francis, Marlar, Davenport, Heckenast and O'Neal.
Lap 56: Bloomquist grabs second from Lanigan....Birkhofer still leads....Mars up to fourth, followed by Sheppard, Francis (who got to third on lap 50 but started wiggling after that and fell back), Marlar, Davenport, Heckenast and Eckert.
Lap 49: Caution fllies as Brady Smith sits backwards in turn four...McDowell drives into pits as caution flies with right-rear damage; on lap 47 he jumped cushion in turn two and fell from fourth to sixth....Birkhofer leads Lanigan, Bloomquist, Francis, Davenport, Mars, Sheppard, Heckenast, Pearson and Chad Simpson....Moyer finally retires after multiple pit stops, while Carrier pits and returns.
Lap 41: Birkhofer bursts off inside of turn four to take lead from Lanigan....
Lap 31: Lanigan slid underneath Birkhofer through turns one and two on the restart to grab the lead. Bloomquist also went to the inside to take second, but Birkhofer fought back to take the position on lap 32.
Lap 30: Caution for Brandon Overton, who slows with a smoking car while running 11th...Birkhofer's 1.5-second edge over Lanigan wiped out....Bloomquist third, followed by McDowell, Davenport, Mars, Sheppard, Pearson, Francis and Robinson.
Lap 24: Caution for Rodney Sanders, who sits against wall in turns three and four....Birkhofer has been holding off Lanigan's challenges for lead....McDowell is third, followed by Bloomquist, Sheppard, Davenport, Francis, Mars, Robinson and Pearson....
Lap 19: Caution for a near-spin in turn three by Francis, who got on inside berm battling for fourth with Bloomquist. Francis never stopped moving, however....in pits are Owens (who went a lap down on lap 14), Moyer and Shirley....Birkhofer leads Lanigan, Davenport, McDowell, Francis, Bloomquist, Robinson, Sheppard, Pearson and Brady Smith....
Lap 10: Birkhofer has short lead on Lanigan....McDowell takes third from Davenport; Pearson fifth.
Lap 1: Birkhofer leads by inches over Lanigan....
9:18 p.m. CT: Engines have fired and the 34-car field is about to being rolling for pace laps.
Driver introductions for the Knoxville Nationals A-Main began at 9:05 p.m. CT. … Tim McCreadie is the only driver among nine former Knoxville Nationals winners to miss the 100-lap field. His B-Main bid was ended by a lost cylinder. … Jason Feger retired from the B-Main while running third due to a broken oil line. He said he shut off his car’s engine as soon as he saw smoke and smelled oil. … Lucas Oil Series regulars Jason Hughes and Jason Papich will use emergency provisional and start 33rd and 34th, respectively. …
Wendell Wallace scored a flag-to-flag victory, turning back challenges from Jason Feger and, in the final laps, Rick Eckert. Eckert was about to take the lead on lap 18, but a caution flag for Tim McCreadie, who stopped on the backstretch, prevented the circuit for being scored. Wallace then pulled away on the restart to defeat Eckert by several car lengths. Chase Junghans finished third; Morgan Bagley placed fourth; Terry Phillips shot from seventh to fifth on the final restart; and Denny Eckrich was sixth to claim the final transfer spot to the A-Main. Feger’s hopes for a Nationals A-Main berth ended on lap 17 when he slowed with heavy white smoke billowing from his car as he ran in third place. The race’s first caution flag flew on lap four when Tyler Bruening got into the turn-two wall. Lucas Oil Series points leader Don O’Neal and Jimmy Owens opted to start behind the field and use the race as a test session as both fell back on their tour provisional to gain entry to the 100-lapper; they’ll start 31st and 32nd, respectively.
Finish: Wendell Wallace, Rick Eckert, Chase Junghans, Morgan Bagley, Terry Phillips, Denny Eckrich, Jason Papich, Scott James, Jason Rauen, Vic Coffey, Gregg Satterlee, Tim Lance, Chris Simpson, Rich Bell, Mark Dotson, Jason Feger, Tim McCreadie, Will Vaught, Jimmy Owens, Jason Utter, Don O’Neal, Billy Moyer Jr., Chris Spieker, Tyler Bruening.
Billy Moyer Jr. controlled the action, leading the 15-lap race from start-to-finish to move on to the B-Main. Scott James never challenged Moyer but ran alone throughout the race to finish second, while Chris Simpson slid by Tim Lance for third on lap nine and finished third. Lance settled for fourth place, good enough to send him to the B-Main. C-Main winner Ryan Gustin charged from deep in the field to seventh before mechanical trouble caused him to slow and bring out a caution flag on lap seven. The race’s only other caution was for an aborted original start.
Finish: Billy Moyer Jr., Scott James, Chris Simpson, Tim Lance, Rich Bell, Jason Utter, Chris Spieker, Jason Hughes, Jordan Yaggy, Jay Johnson, Jake Meier, John Duty, Justin Duty, Charlie McKenna, Ray Guss Jr., Mike Fryer, Todd Frank, Ryan Gustin, Brian Harris, Greg Kimmons (DNS) Dave Eckrich.
Ryan Gustin cruised to victory in the evening’s first event, leading the entire 12-lap distance without facing a single challenge. He easily outdistanced Jordan Yaggy, who ran alone in second place for the entire race. Mike Fryer and Skip Frye finished third and fourth, respectively, holding John Duty at bay for the final transfer spots to the C-Main.
Finish (top 4 transfer to C-Main): Ryan Gustin, Jordan Yaggy, Mike Fryer, Skip Frye, John Duty, Greg Kimmons, Charlie McKenna, Lyle Zanker, Steve Lance Jr., Roger Brickler, Rob Moss.
Lucas Oil Series schedule released
There was a bee-line to the Lucas Oil Series operations trailer following tonight’s drivers’ meeting because officials were standing by to distribute copies of the national tour’s 2015 schedule of events.
A total of 49 events at 34 tracks in 20 states appear on the slate, which begins with a Feb. 6-7 doubleheader at Golden Isles Speedway in Brunswick, Ga., and ends with the Oct. 16-17 Dirt Track World Championship at Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park.
Eleven races paying $20,000 or more highlight the schedule, including the May 22-23 Show-Me 100 at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo. ($30,000 to win); the July 16-18 Silver Dollar Nationals at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb. ($32,000); the Aug. 6-8 North-South 100 at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky. ($50,000); the Aug. 13-15 Topless 100 at Batesville (Ark.) Motor Speedway ($40,000); the Sept. 24-26 Late Model Knoxville Nationals ($40,000); and the DTWC ($50,000).
A notable special event that’s new to the schedule is the Aug. 29-29 Pittsburgher 100 at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Imperial, Pa. ($20,000 to win), while the $20,000-to-win Bad Boy 98 returns to the sked on April 17-18 at Batesville.
Seven of the nine former Knoxville Nationals winners are locked into the 100-lap feature. The group includes Brian Birkhofer (pole position), Darrell Lanigan (second), Scott Bloomquist (sixth), Steve Francis (10th), Billy Moyer (12th), Brady Smith (20th) and Brian Shirley (22nd). … The only past event champions still looking to gain entry to the A-Main are Lucas Oil Series points leader Don O’Neal, who starts 17th in the B-Main but has a series provisional as insurance, and Tim McCreadie, who starts 11th in the B-Main after experiencing trouble during Friday night’s last-chance race (broken air cleaner stud). … After experiencing engine problems on Friday night, Mason Zeigler of Chalk Hill, Pa., has opted to scratch from tonight’s action. He is scheduled to start third in the C-Main, but his plan to switch to his backup car would force him to drop to the rear for the prelim so he decided against competing.
The 11th annual Lucas Oil Knoxville Late Model Nationals presented by Casey’s General Stores concludes Saturday night with three last-chance races and the 100-lap headliner at the famed Knoxville Raceway, a half-mile fairgrounds oval best known for hosting sprint car racing.
The lineups for all four of Saturday night’s events — 12-lap D-Main, 15-lap C-Main, 20-lap B-Main and 100-lap A-Main — were determined using each driver’s best points night from the pair of preliminary programs. Brian Birkhofer’s 489-point total on Friday night earned him the pole position for the 100-lapper that offers a $40,000 top prize.
Hot laps are scheduled to begin at 6:45 p.m. CT with the D-Main slated to start the evening’s action at 7:15 p.m. CT.
For full details of the weekend’s format, refer to our Fast Facts page.
Saturday Knoxville Nationals lineups (includes each driver’s best points night total)
(100 laps; $40,000-to-win)
1. Brian Birkhofer - 489
2. Darrell Lanigan - 488
3. Jonathan Davenport - 488
4. Earl Pearson Jr. - 487
5. Dale McDowell - 482
6. Scott Bloomquist - 482
7. Eddie Carrier Jr. - 480
8. Brandon Sheppard - 476
9. Kent Robinson - 475
10. Steve Francis - 474
11. Rodney Sanders - 470
12. Billy Moyer - 465
13. Frank Heckenast Jr. - 464
14. Shannon Babb - 459
15. John Blankenship - 456
16. AJ Diemel - 451
17. Jared Landers - 448
18. Jimmy Mars - 443
19. Brandon Overton - 442
20. Brady Smith - 440
21. Chad Simpson - 439
22. Brian Shirley - 436
23. Mike Marlar - 436
24. Dennis Erb Jr. - 435
(20 laps; top 6 transfer to A-Main)
1. Jason Feger - 435
2. Wendell Wallace - 427
3. Rick Eckert - 426
4. Will Vaught - 424
5. Morgan Bagley - 422
6. Chase Junghans - 422
7. Jason Rauen - 419
8. Mark Dotson - 418
9. Jason Papich - 415
10. Terry Phillips - 411
11. Tim McCreadie - 410
12. Vic Coffey - 408
13. Jesse Stovall - 402
14. Greg Satterlee - 399
15. Jimmy Owens - 394
16. Tyler Bruening - 391
17. Don O’Neal - 387
18. Denny Eckrich - 386
(15 laps; top 4 transfer to B-Main)
1. Donny Schatz - 377
2. Scott James - 373
3. Mason Zeigler - 371
4. Billy Moyer Jr. - 369
5. Jason Utter - 367
6. Tim Lance - 363
7. Rich Bell - 351
8. Chris Simpson - 351
9. Ray Guss Jr. - 348
10. Brian Harris - 335
11. Jason Hughes - 320
12. Jay Johnson - 318
13. Chris Spieker - 306
14. Jake Meier - 302
15. Dave Eckrich - 302
16. Todd Frank - 298
17. Justin Duty - 296
18. Jonathan Brauns - 296
(12 laps; top 4 transfer to C-Main)
1. Jordan Yaggy - 295
2. Ryan Gustin - 294
3. Charlie McKenna - 289
4. Mike Fryer - 289
5. John Duty - 288
6. Greg Kimmons - 280
7. Skip Frey - 280
8. Lyle Zanker - 266
9. Rob Moss - 257
10. Matt Furman - 253
11. Andy Eckrich - 252
12. Spencer Diercks - 241
13. Steve Lance Jr. - 238
14. Dustin Walker - 231
15. Roger Brickler - 230
16. Jordan Heiman - 226
17. Curt Schroeder - 213
18. Al Humphrey - 201
19. Junior Coover - 198