GIBSONTON, Fla. (Feb. 9) — More than once during Thursday’s 47th annual Wieland Winternationals at East Bay Raceway Park, Hudson O’Neal exhaled a huge sigh of relief. He did so when he set the overall fast time among 63 entries and won the night’s fourth heat race, putting the Martinsville, Ind., driver on the outside front row to start the 40-lap, $10,000-to-win Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series main event.
He did again when, just as he began catching slower traffic and second-running Max Blair of Centerville, Pa., began applying pressure, the caution waved on lap 21 for John Henderson’s overheating machine slowing down the backstretch.
And finally — perhaps the biggest sigh of relief of the entire 2023 Georgia-Florida Speedweeks — O’Neal was able to exhale as he took the checkered flag to complete his first win of the season and first since joining the Rocket Chassis house car team back in the Fall. After a tumultuous start that included almost as many off nights as good nights, O’Neal finally steered the iconic blue No. 1 — now sporting a red roof — into victory lane for new boss Mark Richards.
“This has been a few weeks coming and I'm glad we finally got it done,” the 22-year-old O’Neal said in victory lane. “No doubt, the world's been lifted off my shoulders now. If we could get that first (win) out of the way, maybe they'll start coming a little bit easier or maybe a little easier for me. Maybe I'm going to take it a little easier on myself.”
The victory, his third career Wieland Winternationals win and 18th career Lucas Oil Series win, came 24 hours after he failed to transfer into the previous night’s main event, the second time the team has failed to make a feature race during this year’s Georgia-Florida Speedweeks.
“This is so cool man,” O’Neal said. “My team has been pushing me and pushing me and after last night I was kind of down, but man these guys never missed a beat. We got back and we started working. Man, they just prepare phenomenal cars and it's just an honor to drive 'em."
Aside from the brief pressure in traffic, O’Neal was never seriously threatened during the race slowed by four timely cautions. Blair, bidding for his first career Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series feature win, stalked the leader over the final 20 laps, but after starting fifth, he settled for second. Polesitter Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., slipped two positions to finish third, while Garrett Smith of Eatonton, Ga., charged from 12th to finish fourth, passing six cars in the first three laps.
On a night when a bevy of heavy-hitters had trouble — Jonathan Davenport finished 15th after starting 28th; Brandon Overton, Brandon Sheppard and Devin Moran were never factors and failed to finish; and Ricky Thornton Jr. dropped out on lap 10 while running second — the top four finishers each enjoyed their best Georgia-Florida Speedweeks finish of the season.
Two-time and reigning Lucas Oil Series champion Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., — still winless this season — improved three spots to finish fifth, while four-time series champion Jimmy Owens of Newport, Tenn., rallied from 18th to sixth, also his best Speedweeks finish of 2023. Even seventh-place finisher Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., recorded his best finish of the season.
But while six of the top seven finishers were enjoying their top Speedweeks run of the new year, few were hungrier for a win than O’Neal, who sought to prove naysayers wrong after he was hired to replace Sheppard in the seat of the famed Rocket Chassis house car.
"I can't even begin (to describe it) man. The worst part is that I knew we had it in us this whole trip and just little things don't fall our way,” O’Neal said. “I was able to get the lead from the jump there and I knew that that was the best place I could possibly be. The way the racetrack has been and the way it moves around and stuff, it's just better to be out front. I knew if I could just try to maintain a gap and get ahead of them enough before I caught lapped traffic then maybe I could hang on.
“It was butt-puckered there for a while with some of those lapped cars. I was waiting for someone to blast around me on the outside. Man this is so awesome. I can't think the whole Rocket group, everybody back at the shop, Mark Richards, Danny, Joel, Austin, Steve Baker, my whole family … there's a whole bunch of them here. It's just really, really cool man.”
Despite falling a spot short after trimming more than a second off of O’Neal’s lead over the final nine laps. Blair was pleased with his runner-up finish.
“I just couldn't believe I was racing with Hudson O'Neill for the win at East Bay. That's pretty awesome,” said Blair, who mentioned after his heat-race victory how he remembered making to trips to East Bay with his racer father Rob Blair. “It's another good night. We've had a good car all week (but) the driver just couldn’t put a good lap together until tonight. We put a whole night together tonight and hopefully we can do that a couple more times this week because that's a lot of fun.”
Erb, the reigning World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series champion, was a bit more subdued after failing to lead a lap from the pole position. He lost second to Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., on a lap-two restart, gained it back when Thornton exited on lap 10 and then lost the spot again to Blair when the race resumed following Thornton’s departure. Still, after failing to make Wednesday’s main event following back-to-back fifth-place finishes to start the week, it was an improvement.
"We were good the first couple nights and bounced back here tonight, so we're happy with that,” said Erb. “It's all about a good qualifying deal and starting up front. We just needed to be a little tighter tonight, but we'll work on that and hopefully pick it up here at the end (of the week).”
Notes: Hudson O’Neal’s last East Bay Winternationals victory came on Jan. 24, 2021. He’s still 12 wins shy of his father Don O’Neal’s 15 Winternationals victories at East Bay. … Hudson’s last Lucas Oil Series win came Sept. 24, 2022, at his home track, Brownstown (Ind,) Speedway. … Jonathan Davenport struggled after getting caught up in a crash during his heat that sent him head-on into the turn-two wall. The team switched to a back-up car. … Brandon Overton didn’t make a lap in the feature after experiencing electrical issues on the pace lap of the feature. Overton was already behind after losing a driveshaft before time trials. … Brandon Sheppard feared he may have had terminal powerplant issues. … Ricky Thornton Jr. coasted to the infield with driveline issues, likely a transmission or rear end, he said. … The race was slowed by four cautions. … Kyle Bronson slowed on lap two to draw the first caution and Brandon Sheppard slowed in turns three and four to bring out the third. On the ensuing restart, Ricky Thornton Jr. slowed with drivetrain issues entering turn one, while Ross Bailes an Devin Moran tangled behind the pack. The fourth yellow flew when John Henderson’s overheating machine slowed down the backstretch just in front of a developing battle for the lead between O’Neal and Blair on lap 21.
Row 1: Dennis Erb Jr., Hudson O’Neal
Row 2: John Henderson, Ricky Thornton Jr.
Row 3: Max Blair, Shane Clanton
Row 4: Ross Bailes, Tim McCreadie
Row 5: Kyle Bronson, Earl Pearson Jr.
Row 6: Mason Zeigler, Garrett Smith
Row 7: Brian Shirley, Jensen Ford
Row 8: Garrett Alberson, Devin Moran
Row 9: Daulton Wilson, Jimmy Owens
Row 10: Brandon Overton, Chase Junghans
Row 11: Tanner English, Kenny Collins
Row 12: Ashton Winger, Ross Robinson
Row 13: Brandon Sheppard, Tyler Erb
Row 14: Spencer Hughes, Jonathan Davenport
Row 15: Tyler Bruening, Wil Herrington
Consolation race results
(10 lap; top two transfer)
First consolation: Brandon Overton, Kenny Collins, Tyler Erb, Josh Putnam, Larry Grube, Rusty Schlenk, Logan Roberson, Danny Snyder, Kerry King, Todd Brennan, Blake Spencer. Scratched: Mark Whitener, Jack Riggs, Steve Sheppard Jr., Tyler Riggs, Brenden Smith.
Second consolation: Chase Junghans, Ashton Winger, Ryan Gustin, Mike Spatola, Benji Hicks, Freddie Carpenter, Seth Daniels, Adam Boyd, Stormy Scott, Spencer Hughes, Jason Riggs, Billy Boyd Sr., Tyler Millwood. Dustin Mitchell. Scratched: David McCoy.
Third consolation: Tanner English, Ross Robinson, Kyle Beard, Tyler Bruening, Billy Moyer Jr., Wil Herrington, Blair Nothdurft, Boom Briggs, Doug Drown, Kenneth Howell, Logan Zarin, Brandon Sheppard. Scratched: Eddie Carrier Jr., Jonathan Davenport
Heat race results
(Eight laps; top three transfer)
First heat: Dennis Erb Jr., Ross Bailes, Brian Shirley, Kenny Collins, Blake Spencer, Todd Brennan, Logan Roberson, Mark Whitener, Steve Sheppard Jr., Tyler Riggs. Scratched: Brenden Smith.
Second heat: John Henderson, Kyle Bronson, Garrett Alberson, Larry Grubb, Brandon Overton, Tyler Erb, Kerry King, Jack Riggs, Josh Putnam, Rusty Schlenk, Danny Snyder.
Third heat: Max Blair, Mason Zeigler, Daulton Wilson, Chase Junghans, Stormy Scott, Mike Spatola, Benji Hicks, Jason Riggs, Freddie Carpenter, Billy Boyd Sr.
Fourth heat: Hudson O’Neal, Tim McCreadie, Jensen Ford, Ashton Winger, Ryan Gustin, Spencer Hughes, Tyler Millwood, Dustin Mitchell, David McCoy, Seth Daniels, Adam Boyd.
Fifth heat: Ricky Thornton Jr., Earl Pearson Jr., Devin Moran, Tanner English, Blair Nothdurft, Brandon Sheppard, Boom Briggs, Wil Herrington, Doug Drown, Eddie Carrier Jr.
Sixth heat: Shane Clanton, Garrett Smith, Jimmy Owens, Billy Moyer Jr., Ross Robinson, Tyler Bruening, Kyle Beard, Logan Zarin, Kenneth Howell, Jonathan Davenport.
Weather for Thursday’s Wieland Winternationals program have changed marginally from the bright, sunny skies of the first three days. Temperatures remain warm (highs topped 80 degrees during the afternoon) but more clouds are visible, including some darker puffs associated with a broken line of thunderstorms set up to the east and expected to stay there. … The field for Thursday’s 40-lap, $10,000-to-win show — the first Lucas Oil Series points race of the week — number 63 cars, including Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., competing for the first time this week. … Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., has switched to another Rocket Chassis house car — a machine that he drove in his debut with the team during last November’s World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte — after smacking the wall between turns three and four in his Wednesday heat. The accident bent the A-frame towers on O’Neal’s car, among other damage, and prompted Mark Richards and his crew to remove the engine from the sidelined vehicle and bolt it in O’Neal’s Thursday ride. … Ashton Winger of Hampton, Ga., went from winning his first-ever Lucas Oil Series feature on Tuesday to retiring early from Wednesday’s A-main due to nosepiece damage sustained from an encounter with a hole in turn two. … Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., ran a rough road to his fourth-place finish in Wednesday’s feature, bouncing so often — especially in turn two — that he said during a post-race interview that he “might have a tooth knocked loose.” Checking in with B-Shepp on Thursday afternoon, he said one of his molars did feel sore from his jaw-jarring hops but admitted with a smile that he “might have been a little sarcastic” with his comment. … G.R. Smith’s Team 22 Inc. had three cars unloaded in the pit area shortly before the start of Thursday’s hot laps but none of them will be in competition. With Payton Freeman of Commerce, Ga., losing a motor during Wednesday’s hot laps, Smith and Co. were repositioning their cars in two trailers because they decided to call off racing for the remainder of the week to save their equipment for the resumption of Freeman’s World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series rookie chase next week at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla. … With Winger and Wednesday-night victor Ryan Gustin of Marshalltown, Iowa, earning first-ever Lucas Oil Series checkered flags, it marked the first instance the tour has had back-to-back first-time winners since 2018: Hudson O’Neal on June 16 at Magnolia Motor Speedway in Columbus, Miss., and Jason Jameson of Lawrenceburg, Ind., on June 30. ... Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., didn't log a qualifying lap because his Wells Motorsports car's driveshaft broke as he came on the track for time trials.
1. Brian Shirley (3S), Chatham, Ill., 14.924
2. John Henderson (2x), North Augusta, S.C., 14.980
3. Chase Junghans (18), Manhattan, Kan., 15.101
4. Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., 15.143
5. Jack Riggs (81J), Nolensville, Tenn., 15.179
6. Max Blair (111B), Centerville, Pa., 15.192
7. Mark Whitener (89J), Middleburg, Fla., 15.200
8. Kyle Bronson (40B), Brandon, Fla., 15.216
9. Mason Zeigler (25z), Chalk Hill, Pa., 15.221
10. Ross Bailes (79), Clover, S.C., 15.228
11. Garrett Alberson (58), Las Cruces, N.M., 15.278
12. Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 15.287
13. Logan Roberson (89), Waynesboro, Va., 15.302
14. Tyler Erb (1), New Waverly, Texas, 15.330
15. Daulton Wilson (18D), Fayetteville, N.C., 15.369
16. Kenny Collins (1C), Colbert, Ga., 15.414
17. Rusty Schlenk (91), McClure, Ohio, 15.434
18. Stormy Scott (2s), Las Cruces, N.M., 15.464
19. Steve Sheppard Jr. (5s), New Berlin, Ill., 15.468
20. Larry Grube (29), Maulten, S.C., 15.518
21. Freddie Carpenter (C4), Parkersburg, W.Va., 15.538
22. Blake Spencer (6S), St. Augustine, Fla., 15.569
23. Kerry King (KB), Delmar, Del., 15.572
24. Benji Hicks (55), Mount Airy, N.C., 15.598
25. Todd Brennan (20B), Zanesville, Ohio, 15.629
26. Josh Putnam (212), Florence, Ala., 15.641
27. Jason Riggs (81), College Grove, Tenn., 15.810
28. Tyler Riggs (47W), New Matamoras, Ohio, 16.071
29. Danny Snyder (4S), Green Lane, Pa., 16.278
30. Bill Boyd Sr. (3B), Riverview, Fla., 16.291
31. Brenden Smith (17SS), Dade City, Fla., no time
32. Brandon Overton (76), Evans, Ga., no time
1. Hudson O'Neal (1), Martinsville, Ind., 14.903
2. Ricky Thornton Jr. (20rt), Chandler, Ariz., 14.906
3. Shane Clanton (25), Zebulon, Ga., 14.960
4. Tim McCreadie (39), Watertown, N.Y., 14.976
5. Brandon Sheppard (b5), New Berlin, Ill., 14.987
6. Garrett Smith (10), Eatonton, Ga., 15.014
7. Ashton Winger (12), Hampton, Ga., 15.040
8. Devin Moran (99), Dresden, Ohio, 15.075
9. Tyler Bruening (16), Decorah, Iowa, 15.091
10. Jensen Ford (83), Johnson City, Tenn., 15.103
11. Earl Pearson Jr. (46), Jacksonville, Fla., 15.216
12. Jonathan Davenport (49), Blairsville, Ga., 15.257
13. David McCoy (187), Franklin, N.C., 15.293
14. Tanner English (96V), Benton, Ky., 15.303
15. Billy Moyer Jr. (21M), Batesville, Ark., 15.304
16. Ryan Gustin (19R), Marshalltown, Iowa, 15.319
17. Wil Herrington (19M), Hawkinsville, Ga., 15.330
18. Jimmy Owens (20), Newport, Tenn., 15.371
19. Dustin Mitchell (D8), Pine Level, N.C., 15.377
20. Blair Nothdurft (76), Sioux Falls, S.D., 15.402
21. Ross Robinson (7R), Georgetown, Del., 15.420
22. Spencer Hughes (11H), Meridian, Miss., 15.452
23. Eddie Carrier Jr. (66Jr), Salt Rock, W.Va., 15.461
24. Logan Zarin (1z), Moon Township, Pa., 15.479
25. Seth Daniels (S21), Jackson, Ohio, 15.507
26. Doug Drown (12D), Wooster, Ohio, 15.530
27. Kyle Beard (86), Trumann, Ark., 15.612
28. Tyler Millwood (31), Kingston, Ga., 15.659
29. Boom Briggs (99B), Bear Lake, Pa., 15.669
30. Kenneth Howell (21K), Inez, Ky., 15.690
31. Adam Boyd (6b), Riverview, Fla., 16.450
(All times local)
2 p.m.: Pits and grandstands open
5 p.m.: Grandstands open
6 p.m.: Hot laps
- Super Late Models
- Super Late Models
- Super Late Models (8 laps)
- Super Late Models (10 laps)
- Super Late Models (40 laps)
Correction: Fixes Jensen Ford hometown.