MARYVILLE, Tenn. — When Smoky Mountain Speedway's chief starter threw the white flag in Saturday's 60-lap Mountain Moonshine Classic to signal one lap to go, all the drivers vainly chasing Ricky Thornton Jr. had seemingly thrown their own white flags of surrender to the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points leader.
The fourth-starting driver from Chandler, Ariz., zipped past fellow Friday preliminary feature winner Chris Ferguson on the 26th lap and routed the national touring field the rest of the way, racing to a season-high $50,000 payday on the shortened 3/8-mile oval near Knoxville, Tenn.
The 32-year-old Thornton, winning his tour-leading seventh Lucas Oil Series event of the season, wasn't challenged the rest of the way in stretching out to a 6.533-second margin over runner-up Hudson O'Neal of Martinsville, Ind. Mount Holly, N.C.'s Ferguson, who led the first 25 laps, settled for third while four-time series champion Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., and Kyle Strickler of Mooresville, N.C., rounded out the top five in a race slowed by a single lap-five caution flag.
Thornton, who added $5,000 to his coffers with Friday's semifeature victory, had only one thing go wrong on Father's Day weekend — his family had to watch from afar.
"I wish my wife, my kids were here," Thornton said in victory lane, already thinking of Lucas Oil's next $50,000 payday seven days later at Lernerville Speedway's Firecracker 100 in Sarver, Pa. "Hopefully we can get it again next week with them here."
After Friday's preliminaries on a rugged surface at the Roger Sellers-owned track that hosted its first Super Late Model action since an offseason reconfiguration, perhaps the biggest concern was what type of surface drivers would find Saturday. But to a driver after heat races, the drivers praised the improvement, and Thornton used the smoother surface for a smooth trip to victory lane after starting outside the second row in the main event.
"I'm glad they went out and worked (the track surface) there before the feature. It made it so you could run the top and both corners there for a while. Fergy got out in front and, that's kind of the downside of leading here — really leading anywhere, you can't move around — where I was able to move around and see (which line) was better or worse," said Thornton, who lost another potential $50,000 payday last month at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo., because of a postrace deck-height violation in the Show-Me 100.
At Smoky Mountain, "I moved down to the middle and I just, I wouldn't really say it was any faster, but I could just make more consistent laps," he added. "And then finally the top (groove) slowed down enough where I was able to get to Chris, and then he started moving around trying to search, so it was really almost too late for him.
"I was able to get by him. Luckily no lapped cars were in the way or anything like that. So pretty cool."
Thornton cruised the rest of the way and thanked crew chief Anthony Burroughs along with crew members Christopher Jayko, D.J. Williams and Darla Hyde in victory lane.
"I'm just lucky enough to hold the steering wheel," Thornton said.
O'Neal's Rocket Chassis house car team dug out of a hole from preliminaries and gained five positions in finishing second after taking the position from Ferguson on lap 37.
"We just got behind yesterday qualifying and had to start farther back in one of those prelims," O'Neal said. "We were just able to salvage our way up through, you know, every race we just kept getting a little bit better and a little bit better. We had a really good race car. You know, I just used my stuff up so hard around that top (groove) trying to get the second, then by the time I got to second, Ricky was driving off and I was running out of steam. But we're happy with second for starting seventh."
O'Neal was glad to race on a better surface.
"I think this racetrack turned out to be way better than everybody thought it was going to be. We raced all over it for 40 or 50 laps of it ... they did a good job," O'Neal said. "Congratulations to Ricky. You know, it's a little bit of redemption for what happened to him at the Show-Me, so it's cool to see them get one and we'll see what we can do at Lernerville."
Ferguson, falling short of his fourth career Lucas Oil victory and potentially third $50,000 victory over the past two seasons, didn't have a car to keep up.
"Congratulations to Ricky and Hudson. That was some good racing there. Had a lot of fun out. The track crew, hat's off to Smoky Mountain, they did a great job getting this thing turned around tonight. I just had a lot of fun out there and man, just thankful to be up here again," he said. "I'm just happy to be leading some laps (ahead of) Ricky. Ricky's on the tear this year. Like I said, I hate that he got one took away from him at the Show-Me, but he got a little redemption tonight."
Notes: Thornton, No. 1 in DirtonDirt.com's power rankings, captured his 11th career Lucas Oil Series event. ... Polesitter Spencer Hughes finished eighth, losing three positions in the final five laps. Hughes started on the pole by virtue of winning a dash among the top three finishers in each of Friday's semifeature ... A single caution slowed the action when Tyler Bruening slowed on the fifth lap after getting into the frontstretch wall. He later trailed smoke from his car due to what his crew determined afterward as terminal engine trouble. ... Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., third in Lucas Oil points, pitted on lap five and later retired after getting lapped before halfway. ... Smoky Mountain hosted the national tour for the 12th time.. ... Along with dash finishers starting in the first three rows of Saturday's main event, other competitors earned starting spots through Saturday's heat races or B-Main.
Row 1: Spencer Hughes, Chris Ferguson
Row 2: Carson Ferguson, Ricky Thornton Jr.
Row 3: Jonathan Davenport, Kyle Strickler
Row 4: Hudson O'Neal, Daulton Wilson
Row 5: Jimmy Owens, Tim McCreadie
Row 6: Max Blair, Tyler Erb
Row 7: Dale McDowell, Boom Briggs
Row 8: Devin Moran, Earl Pearson Jr.
Row 9: Cory Hedgecock, Tyler Bruening
Row 10: Mike Marlar, Garrett Smith
Row 11: Brandon Overton, Ross Robinson
Row 12: Garrett Alberson, Jensen Ford
(Top four transfer)
First consolation: Mike Marlar, Garrett Smith, Brandon Overton, Ross Robinson, Doug Drown, Jay Scott, Jensen Ford, Rusty Ballenger, Brent Vosbergen, David Breazeale, Donald McIntosh, Caden Mullinax, Ellery Leake, John Tweed. Scratched: Garrett Alberson.
Dash: Spencer Hughes, Chris Ferguson, Carson Ferguson, Ricky Thornton Jr., Jonathan Davenport, Kyle Strickler.
Heat race notes
Hudson O’Neal led all eight laps to win the first heat race, earning the seventh starting position for Saturday’s $50,000-to-win Mountain Moonshine Classic. … Jimmy Owens leads green-to-checkered to win heat two. … Daulton Wilson battled Tyler Erb on the opening lap, prevailing to the entire distance of heat three. Rusty Ballenger spun on the first lap, but avoided contact and recovered to finish sixth. … Tim McCreadie wired the fourth and final heat race.
(Top three transfer)
First heat: Hudson O'Neal, Max Blair, Devin Moran, Mike Marlar, Garrett Alberson, Brent Vosbergen, Ellery Leake.
Second heat Jimmy Owens, Dale McDowell, Cory Hedgecock, Garrett Smith, Doug Drown, Caden Mullinax.
Third heat: Daulton Wilson, Tyler Erb, Earl Pearson Jr., Ross Robinson, Jay Scott, Rusty Ballenger, John Tweed.
Fourth heat: Tim McCreadie, Boom Briggs, Tyler Bruening, Brandon Overton, Jensen Ford, David Breazeale, Donald McIntosh.
Numerical driver roster
Driver (car no.), hometown
Brent Vosbergen (AUS1), Perth, Australia
Rusty Ballenger (1G), Seymour, Tenn.
Hudson O’Neal (1h), Martinsville, Ind.
Tyler Erb (1t), New Waverly, Texas
Caden Mullinax (M2), Birmingham, Ala.
John Tweed (5t), Greenville, Tenn.
Ross Robinson (7), Georgetown, Del.
Donald McIntosh (7m), Dawsonville, Ga.
Kyle Strickler (8k), Mooresville, N.C.
Garrett Smith (10), Eatonton, Ga.
Spencer Hughes (11), Meridian, Miss.
Doug Drown (12D), Wooster, Ohio
Tyler Bruening (16), Decorah, Iowa
Dale McDowell (17m), Chickamauga, Ga.
Daulton Wilson (18D), Fayetteville, N.C.
Jimmy Owens (20), Newport, Tenn.
Ricky Thornton Jr. (20rt), Chandler, Ariz.
Cory Hedgecock (23), Loudon, Tenn.
Chris Ferguson (22F), Mount Holly, N.C.
Jay Scott (J27), Fayetteville, Tenn.
Ellery Leake (34), Knoxville, Tenn.
Tim McCreadie (39), Watertown, N.Y.
Earl Pearson Jr. (46), Jacksonville, Fla.
Jonathan Davenport (49), Blairsville, Ga.
David Breazeale (54), Four Corners, Miss.
Garrett Alberson (58), Las Cruces, N.M.
Brandon Overton (76), Evans, Ga.
Jensen Ford (83), Johnson City, Tenn.
Carson Ferguson (93), Lincolnton, N.C.
Devin Moran (99), Dreden, Ohio
Boom Briggs (99B), Bear Lake, Pa.
Max Blair (111B), Centerville, Pa.
Mike Marlar (157), Winfield, Tenn.
(All times local)
Noon: Pits and grandstands open
4:30 p.m.: Driver autograph session
7 p.m.: On-track activity begins
- Mini stock hot laps/qualifying
- Super Late Model hot laps
- Sportsman hot laps/qualifying
- Super Late Model heat races (8 laps)
- Super Late Model dash (6 laps)
- Sportsman dash (5 laps)
- Super Late Model consolation (10 laps)
- Mini stock (20 laps)
- Super Late Model (60 laps)
- Sportsman (20 laps)