Fast Talk presented by Out-Pace Racing Products
Fast Talk: Crown jewel welcome relief for Owens
With Jimmy Owens securing his first crown jewel triumph of the season, our Out-Pace Racing Products-sponsored roundtable ponders his success, while wondering what’s next for Georgian Michael Page, who keeps racking up regional wins (edited for clarity and length):
Was there ever a doubt that Knoxville Nationals winner Jimmy Owens would get the proverbial monkey off his back?
Todd Turner, DirtonDirt.com managing editor: Short answer: No. We probably couldn’t print the answer that Jimmy might’ve had if you’d asked him that. He’s been snakebitten for so long, especially in major events where he’d led or run well, the odds eventually had to fall to his favor, right? What’s interesting is that Owens could click off another couple of major victories that could leave us all wondering “what if?” regarding his previous misfortunes. The Knoxville victory checked off a big box on his career resume.
Kevin Kovac, DirtonDirt.com senior writer and editor: I want to unequivocally say no, that it was just a matter of time before Owens won a big one like Knoxville. He does, after all, have the backing, manpower and talent to win major events with regularity like he did during his 2007-14 heyday with car owner Mike Reece, so he just needed some luck to go along with it all, right? But while Owens has certainly been plagued by a fair share of misfortune this year, it’s not like he’s been completely shut out; he had four wins entering Knoxville, including a $25,000 World of Outlaws score at Fayetteville in May and a World 100 prelim triumph just last week. I definitely think he was due to add a Knoxville checkered to his resume, but I think even he would concede that he doesn’t have that “monkey off his back” until he can string together some victories like he has in the not-too-distant past.
Robert Holman, DirtonDirt.com weekend editor: Owens wasn’t necessarily in a dry spell, because he has been so fast at so many places this season. It was truly a matter of getting a good break vs. having something go wrong. Or in Owens’s case, just having no break at all, good or bad and letting the race play out. I thought I’d seen it all when he was accidentally turned around by Earl Pearson Jr. while leading the Show-Me 100. Through it all though, Owens seemed to keep a level head, which is key to bouncing back. And he continued to put himself in position to win, even if he didn’t. That’s the main reason I thought it was only a matter of time before he was back in victory lane.
Alli Collis, DirtonDirt.com staff writer: Owens has been so fast all year and just hasn’t had much luck. He’s been up front in a lot of big events, like Mansfield’s Dirt Million, and wasn’t able to capitalize. So to answer the question, yes, it was only a matter of time before he finally got a big win this year. Owens has been so close at Knoxville in the past, even leading laps a few seasons ago. He was up front last year before suffering engine problems. This sport can be tough sometimes and Owens has experienced that first hand. But that’s what makes big wins like Saturday’s at Knoxville that much sweeter.
Richard Allen, InsideDirtRacing.com: There is no doubt that Jimmy Owens is a very talented racer. But as anyone who follows any form of this sport knows, there is much more involved in getting wins than simply having a talented driver. Owens has the pieces in place in terms of equipment, backing and crew members so it was simply a matter of getting his luck moving in the right direction. So I guess my answer to the question is that no there was not really a doubt in my mind that he would get that monkey off his back eventually. Now it's time to see if he can return the Newport Nightmare form he had a few years ago when he was winning everything in sight.
Is Bobby Pierce the driver now carrying the tough-luck torch now that Jimmy Owens finally shook his gremlins?
Kovac: Pierce is certainly the guy who’s experienced the most heartbreaks on big stages this year, that’s for sure. Heck, I’d go as far as saying that Pierce has endured more tough luck than even Owens — I mean, Owens might have won the Dirt Million if he hadn’t been struck down by mechanical trouble, but Pierce almost assuredly would have won the Silver Dollar Nationals if not for a late-race engine failure. One thing you can’t deny about Pierce this year, though: he’s really spiced up several crown jewel events with memorable, hard-charging bids for victory, including the Dirt Million and Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals.
Turner: If I can compartmentalize a little bit, Pierce’s tough luck often seems to be exacerbated by the fact that he’s often having to rally from so deep in the field. In reality it’s remarkable that he’s been able to charge from the back of the pack and still overtake drivers who have had the opportunity to conserve their equipment much more than Pierce has. So the tough luck might be his inability in prelims to put his car in position to win without the heroics that we’ve come to expect from him.
Allen: Just go through any dirt racing pit area and there would probably be a number of drivers who would claim that luck never works in their favor. That said though, it does seem as if Pierce has experienced more than his share of tough luck in 2018. Certainly there were many who thought the combination of Pierce with Dunn Benson Motorsports would result in multiple feature wins this year, and they have earned some wins and podium finishes, but more was expected and misfortune has played a role in that. So yes, Pierce could have had a few more wins this season if not for some bad luck and other issues.
Collis: Pierce hasn’t had the season he’s become accustomed to in recent years. But when you’re racing for a new team, running on a national tour for the first time, I think that’s to be expected. He’s still had some solid runs in big events, including second at Mansfield and seventh at Knoxville (after challenging for the lead). Let’s remember, Pierce is a former World 100 winner and North-South 100 winner and he’s not yet 25. He’s going to win more crown jewels. There’s no doubt about that.
Holman: I don’t think I had any expectations as far as wins for Pierce and his new team this season. I’m certainly one to give a lot of leeway when it comes to gelling with a new team. So for Pierce to go out and get a couple of Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series wins, in my opinion, is a successful season, especially considering the driver he replaced, Earl Pearson Jr., only won two last year. But with the way Pierce has performed, competing for wins, you have to think he’s a little disappointed. I bet after seeing Owens finally get on track and finish off a big race with a win, Pierce is surely thinking when is it gonna be his turn.
What’s next for talented Georgian Michael Page, who has quietly put together his best season ever with a plethora of regional wins?
Holman: With the way Page has performed over the last couple of seasons, I would have expected him to commit to a series by now, perhaps one of Ray Cook’s Schaeffer’s Oil-backed tours, or maybe the Southern All Stars Series. I think those are right in his wheelhouse and if he did commit to running one, he’d be an odds-on favorite to win his first touring title. But it’s hard to argue with what he’s been doing. He has 14 regional wins, including six paying $5,000 or more and he’s tallied $67,507 from his wins alone, so maybe he knows more than we do.
Kovac: I could see him adding a few more national events to his schedule in 2019 — I’m sure he’d like to test himself against the sport’s biggest names more often after enjoying such a strong season. But, short of making a serious investment to take his Troy Baird-owned team on the road full-time, I think he’s carving out a nice niche for himself in his home region. He’s obviously smart about the races he now enters to maximize his financial return versus the miles driven, and I see much of the same for him in the future. There’s nothing wrong with being the scourge of the Southeast, which Page is proving he can be with the diversity of his regional success.
Turner: I think he might be in his sweet spot. When I was a younger fan, I wanted anyone winning to move up and challenge tougher competition, travel to faraway tracks and push themselves to the limit. But my more mature self sees there’s value in excelling where you can, especially if it means continuing to have a life that’s fulfilling geographically and financially in a sport where both can be taxing. As Robert points out, it’s hard to argue against his methods considering the success he’s carved out.
Collis: Page has had such a good season. At this point, I almost expect to see his name at the top of a rundown when there’s some sort of regional touring event in his area. The pick-and-chose scheduling works well for Page and his 2018 stats are proof of that. But it might be interesting to see him tackle one of the South’s regional tours. It would put him at some new racetracks against different competition, but I think he would still fair well.
Allen: This is a discussion that was being held in the Southern Nationals Bonus Series pit area this weekend at the North Georgia Speedway. And just like my answer with the Owens question above, there are so many pieces that have to fall into place for a driver to take his performance up to the next level. Page is definitely very talented at the regional level, but before he can move beyond that, the right backing would have to be in place. With that said, there is nothing wrong with being a very good driver at the regional level and that certainly is where the Georgia native is right now. And if that backing does come along, I have no doubt that he could succeed at the next level as well.
Brian Birkhofer’s on-track return for a couple of high-profile events was a neat storyline. Evaluate his performance.
Kovac: No doubt it’s been great seeing Birkhofer — one of the great personalities in our sport — smiling and joking in the pit areas of big shows at Mansfield, Eldora and Knoxville in recent weeks. Something just feels right about it, especially since we all would agree that Birky’s sudden 2014 retirement seemed to take him from us too soon. It’s a small sample size to judge his performance, of course, and mechanical trouble just six laps into Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals prevented him from making any noise, but I think he’s shown that he can still be a contender after several years of relative inactivity. He admittedly has some new technology and “lingo” to learn and needs more starts to get truly in top racing shape, but he won heats at all three tracks and looked like a contender. If he races more in 2019, we’ll get some Birky victory lane celebrations.
Collis: Birkhofer said it himself at Eldora a couple of weeks ago. Getting back in the car and competing on a big stage again has it challenges and he’s still adjusting. He had a quiet performance at Knoxville over the weekend, but still qualified for Saturday’s finale. He was certainly impressive at Eldora, finishing runner-up in one of the Thursday preliminaries. It’s fun to have him back among the field.
Allen: Birkhofer has always been fun to watch and that hasn't changed in the time that he has been away. It's very difficult to judge a driver's performance after so few races but there has not been any slippage in his talent level. I'm just going to say that it would be neat to see him on the track more often in the future ... and to see him being interviewed more often as well since he brings so much personality when in front of the camera.
Holman: I’m not sure which side of the fence I’m on. On one hand, Birky is one heck of a wheelman and it’s not like he’s been sitting out for a decade, so it shouldn’t be a shocker that he was competitive. On the other hand, these cars have changed considerably since the last time he competed full time, so I’m sure it took him a few laps to get up to speed and I suspect the practice session he had a few months back was a big help. I’ll admit I was left shaking my head after he won a heat and finished second in his preliminary feature at Eldora. I’ll give him an even ‘A’ … heck of a job, with just a little room for improvement.
Turner: I think it’s been impressive for being away from the sport for a number of years. Besides the difficulties of keeping up with the latest and greatest on the technical side, it’s perhaps even more difficult to have that drive — the urge, even the need to succeed — that seems to be a requirement for drivers to be at their best. He’s hinted at racing a little more seriously next season, so maybe he’ll get to a place that’s comfortable.
The Lucas Oil Series and the World of Outlaws are back in action this coming weekend, as well as the unsanctioned Magnolia State Cotton Pickin’ 100 in Mississippi. Preview one..
Allen: The most interesting series to watch for me this weekend will be the World of Outlaws Late Model Series due to the fact that they have not raced as a series in over a month. Throughout most of the season the big three of Chris Madden, Mike Marlar and Brandon Sheppard have been dominant among the tour regulars. Has anything happened with these three drivers and their teams over the past four weeks that will change that? Has anything happened with the other series regulars that will allow them to step up and challenge the top trio? Those are the questions I want to see get answered as the WoO Late Model stars head into New York and Pennsylvania this weekend.
Holman: Well, since I’m heading south to Columbus, Miss., this weekend, I’ll look at the Magnolia State Cotton Pickin’ 100, which has been split this year into two completely separate shows, a $4,000-to-win feature on Friday and a $12,000-to-win feature on Saturday. I do hate that the Lucas Oil Series and the WoO are both competing, but judging just by the pre-entry list, it’s gonna be a dandy at The Mag nonetheless, with guys like Brandon Overton, Dale McDowell and Billy Moyer expected. In fact, I’ll stop right there and say one of those three will leave Columbus with Saturday’s $12,000 top prize.
Turner: I’m interested in how Magnolia Motor Speedway’s two-day event goes. Promoters are betting that two separate programs will play better than a two-day show with fans and drivers. It’s tricky business to find the most attractive way to pitch your race, and after several years of a two-day $20,000-to-win event event, the promoters are going a different route. Notice, too, that Greenville (Miss.) Speedway has followed suit by splitting its Gumbo Nationals into two separate programs next month.
Collis: I’ll be headed to Brownstown this Saturday for the Jackson 100. It’s hard for me to bet against Scott Bloomquist when it comes to this event. He’s a seven-time Jackson 100 winner and has won three of the last four shows at the Indiana oval. But Don O’Neal, who has more laps at Brownstown than just about any other driver, is coming off a runner-up finish at Knoxville. I look for him to be right in the mix on Saturday night.
Kovac: I have the WoO doubleheader in my neck of the woods — Friday at Outlaw Speedway in Dundee, N.Y., and Saturday at Selinsgrove (Pa.) Speedway — on my coverage schedule, so I’ll touch on those two races. I’m especially interested in the Empire State event, not only because it’s a new track for the tour and Super Late Model racing in general — I’m always intrigued when non-Late Model tracks host the division for the first time, and, from my past visits to Outlaw for big-block and small-block modified shows, I think it could produce good racing — but also because it puts championship contenders Chris Madden, Mike Marlar and Brandon Sheppard on truly neutral turf. As for Selinsgrove, it’s a big track that I think falls in the wheelhouse of all three title hopefuls, so it’s very possible they will all be up front.