Fast Talk: Wading into Stream to recap action
Our weekly roundtable looks back at the inaugural $50,000-to-win Stream Invitational at Eldora Speedway and considers the upcoming Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt doubleheader at Cherokee and Smoky Mountain (edited for clarity and length):
In hindsight, how do you think the “selection committee” did in picking the drivers for the Dirt Late Model Stream Invitational?
Todd Turner, DirtonDirt.com: It's easy being a Monday morning quarterback, right? For me I didn't necessarily pay a lot of attention to the "bubble" drivers, but it did seem like there was a lot of focus on how the alternates and fan-voted drivers did — which outside Kyle Strickler's sparking performance in winning Thursday's opening feature, was mostly forgettable with half of them out of action by Friday. So big kudos the adding Strickler as an alternate, which made for a great story on opening night.
Kevin Kovac, DirtonDirt.com senior writer and editor: Whenever there’s an invitation-only sporting event, there is going to be arguments about who did or didn’t make the cut. It comes with the territory, and it’s why I’m not going to quibble about the job done by the selection committee. They put together a worthy group of drivers — and in a very short order, no less. There were certainly some drivers left on the sidelines who likely would have performed better than some who were in the field, but those that were picked put on a memorable show and that, in the final analysis, is what matters most.
Robert Holman, DirtonDirt.com weekend editor: I’m honestly not sure they could have done any better. Are there some drivers who were invited who didn’t perform very well? Sure. But that happens, regardless of the sport. I think by the time the field was whittled to 24 it was as good as it gets and that’s all you can ask for. Just remember, there were several guys who were extended invitations who chose not to come and these were quality drivers, so I’m not sure they could have done much better even if they had another week to think about it.
Dustin Jarrett, DirtonDirt.com staffer: I'll reiterate what I said last week: I think, given how quickly this event came together and the unique circumstances surrounding it, the selection committee did just fine. No matter how many drivers were allowed to be invited, there was always going to be someone who didn't get in. That having been said, selecting 44 was a daunting task with no correct formula to determine entrants without some drivers feeling left out. And social media has already proven that there are literally hundreds of different opinions on who should and shouldn't have received an invite. In the end, it ended up being just fine and the drivers most folks expected to have a chance to win were in the mix Saturday night.
Ben Shelton, DirtonDirt.com contributor: Overall, I think they did a great job. There were some sticking points like Hudson O’Neal and Devin Gilpin, but there were legitimate arguments for both sides. Choosing a locked-in field of 44 drivers at Eldora Speedway is no easy task. The first 20-30 are pretty obvious, but after that there are three or four dozen drivers, who have an argument to be considered for the next 14 spots. Throw in the fact that this event came together just a week before the event, and it was an arduous task to say the least. Hindsight is always 20/20, but overall I give the selection committee an “A-” for their selections.
Of the 48 invitees, which driver surprised you the most, good or bad?
Shelton: It’s impossible to not discuss the performance of Scott Bloomquist. I honestly believed that this would be the weekend that the team got the ship righted. However, if anything it seemed like they got further buried as the weekend progressed. It just doesn’t seem right to not have Scott as a perennial favorite at the Big E. Even in his worst of slumps, Eldora has always been a constant for him. Hopefully, Team Zero Racing can get things figured out sooner than later. It’s tough to watch the greatest of all time struggle so mightily.
Holman: I think everything obviously points to Scott Bloomquist. Even after failing to make the starting field both Thursday and Friday, I think maybe we all still expected him to conjure up some of that Eldora magic that we’re used to and somehow rally through the field to make Saturday’s main event. Unfortunately, that team was behind all weekend and never managed to catch up. If we’re being honest though, Bloomquist has barely been a top-10 car on the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series here lately, so maybe we were expecting too much.
Turner: I looked over the list four of five times trying to figure out if there's someone that sticks out more than Bloomquist. There's not. Obviously the 56-year-old, 12-time crown jewel winner at Eldora is in his twilight of his career, but it was just last year's Dream and World 100 — coming back from his serious injuries from a motorcycle accident, no less — when Bloomquist was still right in the mix. I think I've got it: the most polarizing driven among Dirt Late Model fans simply doesn't have his mojo if there aren't spectators.
Kovac: Considering Kyle Strickler was an last-minute alternate and ended up winning Thursday’s preliminary feature — his first-ever Dirt Late Model win at Eldora and just the fourth of his brief career in the division — I’d say that qualifies as a pleasant surprise. Brandon Overton winning on Friday and Tim McCreadie taking the big one on Saturday didn’t turn anyone’s head; they entered the weekend as favorites. Strickler, though, wasn’t on any list of potential victors, so kudos to the modified ace for springing the upset. On the negative side, I have to agree with Todd’s comment about Scott Bloomquist’s miserable, three DNQ weekend: the crowds that swarm around him and the boos that descend on him during normal Eldora weekends just might give him some extra motivation.
Jarrett: Having already mentioned Bloomquist's major struggles over the weekend, which I think surprised everyone, I look at Darrell Lanigan, who seemingly always wins a preliminary feature in Eldora biggies, was a non-factor Thursday and Friday before opting to punt on Saturday. On the positive side for the weekend, I was pleasantly surprised with Kyle Strickler's dominating performance Thursday night. Also, Ricky Thornton Jr. continued to show he can wheel anything anywhere with a top-10 run Saturday. I wouldn't necessarily call that a surprise given his recent runs, but his lack of time in that car and minimal experience at Eldora gave RTJ another eye-opening weekend.
Reflect on another interesting Eldora nugget from the weekend.
Holman: Not to beat a dead horse, but I thought it was interesting that there were seven Bloomquist Race Cars entered among the 48 drivers who accepted invitations and of the seven, six advanced to Saturday’s 67-lap main event. Of course the one driver who didn’t qualify for the finale was Bloomquist, which is still a bit baffling. The Bloomquist brigade was led by always consistent Dale McDowell who finished third. With Chris Ferguson fifth, Ricky Weiss sixth and Shannon Babb rallying from 25th to seventh, there were four Bloomquist cars in the top seven. Nick Hoffman (17th) and Chris Madden (25th) were the other two. Imagine how different things could have looked up front had Madden been able to get his engine fired before the feature.
Jarrett: Each night was run to perfection with the latest feature (Saturday) wrapping up shortly after 10 p.m. Fewer cars meant fewer races, and no fans meant no pompous pre-race productions or drawn-out driver intros. In a sport that has been nothing short of a fire drill for the last two months, Eldora brought a bittersweet sense of calming to the weekend, at least in terms of the daily programs. Obviously, with half as many cars and no fans, it was anything but normal. But the events themselves were tame, yet thrilling and left us wanting more. And, as much as I love a good, quick show ... I'd trade it all to get the fans back.
Shelton: The oddity of no fans in the stands at Eldora is an experience that will be forever engraved in my memory. Eldora’s heartbeat is its loyal throng of fans. Their enthusiasm and dedication make Eldora the ultimate racing experience. While the action was again fantastic on the track, it just didn’t seem right to not hear the roar from the crowd at pivotal moments. It was no doubt a great weekend, but it was an awkward experience to see the hallowed grandstands empty.
Turner: We can all debate this three-race weekend formats at Eldora (for my money, let's skip time trials, draw for heats the first two nights and line them up Saturday based on performances the first two nights). But one thing this weekend provided was a finale winner that no one really saw coming. Obviously McCreadie is a previous World 100 winner, but I guess my point is that when Eldora's track is right, it's brutally difficult to know which driver might be able to master the conditions better than the others. It was an exciting race and those restarts ... wow, you gotten tighten your belts when that bunch flies into turn one.
Kovac: After McCreadie’s dramatic $50,000 victory, his crew chief, Philip Snellen, offered a surprising little comment. He said that T-Mac and Co. considered bypassing Saturday’s program to go home and regroup after a broken motor forced them to pull out their second car for Friday’s feature. Snellen stressed that the topic was only briefly discussed before the team moved forward with their Saturday plans, but it was discussed. Thankfully, McCreadie and the Longhorn house car squad hung around. Dirt Late Model history — and McCreadie’s bank account — would look a lot different if they hadn’t.
Laud a weekend winner not named Tim McCreadie.
Kovac: How about Josh Rice’s $4,000 Schaeffer’s Iron-Man Series victory at Wartburg (Tenn.) Speedway? The 21-year-old from Verona, Ky., would have preferred to spend the weekend competing at Eldora — he was anxious to return to the track after his participation in last year’s World 100 marked his first crown jewel action there since 2015 — but he didn’t appear on the invitation list and fell short in the fan voting. A triumphant trip to Wartburg was quite a consolation prize for the talented Rice — and probably added some cash to his team that will help buoy him for more racing this season.
Turner: Good for Payton Looney, who in a season with limited racing, is picking his spots and posting some solid performances. He was in contention in both Memorial Day weekend races at West Plains, Mo. (earning $5,000 for a runner-up finish at Legit Speedway Park) and now he's added a $5,000 victory at I-30 Speedway. The Looney clan has been fun to follow throughout my writing career and it's fun to see Payton successfully following in Brad's tire tracks.
Shelton: I’ve got to go with Kyle Strickler. Honestly, I don’t think he was on anybody’s radar to be a candidate to visit Victory Lane. I mean he wasn’t even initially invited. Even, when he earned a front-row, starting spot for Thursday night’s feature, I don’t think anybody believed he could win. But he did win, and he did-so with a badly-wounded car after hard contact with the wall. Strickler has long been a ringer in the Modified world, and this weekend he served noticed that he has the potential to be a force in the Dirt Late Model ranks as well.
Jarrett: How about Iron-Man Series winners Josh Rice and Heath Hindman? Rice's smooth and calculated win at Wartburg, a track he'd never even seen before, is certainly worthy of praise against a really solid field of cars. And then Saturday, I admit I was a little surprised to see Heath Hindman's name in the headlines. Although I've heard the name before, I'm pretty unfamiliar with the Signal Mountain, Tenn., driver. I suspect his win caught a few folks off guard, again given the strong field of cars. It simply goes with the theme of this year where, as we've found, anybody has a chance to win anywhere.
Holman: I think we’d be remiss not to mention Zack Mitchell, who won in thrilling fashion at Lancaster (S.C.) Speedway on Saturday. The Enoree, S.C., driver nipped Michael Brown by mere inches in a photo finish to win the $4,000 Ultimate Southeast Series race, his sixth career victory with the tour. I’m one of those naysayers who believes that most of those Carolina tracks lack what it takes to provided exciting racing, but that finish proved me wrong this time. It was a dandy for sure. And for the record, series director Kelly Carlton confirmed that they checked to make sure scoring transponders were mounted in the correct location.
Look ahead to the upcoming Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series stops at South Carolina’s Cherokee Speedway and Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Speedway.
Jarrett: Both of these events should have outstanding fields of cars, and I would expect Jimmy Owens to continue his winning ways Saturday at Smoky Mountain. With the World of Outlaws off, I would have to imagine at least Brandon Sheppard (if not a few others) will pop in and join the Lucas regulars. Since fans are allowed without restrictions at each event, I'll go ahead and predict a record crowd at one of the shows ... probably Smoky Mountain.
Turner: So we're finally entering the regular season? After two rounds of Georgia-Florida Speedweeks I guess it's about time in this strangest of coronavirus-adjusted seasons where it seems any schedules anyone had in March is at the bottom of the waste bin today. Yet these races were on the original schedule, so this is as normal as it gets these days. I'll just quit babbling and pick the winners: Chris Ferguson at Cherokee and Jimmy Owens at Smoky Mountain.
Kovac: What sticks out most to me is that both tracks are on track to allow fans into the stand without restrictions, making the doubleheader the first national touring series events to run on a “normal” basis since their return from the coronavirus shutdown. With good weather, there’s little doubt that big crowds should turn out; not only are race fans anxious to see a big event in person, but the tracks basically don’t have any competition for the entertainment dollar — no movie theaters (at full capacity, at least), no minor league baseball, no professional sports. It’s certainly a golden opportunity for the tracks — provided, of course, no health issues arise from packing fans in with a pandemic still alive.
Holman: I’m really interested to see which drivers show up, especially considering how many tracks are still shut down and how these two tracks, especially Smoky Mountain are centrally located to a bunch of teams. I think it’s interesting that in 13 events at Cherokee, the Lucas Oil Series has only produced two repeat winners, Scott Bloomquist, who’s won there four times, and Chris Madden, who has two wins. There are two drivers, however, who have won at Cherokee on both national tours (Mike Marlar and Brandon Overton). So I’ll give the edge at Cherokee to Overton and Madden. In five Lucas events at Smoky Mountain, there hasn’t been a repeat winner, but, like Cherokee, there are two drivers (Jimmy Owens and Dale McDowell) who have won on both national tours there. So I’ll give the edge at Smoky Mountain to Owens and McDowell. I think it’s also interesting in that no driver has ever won at both Smoky Mountain and Cherokee in Lucas Oil Series action. I think Overton, Madden or maybe Jonathan Davenport, could change that this weekend.
Shelton: With WoO now being off this weekend it’ll be interesting to see how many unexpected invaders will join the LOLMDS ranks. Right now, the front runners on the Lucas Oil tour are starting to turn up the heat. Guys like McCreadie, Owens, Davenport, Bronson and Moran are all lead contenders to visit victory lane. However, someone like Brandon Overton could easily upset the touring regulars at Cherokee, while I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shanon Buckingham score the victory at his home track, Smoky Mountain Speedway. Additionally, I look for massive crowds at both events.