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DirtonDirt.com Dispatches

Dispatches: RTJ rewards crew with Latham victory

May 6, 2023, 4:02 am
From series, track and staff reports
Hudson O'Neal (right) congratulates Ricky Thornton Jr. (heathlawsonphotos.com)
Hudson O'Neal (right) congratulates Ricky Thornton Jr. (heathlawsonphotos.com)

The latest notes and quotes from Dirt Late Model special and sanctioned events during the last weekend in April, including Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series action in Kentucky, Schaeffer's Spring Nationals action and Comp Cams Super Dirt Series competition:

RTJ achieves goal

Ricky Thornton Jr. didn’t want to let the first weekend of Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series action since mid-February go by without giving his SSI Motorsports gang a victory lane celebration.

Saturday night at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky., of course, was his last chance, and he made sure he left nothing on the table in his march to a $15,000 victory in the 37th annual Ralph Latham Memorial.

“I told my guys today that my goal was to come out and win tonight,” Thornton said following his third Lucas Oil Series triumph of 2023. “I feel like I’ve been really close here (in Lucas Oil competition) and never really sealed the deal.”

A 32-year-old native of Chandler, Ariz., who now lives in Martinsville, Ind., Thornton’s performances in the weekend’s first two events — at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio (11th-place finish) and Ponderosa Speedway in Junction City, Ky. (fifth) — had his crew “really working their tails off” because he “knocked the right-rear off” his Longhorn car both evenings. He felt he owed them a reward for their toil and he gave it to them.

It took some daring, hard-nosed driving, though, for Thornton to overtake Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., for the lead on lap 23 and then hold on to beat the 22-year-old Rocket Chassis house car pilot by 2.554 seconds.

“I thought (the groove) was gonna be around the bottom longer than it was,” said Thornton, who started seventh. “I got to third and then Hud moved up top so I knew I had to move up.”

Thornton used the extreme outside line around the half-mile oval to pass both Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., and O’Neal. He stayed there for most of the remaining distance, albeit not without some stressful moments.

“I screwed up a bunch in three and four so I was waiting for Hud to slide me,” said Thornton, who also nearly lost the race on the final lap when he made contact with a lapped car rounding turns three and four.

“I gotta apologize to Garrett Smith,” he added. “The lap before he went high into three so I just kind of moved to the middle and when he turned in I clobbered him there. I definitely owe him a left-rear wheel.”

O’Neal, who grabbed the Lucas Oil Series points lead from Thornton with his Atomic victory on Thursday and ended the weekend leading RTJ by 40 points, wasn’t able to take advantage of Thornton’s missteps because he experienced one of his own.

“I just made one mistake and that was all it took,” O’Neal said after his second straight runner-up finish. “You just had to be a little conservative on (the cushion), and I was trying to get to Ricky to see if I could do anything with him and I just made a costly mistake and got the cushion too hard down here in one and two. It let Ricky get away from us and let Brandon get by us there for a few laps. Then Brandon made a mistake off four and let me get back by him, but that cushion was treacherous.

“I’d like to be where Ricky is, but Ricky made very few mistakes and that was what made the difference.”

The 32-year-old Overton, meanwhile, settled for a third-place finish after being unable to match the high-side feats of Thornton and O’Neal.

“We had an awesome car … but man, I made all my money running right through that middle, so it’s hard for me to set my car up to have any different mindset,” Overton said. “As soon as I got up there (to run the outside) I jumped the (cushion) and banked it off there and knocked my damn helmet crooked. I was like, ‘Get your ass back down on the bottom. I don’t know what I’m doing up here anyway.’ ” — Staff reports

Marlar’s key decision

Skipping a shot at repeating as a $50,000 victor in the Dairyland Showdown at Wisconsin’s Mississippi Thunder Speedway turned out to be one of Mike Marlar’s best moves of the weekend.

Staying closer to his Winfield, Tenn., home with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series for a variety of reasons — iffy Midwest weather that shortened the World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series weekend in Wisconsin among the factors — Marlar surged to victory Friday at one of his favorite racetracks, Ponderosa Speedway in Junction City, Ky.

Marlar led all 50 laps for the $12,000 triumph, which came by a half-second over Lucas Oil Series points leader Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind. As he gears up for a busy spring, Marlar is in the process of piecing together a brand-new race car that he picked up Wednesday from Longhorn Chassis.

Trekking out to the Midwest for the WoO action amid uncertain forecasts with one car in the stable as the second car waits in the wings didn’t make much sense for Marlar.

“Didn’t want to go all the way to Wisconsin with only one car, you know?” Marlar said Thursday at Atomic. “We have to finish up a car get ready for (Illinois) Speedweek next week. Just a lot to do. This made a lot more sense; good racetracks. … Some good tracks and good pay close to home. That combination, with needing to finish my new car, kept us closer to home.”

Marlar said that sitting out Florida-Georgia Speedweeks threw his race team “off sequence” to begin the season as they find some time to shuffle and refreshen equipment ahead of an action-packed back half of May. If Marlar chooses, he could potentially race nine times in an 18-day span from May 10-27: starting with next May 10-11’s Castrol FloRacing Night in America events and continuing on with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

Friday marked Marlar’s third overall victory of the season and ninth podium finish in 21 races. His second victory of the season, the $23,023 payday on April 18 in FloRacing Night in America at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, may be the flashiest of his three wins. But his latest victory in the John Bradshaw Memorial, which paid tribute to Ponderosa’s late promoter carries its own meaning to Marlar.

“It’s really cool the John Bradshaw Memorial has gotten to be as big as it’s gotten to be,” Marlar said. “I came here and raced when it was $5,000-to-win, and we were lucky to have a $5,000-to-win around here. All these big races we’re having now, these big crowds, what a following.

“It’s cool what it’s grown into. I don’t think I’d seen this many fans here. We was worried about rain this week. I’m glad to get that off our back and get to race here, and it’s fun when you do good.” — Staff reports

Lesson learned

Friday’s Schaeffer’s Oil Spring Nationals winner Carson Ferguson vividly recalls the last Super Late Model race contested at Tri-County Racetrack in Brasstown, N.C., in October.

“We had a good showing here last time (at Tri-County), and my mentor told me I had a lot to learn,” Ferguson said.

Dale McDowell is the so-called mentor the Lincolnton, N.C., driver speaks of. Ferguson had been nine laps away from a $22,022 payday on FloRacing Night in America at the quarter-mile bullring until the would-be highlight of his young career went down the drain when he spun racing McDowell for the win.

McDowell, as stated above, indeed claimed that Ferguson had a lot to improve upon in the race craft department.

“He’s mad, but I was completely wheel-to-wheel with him and he turned left,” McDowell said of Ferguson in victory lane after his Oct. 6 win at Tri-County. “I didn’t spin him out. We rubbed a little bit getting down into the corner. He needs to watch the video. He’s got a lot to learn, so I think if he goes back and watches the video he’ll understand what went on there.”

Ferguson responded the best way possible on Friday, leading the final 28 of 40 laps as he outdueled McDowell — the mentor that imparted motivation behind the $7,553 victory.

“I took that to heart,” Ferguson said of McDowell’s challenging words from October. “Did some studying, and came back … and was better.”

While Ferguson started from the pole, he didn’t exactly breeze to his second career Schaeffer’s Sprint Nationals victory. Ferguson’s friend, Will Roland of Jasper, Ga., led laps 2-12 and kept the eventual winner at bay in the early stages of the 40-lap feature.

As the track changed throughout the main event, Roland’s preference of the bottom groove actually opened the door for Ferguson to make his winning move around the top.

“I didn’t think (Roland) was going to move down like that,” Ferguson said. “A few laps before that, I about ran into the back of him because, I think, he got motion to go down. He saw all the brown down there. I threw a Hail Mary up on top, and it stuck for me.”

As for the runner-up McDowell, he couldn’t do much in open racetrack from the fourth-starting spot. If a longer run transpired, maybe he would’ve had something for Ferguson. All told, the near-miss becomes his fourth top-two finish in 11 races this year, which he’ll gladly take off the heels of a $100,000 Spring Thaw 100 victory.

“Well, I think (I needed) track position (and) long runs in traffic,” McDowell said. “We were a little tight. We just missed (it). Racetrack was faster than we thought it was going to stay. A good run for our E-Z-Go hotrod. Everything was good. We just need to make good adjustments, and I need to do a better job qualifying.

“It’s a long year. If you can stay in and around the top-five, it’s all you can ask for. You can do that, you can usually, at least, have a shot at some wins. It’s been a good year for us.” — Staff reports

DirtonDirt.com Dispatches

In continuing to streamline our race coverage, we’ve added DirtonDirt.com Dispatches to our list of regular features on the site. The idea of the new feature is to spotlight key storylines of the weekend (and sometimes during the week), putting notes, quotes and accomplishments in context to provide subscribers a quick-hitting read on all the latest from tracks around the country. Bear with us as the new feature evolves. Our intention is to have a single file that’s regularly topped by the latest news, so check back throughout the weekend.

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