Federated Raceway at I-55
Struggling Clanton still searching for '08 magic
By Kevin KovacWorld of Outlaws Late Model Series
One year ago Shane Clanton was the hottest Dirt Late Model driver in the country when he visited I-55 Raceway — and he just got hotter with a stirring victory in the track's World of Outlaws Late Model Series event.
But when the national tour returns to the third-mile oval Saturday for the 27th annual Pepsi Nationals, Clanton will be looking to recapture the winning rhythm he flashed in 2008.
Clanton, 34, of Locust Grove, Ga., entered the 2009 campaign as a driver expected to contend for the $100,000 WoO points championship, but he didn't pick up right where he left off last year. He has just one win this season — a $20,000-plus score way back on April 4 in the Illini 100 at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway — and sits a distant sixth in the points standings.
“Last year everything just flowed, especially later in the season,” said Clanton, whose career-best '08 campaign included four wins and a fourth-place finish in the WoO points race plus a dozen triumphs in non-series events. “It didn't matter what we did; we seemed to hit things right more often than not. But this year has been a different story.”
Clanton pulled into I-55 Raceway last September literally on top of the world. He had, after all, won the prestigious World 100 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, the previous week. He cemented his status as a national superstar with a victory in the 50-lap feature at the well-known Missouri facility owned by NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader and Ray Marler, advancing from the seventh starting spot to cap an impressive run of three wins in six WoO events over a five-week span.
The I-55 checkered flag even ended Clanton's personal struggles in Missouri, a state he had taken to calling "Misery" because of his inability to win there over the years.
Clanton started the 2009 WoO schedule decently enough, with a string of top-10 finishes and his Illini 100 triumph helping push him into the points lead after the season's seventh event, at Fayetteville (N.C.) Motor Speedway. But then the bottom fell out; he was replaced atop the points rankings the next night and never got close to the lofty position again.
“It's pretty frustrating, but what can you do?” Clanton said of his '09 season, which shows nine top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 37 events (he had 22 top-five and 32 top-10 finishes in 43 races last year). “You just keep working, trying different things. We've been all over the map trying to find things that fit me and fit the race car and just haven't hit on it yet.
“We've tried changing just about everything except the driver — and we've thought about that,” he added with a smile. “I don't blame (the struggles) on one particular thing. It's just that everyone is always changing things and some guys have gotten a little bit better than us this year, so we have to catch up.
“We're still trying, that's for sure. We're all trying to work together to get everything back in a row. When we do that, we'll start winning races again.”
Clanton feels as if he's getting his RSD Enterprises Rocket cars closer to where they need to be, but he's not there yet. He recorded back-to-back top-five finishes on WoO's Labor Day weekend at Tri-City Speedway in Franklin, Pa., but he followed that up by failing to qualify for last weekend's World 100 after starting his visit to Eldora in a manner that would seem to sum up his season: he discovered a broken valve in his primary engine while changing valve springs after unloading on Thursday, forcing him to install a backup.
“When you work as hard as you can, you see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clanton, who turned 34 on Aug. 29. “We're starting to see more light.”
A repeat of his '08 effort at I-55 Raceway would be a nice way for Clanton to get his groove back. He's confident that the 50-lap, $10,000-to-win event at the high-banked track can serve as his tonic for a disappointing season.
“I feel good about going there,” Clanton said of I-55, where he preceded his victory last year with WoO finishes of eighth in 2007 and 15th in 2005. “They do a good job of preparing the racetrack. It gets slick, but it's also the shape and size of two of the favorite racetracks I go to back around home — Talladega (Ala.) and North Georgia — so I like it.”