Fast Talk: Lucas Oil rivalry, title chase stoked
Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Joshua Joiner gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who's hot, who's not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing:
Todd Turner: Let's start with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points chase. We've detailed how it's been a great battle between Scott Bloomquist and Jimmy Owens — now we've got some bad blood, too.
The two swapped paint and slide jobs at Winchester. Bloomquist went on to win — and to take a few jabs of Owens and his tactics in victory lane. What do you all think about the clash?
Bloomquist certainly wasn't going to let it pass without a comment — or the retaliation of his aggressive slide job in the next corner — but I've seen harsher slide jobs than what Owens pulled in turn two. For one, he didn't put Bloomquist into the wall. However, it probably didn't feel as aggressive inside the car to Owens as it looked to him if he checked the video afterwards.
Michael Rigsby: For all the people that think we're constantly on a Jimmy Owens love kick, I actually think he's as much to blame here as Bloomquist is. And let me say first and foremost, neither move by either driver was that bad compared to what we've seen, but I think Jimmy certainly drove him up the wall, and that Scott wanted to get him back as quickly as possible — which he did.
At the end of the day, both guys made overly aggressive moves, but it's magnified a thousand times because of the points chase. It'll be interesting to see if Owens can rebound mentally after losing the points lead he's held for so long.
Joshua Joiner: The Lucas Oil points race definitely got a lot more interesting over the weekend. A change at the top and some controversy, too. To me, it looked like close racing where one driver (Owens) used an aggressive move and the other driver (Bloomquist) returned the favor. I didn't think either move was too terrible, and if Owens hadn't had the flat tire, it wouldn't be as big of a deal.
I'm not blaming either driver, but it definitely stirred things up a bit when it was starting to look like Owens might try to run away with the championship. He'll definitely have to work a lot harder now.
TT: What's not so surprising is that Bloomquist not only went on to win at Winchester, but won again two days later at Virginia Motor Speedway to regain the points lead.
That's a problem for Owens — when Bloomquist's back is against the wall, he's deadly. It reminds me of Dale Earnhardt during his prime when, even if his car was lacking, he'd be impossible to pass, or somehow regain a position from someone by sheer force of will.
MR: Someone today told me "it's over now." I wouldn't go that far, but Scott, in this position, is going to be tough to beat.
TT: Race promoter Carl Short's gotta like how this looks if the points title goes down to his Dirt Track World Championship in the series finale.
MR: And let's not forget, there are still eight races remaining — that's an eternity.
JJ: I still think Owens has a good shot. There's quite a few more races left, and as we've seen with Bloomquist earlier this year, when he goes on these runs like he's on now, he tends to have a major letdown somewhere down the line.
TT: One more thing about the points chase that hit me this week: Is this the first-ever points chase between the two best current drivers in the sport? Perhaps some old-timers could come up with an instance where it's happened before, but I think this may be a first.
MR: I was wondering the same thing, but I figured back in the day (cue Bob Markos), there had to be another title chase between the two best. What about '04 WoO title?
TT: I agree, WoO '04 is the closest, but Moyer ended up eighth. Not exactly tooth and nail between the best, although Steve Francis gave Bloomquist all he wanted.
Elsewhere, two regional drivers got solid victories this weekend with Chad Simpson winning the open-competition engine half of Farley (Iowa) Speedway's Yankee Dirt Track Classic and Keith Barbara taking the UFO- and ULMS-sanctioned Pittsburgher at Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway.
Not to take anything away from those guys, but those races aren't what they once were in a sport where special events frequently rise and fall in terms of importance, attention and popularity.
What are some of your favorite races that have fallen on hard times? Or previously middling races that you're surprised that have hit it big?
MR: I definitely wouldn't say it's on hard times, but there was a time the Jackson 100 was absolutely one of the two or three best races in the country. Every major player in the Dirt Late Model world was at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in August (usually when it was 100 degrees) to challenge for that. It's obviously still a great race, but it used to be one of "the" races ....
TT: That was a setup for you Michael. I agree. If you turned back the clock 20 years ago and asked people to predict the biggest races in 2011, the Jackson would've invariably been on everyone's list as a top-notch race. Circumstances, scheduling and other factors haven't been kind to the race, but it can still be a compelling event.
JJ: For me, it's the National 100 at East Alabama Motor Speedway. It hasn't dropped off the map by any means, but when I was a kid, that was the closest race for my family and me to go to and see the sport's best drivers. And there were always plenty of regional guys there to make the heat races and even the B-mains interesting.
When the World Finals at Charlotte was scheduled on top of the National 100, it definitely took a hit. Last year the Thomas family at EAMS made what I consider a great decision to push the race back a week, and it helped bring more drivers. For example, Steve Francis, who won the race. Hopefully it'll be an even better improvement this year.
TT: For up-and-coming races, Tyler County's Black Diamond has probably made as big a splash as any newish event. ... there were rumors it might move to Fourth of July weekend next year? It's certainly got some name recognition after just two years.
MR: I agree on Black Diamond. And I think the Firecracker 100 counts as a crown jewel. Or it's at least getting close.
JJ: Forgive my Southern bias by the way.
TT: No, you're right about the National 100. It doesn't get the sheer numbers of cars as some of the truly "national" races, but it's managed to keep enough Northern guys coming down to make it interesting.
JJ: I think the Mississippi races at the end of the year have been surprisingly bigger than I would have expected, particularly the Cotton Pickin' 100 at Magnolia and the Fall Classic at Whynot. For $15,000-to-win races, they get better than decent fields, especially with guys like Moyer and Birkhofer making frequent visits.
TT: This is the time of year the UMP DIRTcar points championship often gets interesting, and this year's chase looks like it could be a dramatic three-driver chase down to the bitter end.
Ryan Unzicker led virtually all summer but appeared to be in big trouble when he lost the lead to reigning champ Rusty Schlenk a few weeks back. And Jon Henry is right there, too. But suddenly, Unzicker has hit high gear by knocking off four straight victories at La Salle, Tri-City, Kankakee County and again La Salle. Has he regained the role of favorite heading into the final two regular season weekends?
MR: I'll be the first to admit, when Schlenk rallied to take the points lead, I thought it was over. I thought the races he'd drop (only a driver's top 35 finishes count) were better off than Ryan's, and I thought Schlenk was going to get it done. But a flurry of wins by Ryan has gotten him back on top. Sentimentally, however, I have a soft spot for Jon Henry. He's basically going to get penalized because he stepped out, went to the World 100, and made the field, which quite frankly is harder than winning X-amount of local shows no matter where you race. There was nothing quite like hearing Jon yell: "We just made the World 100!" over the Eldora PA system after getting in the race. That's worth a lot right there, money notwithstanding.
I've always said, that whoever the top 10 in points are on Sept. 1 should be required to attend the World 100 — or be ineligible for the title. If that's UMP's marquee event, you gotta go to win the crown. Just my two cents.
Either way, it'll be very interesting. I think Unzicker keeps clicking off victories and wins the title, which is a great story in the simple fact of how much Ryan has improved over the past five years. He's a great guy, as is Rusty. It's a win-win-win for UMP.
TT: One thing for certain is the "weekly" type points chases are strange because it turns a run-of-the-mill event into something with a lot more on the line — a $20,000 points title to be exactly. At least all three guys have been running against each other enough to give it a head-to-head feel.
JJ: I admit that I have a bit of a Southern bias, but when it comes to weekly racing, UMP in the Midwest has got it figured out. And I think it obviously has a lot to do with the money the championship offers. Like you said Todd, with these guys racing against each other knowing there's $20,000 on the line, that makes for some dramatic stuff.