Fast Talk: Recapping the Knoxville Nationals
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. Regular contributor Ben Shelton of Mid-South Racing substitutes for Michael Rigsby today:
Todd Turner: We'll first focus on last weekend's Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals, where there were plenty of twists and turns at Knoxville Raceway before Don O'Neal came out on top for a $40,000 payday. Riding the half-mile's cushion had its dangers, and it ended up biting Jimmy Owens late in the race after it appeared he'd be a runaway winner. That was quite a wild finish, wasn't it Ben?
Ben Shelton: It was really unbelievable, and I think the biggest story has to be O'Neal's reversal of fate. Throughout his career, up until this year, that would've been him getting into the fence with less than 10 laps remaining to cost him the win. Now he's the guy, who is sitting in second and benefits from the bad luck of other drivers. That was obviously the big storyline, but once the race got past the early cautions it was really a stellar feature from top to bottom.
Joshua Joiner: That's a great point Ben. It's actually the same thing I thought when I first read about what happened. There's definitely a lot of irony in the way it played out for O'Neal. I'm sure he's not complaining one bit to be on the winning end those scenarios these days.
TT: Even besides the Owens-O'Neal lead change, it was remarkable how wide open it was among every car on the lead lap over the last 12 laps. If you went to the concession stand and missed a few laps, you might not think you'd returned to the same race.
BS: I agree completely. At one point it looked like Moyer was going to come out of nowhere to be the spoiler, and then the next thing you know Tyler Reddick has risen from the ashes to be a very real contender in the last five laps. That is the beauty of that track. Drivers can make up so much ground in such little time if their car is right. Conversely they can drop like a rock if something goes bad (like the damage to Austin Hubbard's entry from the Brady Smith contact)
TT: One thing that strikes me about racing at Knoxville is the ebb and flow of the 100-lappers there. That's a long race over a big track, and you see drivers get faster, slower, rally, fade, over and over. It appeared for a while Brady Smith was going to the front, but his run from 26th petered out. Will Vaught was among drivers who started out front who never contended. ... It's just a big difference from some tracks where either a driver is fast or slow and that's that. Knoxville races tend to evolve.
TT: Points are often overshadowed when big money was on the line, but with Knoxville as part of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series this season, there were some dramatic moments in the back-and-forth battle for the series lead between Scott Bloomquist and Owens.
Owens lapped Bloomquist on the 75th lap and, at that point, it appeared like Owens would collect a victory and regain the points lead. But when Owens faltered and Bloomquist gutted out a 10th-place finish, Bloomquist maintains a 25-point edge. That's big because the final three races are Dixie, Rome and K-C, tracks where Bloomquist has had success — especially the Georgia tracks — while I don't believe Owens has a Late Model victory at any of the three tracks. Advantage Bloomquist?
BS: I really think Scott still has the advantage. Despite setting fast time on Thursday and Friday night, this was really an off weekend for that team as they just seemed to struggle in the features. With the way his program is rolling this year, that's not going to happen very often for Scott, and I really think Jimmy needed those extra spots that he lost late in the race because those points are much-needed. Advantage Bloomquist.
JJ: It definitely appears as though Bloomquist has the advantage from here on out. But even with that being said, I wouldn't be surprised to see anything happen at this point. How many times this year has it looked like one of these drivers was in control and about to run away with the championship, only for something to happen that lets the other one back into it? It's only three races, but anything can happen. I'm not betting on Owens to catch him, but I'm definitely not counting him out yet.
TT: One thing I noticed again this year at Knoxville is that drivers, unprompted, are so complimentary of the track and the event and its status in Dirt Late Model racing. With eight years under its belt, Knoxville has built some nice momentum with the sport's newest crown jewel. We've talked about the great facility, solid purse and history of the track, but what suggestions would you give new Knoxville promoter Toby Kruse to keep it going? How about ditching the 66-car limit? Would a date change make the race any more attractive?
BS: Personally — and I know the weather is cool then — I like the date of the race, and I would leave it there. If you move it to August you put it right in the middle of a lot of crown jewels, and I think that would hurt it. Definitely lift the car-count limit. I will say this though, even without the car-count limit, I don't think you are seeing many more cars. I know of maybe five more, who would've been there. Just the same it's a mindset for some, and that limit should be lifted.
TT: I'd definitely ditch the 66-car limit. It's bad PR. As I blogged last week, the easy solution, if you need the 66-car number for the heat-race format, is to qualify and limit heat starts to the top 66. Everyone else runs a non-qualifiers' race. And it works well because drivers would get two chances to crack the heat lineups.
I agree Ben, I don't think opening up the limit would be like opening the floodgates. There'd be more cars but I'd say this race would settle into gathering 70-80 most years.
BS: At the end of the day you are getting what you are getting for these big events, but I think just the same it's good to lift it.
TT: As Michael pointed out to me last week, the pre-registering by spring doesn't work well for a guy who doesn't know how well his season might go — Brandon Sheppard, for instance. He's clearly a contender now where he might not have considered entering last winter.
JJ: I'm indifferent about the limit. As I've said before, I'm not very interested in how many cars are there as much as I'm concerned with who's there. As for a date change, I could see where it would help boost the event. It's getting late in the year, and not to mention cooler. But with so many other races these days, it's hard to say when would be a better date. I think you have to leave it where it's at unless there's a certain weekend earlier in the season with very little going on that's clearly a better option.
BS: When I say the move to August would hurt it, I mean that more from a fan turnout angle — the cars are coming any time for that purse.
TT: Ben, that was your first visit to Knoxville. Share with us your thoughts about the feel of the place.
BS: Growing up in a sprint car-dominated area, I've always heard about Knoxville and wanted to go. I was pretty pumped about getting there, but once I actually arrived on Thursday, it just blew away my expectations. When you pull into the parking lot, you can feel the history swallow you. It's a feeling unlike I've ever had at another track except for maybe my first trip to Eldora. There is something really special about that place. I also think that, after eight years, some of the sprint car fans are starting to warm-up a little to the "taxicab gang."
TT: With the World of Outlaws Late Model Series at Rolling Wheels Racing in Elbridge, N.Y., it's nice to see the Late Models part of Super DIRT Week, the highlight of the season for the big-block modifieds. It's a nice combination especially since Dirt Late Model racing has had such an influx of modified converts over the last half-dozen years or so.
BS: I think it's a natural match as well and co-sanctioned events at places like Volusia during Speedweeks and the World Finals at Charlotte have only gone to inform the other group about the quality of the respective shows.
JJ: It's great to see that happening. That's obviously a huge event for the big-block mods, and to have Late Models be a part of it is a great opportunity to maybe attract some more fans to the sport. I for one can say I wouldn't have any involvement in big-blocks if it wasn't for their inclusion in events like the World Finals and Speedweeks, so I'm sure there's big-block fans out there who will be the same way when it comes to Late Models and this event.
TT: How about Ryan Unzicker clinching the UMP DIRTcar points title with Saturday's victory at Kankakee County Speedway? He won five of his last 10 starts, including a stretch of four in row, really answering the bell after he briefly dropped behind reigning champ Rusty Schlenk and another Ohio driver, Jon Henry in the points chase
It wasn't so long ago that Unzicker was an also-ran on the Summernationals tour, but he's taken another big step in his maturing process as a driver.
BS: I really thought Unzicker was done after motor issues, bad luck, etc., but he really dug deep to make it happen. It's always nice to see fresh faces doing well, and that team never gave up this year, when it would've been real easy to. I look for big things from that team in the coming years.
JJ: He's come a long way as a driver, and the way he really got it done when he had to does a lot to prove that. No disrespect to Schlenk and Henry, but the way Unzicker performed down the stretch, he really deserved to win the championship, and it's good to see him get it.