Fast Talk: Blue-Gray, Stewart's title and more
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. Today Dustin Jarrett, track announcer at the Tony Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway, subs for Michael:
Todd Turner: Jonathan Davenport's late-season juggernaut continued this weekend with a home-track victory for the Barry Wright house car team, but the Blue-Gray 100 winner was clearly bummed by how he got to victory lane. Davenport's attempted slide job of leader Dale McDowell sent McDowell into the wall on a lap-72 restart at Cherokee Speedway, and Davenport took the blame in a victory lane visit that could hardly be called a celebration. We've all seen the video. How did you all see the contact?
Dustin Jarrett: It was certainly a slide job gone bad, and McDowell was clearly disappointed by it. But judging from Davenport's reaction, it certainly wasn't intentional. I think sometimes we forget the limited visibility drivers have have in the cockpit with head-and-neck restraints and curved headrests on the seats. So yeah, it was contact that didn't need to happen, but I also think J.D. knew a banzai slide job on that restart was probably his only chance to get back out front.
Joshua Joiner: To me, there's no doubt Davenport caused the wreck and ended McDowell's night. I wouldn't say he hit McDowell on purpose, but this is what happens when a slide job comes up short. Personally I don't think you can fault Davenport too much for attempting the move. He got a great jump on the restart and was alongside McDowell entering the corner. You hate to see McDowell get taken out, but slide jobs are a part of this sport whether you like it or not. Davenport simply misjudged this one and it cost McDowell and a few other drivers that got caught up in the pileup.
TT: A driver's reaction to his own mistake always fascinates me. This was an instance of a driver being quite transparent about what he'd done. Others might admit blame with a little more obscurity. And others might ignore it altogether.
I remember when I was a kid at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville, Ky., one driver — I can't remember who — took out the leader trying to make a pass. Presumably he'd have gone on to win the race, but instead he voluntarily pulled off the track and basically forfeited. I guess that's a tough thing for a driver to do when sponsors, car owners, crew members or others might disagree with the driver's decision.
DJ: I'm not sure if "sportsmanship" is the exact word I'm looking for, but you're right, Todd. You typically don't see drivers as bummed as Davenport was after that deal. I mean, it's been a long time since I've seen a driver that visibly upset about how he won a race. Sadly, it was somewhat of an explanation point on a disappointing season for McDowell.
JJ: It's a tough call in any situation you like that. I've seen instances where a driver used contact to pass another car and then pulled over and let the guy go back around him. But I can't recall a driver ever taking himself out of a race like that. In Davenport's case, I believe, the race officials would have even been justified in putting Davenport to the back. Again, not saying Davenport intentionally took McDowell out, but he was clearly the cause of the wreck.
DJ: Of course, that also gets us into the "no-stop rule" vs. "judgment call" debate ... but maybe we should save that one for another time.
TT: The weekend's other most notable event, the Southern All Star-sanctioned Gobbler at Cleveland (Tenn.) Speedway, saw Ray Cook become one of the few drivers to outrun Davenport the last two months. Cook notched his seventh Super Late Model victory of the season, and while he got a $12,000 UMP DIRTcar Summernationals victory in Paducah, Ky., he was winless on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series and in national events otherwise.
Cook's name came up as our staff had discussed the most disappointing drivers of the year. Perhaps Cook still belongs on that list for his lack of national success — especially compared to how strong he'd been in 2010 — but what drivers do you all see as most disappointing this season? I'll start off with the obvious, Earl Pearson Jr., who struggled through a winless season with Bobby Labonte Motorsports. Who else?
JJ: The driver I'm most disappointed in Ronnie Johnson. Not necessarily because he had a bad year (he actually had a great start to the season) but because he set the bar so high last year and at the beginning of this year. You couldn't help but expect him to win a lot of races this year. But around midseason he pretty much disappeared. I know they're are drivers with much worse seasons than R.J., but when you're talking about expectations vs. results, his was pretty off.
DJ: As I mentioned, I think Dale McDowell's season wasn't at all what he and his team expected it to be. Another one I'd throw out, though, is Shane Clanton. I know there were a lot of high hopes in his camp at the start of the season with the new Capital Race Car and whatnot, but struggled to get anything going this year. I mean really struggled with just one WoO win.
Todd, I agree that Pearson struggled — who would have ever dreamed he would go the entire year without a win — but some it that was simply struggling due to the high standards he had set for himself based on his previous five years. A bad year for EPJ is a good year for a lot of other drivers.
TT: On a more regional scale, six-time MARS champion Terry Phillips went winless on that series this season ... and it appears a switch from GRT Race Cars to Bloomquist Race Cars is in the works for that team, according to his team's Facebook reports.
DJ: Phillips also did a lot more modified racing this year than he has in the past. One can't help but wonder if that was because of his struggles in the Late Model. Seeing him in a Bloomquist car in 2012 will certainly be interesting!
JJ: Not to knock on Pearson too much, but I have to disagree that a bad year for him is a good year for other drivers. You look at guys like a winless Steve Francis and Cook. At least those guys showed improvement throughout the year and have something to build on in the offseason. To me, I don't think Pearson's improved much at all this year and you have to wonder how much confidence he has in the Longhorn, the team's in-house chassis.
TT: Also at Cleveland, Billy Ogle Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn., wrapped up his first Southern All Star championship. The series isn't what it's been perhaps in years past, but I'll give Ogle a shout-out as one of those under-rated regional drivers who probably deserves better from the sport than he's gotten. He's won a ton of races in east Tennessee and been competitive when the touring drivers come around. Does that bring to mind any under-rated regional drivers?
DJ: I'm not sure I would call them under-rated, but Texas driver Morgan Bagley and Mississippi's Klint Byars are certainly two guys who made a name for themselves this year. What I like about each of them is the competition they face week in and week out in some pretty competitive regional areas.
Another under-rated regional driver is Kentuckian Dustin Linville. I remember watching him race a modified when he was about 14 years old and thinking "Man, this kid has talent." He's just now finally getting an opportunity to shine thanks to better equipment and the ability to branch out and travel a little more.
TT: Another guy that comes to mind to me is Minnesota's Lance Matthees. He plugs away with several victories each season, many of them special events. Doesn't get much publicity outside WISSOTA country but his consistent success is admirable.
JJ: I have to give a shout-out to Mark Whitener from Florida, my home state. He's had a solid year with the NLMS and UDLMCS. I think he's won seven or eight sanctioned events and is close to wrapping up the NLMS championship. He's won quite a few weekly shows this year as well.
TT: The off-season is upon us and the trade shows (PRI in Orlando as well as IMIS in Indianapolis) will be gearing up soon. It took me a while to get into the swing of things at the trade shows, but I've come to enjoy them as I've met more regulars there, and it's nice to see some people who are behind the scenes much of the season get some time in the spotlight. What do you guys like or dislike about the trade show circuit?
DJ: For me, the timing of the trade shows is what I enjoy. I know, that sounds totally cheesy but, really it's a nice buffer just as the weather starts cooling down and just as the racing season has ended that get the "fan" part of me excited.
TT: It's also nice to see drivers have other clothes than a firesuit.
DJ: I don't recognize half of them in something other than their racing suit.
TT: That's why we all wear nametags, Dustin.
JJ: I just like doing and seeing something different. PRI last year was my first trade show and it was a nice change of pace. Don't get me wrong, I love covering races, but it's nice to do something different every now and then, especially after a long race season.
TT: I'm not a big follower of NASCAR, but I was struck yesterday of how much Tony Stewart — and his championship — means to the dirt racing community. It's clear our grass-roots sport appreciates not only someone who came from the short-track ranks, but someone who's heavily invested in our sport as Eldora Speedway's owner. And his brainchild, the Prelude to the Dream, gives Dirt Late Models a national stage each season that's been key in meshing our sport with NASCAR in recent years.
Dirt Late Model racing could certainly have worse friends than someone who's at the top of the heap in NASCAR's highest levels. Recognizing fully that Stewart, in essence, signs your paycheck Dustin, can you all gauge Stewart's importance to our sport?
DJ: I'm hoping for a big pay raise! All kidding aside, you hit the nail on the head. If nothing else, simply his presence in the NASCAR world — as a champion or not — boosts our sport and its image. It's hard to say just how much of an impact it has, but there's definitely an impact there. I think sometimes we take for granted that the Prelude is a Dirt Late Model race. Tony could have easily made that a sprint car race or a modified show, but he picked Dirt Late Models, and I think that's something we should all credit him for.
TT: No doubt if there's no Prelude, there's less chance for developing those NASCAR connections which inject money into dirt racing. That's why I'm always mystified by those fans who fear NASCAR connections and think dirt racing will get too big. It's all good, from my perspective.
DJ: You're right, Todd. I think it'd be foolish to say there wouldn't be a Clint Bowyer Motorsports or a Bobby Labonte Motorsports if it wasn't for the Prelude, but the Prelude obviously helps. And the bigger picture of all this is the recognition NASCAR drivers bring to our sport, no matter how big or how small that recognition is.
JJ: I agree. I'm not a very big NASCAR fan either, but you can't help but see its positive impact on our sport. And a lot of that has to do with the Prelude.