Fast Talk: USA Nationals and North-South 100
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 contributors Ben Shelton and Dustin Jarrett sub for Michael and Todd this week (edited for clarity and length):
Joshua Joiner: This week’s roundtable discussion falls in between two $50,000-to-win national touring events with the USA Nationals this past weekend at Cedar Lake Speedway and the upcoming North-South 100 at Florence Speedway.
We’ll talk in detail about both of these crown jewel races, starting with World of Outlaws points leader Darrell Lanigan’s dominating performance at Cedar Lake. Even before his victory Saturday, Lanigan was easily one of the hottest drivers in the country, and his career resume already included wins in Eldora’s Dream and the Dirt Track World Championship. With that in mind, how high would you rank Lanigan among the sport’s all-time best drivers after this weekend’s dominating performance?
Ben Shelton: Right now it is just incredible how good Lanigan is on a nightly basis. It doesn't matter who or who isn't in action he is proving that he can beat them all. His program (off and on-track) has really separated him from the competition over the past few months. You just don't see him having mechanical failures, and he's racing smart. Definitely one of the more impressive streaks of modern-day Dirt Late Model racing.
Dustin Jarrett: Lanigan is clearly one of the best in our sport. As Ben mentioned, at least right now, he's quite obviously up there with the best in business. As far as all-time, though, it's hard (for right now) to put him in the same group as Freddy Smith or Billy Moyer or Scott Bloomquist or Jack Boggs, but he's quickly working his way up there.
JJ: I agree Lanigan’s still got a ways to go to reach that top tier on the all-time best list. But the thing to remember about Lanigan is he's only 42. That might seem old to some, but by Dirt Late Model standards, he's still got some time to stay at the top. He could really just now be hitting the front-end of his prime, and who knows how long his run will last. He may not have as many overall victories as Bloomquist and Moyer or as many crown-jewel wins, but I would definitely rank him among that second tier of all-time greats, and if he keeps up his pace for another few years, he could really climb.
JJ: Let’s take a second to look back at the event itself. Both of you guys were part of DirtonDirt.com’s live pay-per-view broadcast that was great for those of us that spent the weekend at home. From the racing to the broadcast, what’s some of your lasting thoughts from the weekend?
BS: I thought overall the racing was really good. We saw hard chargers all three nights. The fact that so few cars finished the feature on Saturday would make those who didn't watch the feature jump to the conclusion that it must've been one lane. The reality though is that Lanigan was so good that he had lapped half the field by lap 35, so guys were just retiring from the event. It was an even bigger than normal crowd, which is always good to see. The broadcast was a lot of fun, and I just hope that we were able to make everybody at home feel like they were there.
DJ: Aside from Ben and I having the great opportunity to trek through downtown Minneapolis, what stands out to me most was just how hard the Cedar Lake Speedway staff worked on preparing a top-notch racing surface. They literally reworked the racetrack two or three times each night and it paid off in the end. The result was a wide, racy surface that had very little dust and very few ruts. As for the broadcast, it really went off without a hitch on our end. I hope the fans enjoyed it as much as we did.
JJ: I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I would have liked to have seen Lanigan elect to start from the tail for the chance for the extra $25,000. As dominant as he was, I don't have any doubt that he could have made his way to the front.
DJ: I agree on the $25,000 deal. After seeing several guys rally from the back in Thursday's 50-lapper, I honestly thought someone like Lanigan would take a stab at it on Saturday.
JJ: Don O’Neal was one of the few drivers able to keep pace with Lanigan for any amount of time Saturday night, but his race first turned south after a run-in with the lapped car of Scott James and then came to a screeching halt when he plowed into the first-turn wall. The were a few tense moments when O’Neal needed help climbing from his heavily damaged Moring Motorsports entry, but O’Neal was fortunately just shaken up.
What did you guys think of O’Neal’s race? Do you think he could have found a way around Lanigan if he had stayed in contention?
BS: For the first half of the race it seemed that O'Neal would be the only driver to even stay on the same lap as Lanigan, and he was able to reel in Lanigan in traffic. Then around lap 36, Lanigan jumped the turn-one cushion into the wall, and then 20 or so laps later he gets together with James. Who knows if O'Neal would've been good enough to do anything with Lanigan late in the race, but early race indications were that he had a strong car too.
DJ: I definitely think he would have found a way around Lanigan. Let's be honest here, it's Don O'Neal ... he would have found a way to pass Lanigan. The real question is: could he have held Lanigan off? O'Neal was rim-riding around that "live by the sword, die by the sword" top shelf. I just don't know if he could have held on up there for the final 40 laps.
JJ: Personally, I don't know that O'Neal gets Lanigan in the end, but I think it sure would have been fun to watch. Jimmy Owens and Mike Marlar each tried to make things interesting, but I think it would have been much closer if O'Neal were still in the mix.
DJ: Mike Marlar, before the final caution on lap 76, was catching Lanigan. Had that yellow not come out, there's a chance that 50k was going back to Winfield, Tenn.
JJ: There were a number of surprising and impressive runs in the 100-lap feature. Mike Marlar ran as high as second and finished third in his Cedar Lake debut with Brian Shirley fourth in his first post-Summernationals race and Frank Heckenast Jr. fifth for what’s arguably among the best performance of his young career. Did any or all of those three particularly stick out to you guys, and what were some other under-the-radar performances that caught your attention?
DJ: Marlar's performance, as I mentioned, was simply outstanding, especially considering he had never even been to Cedar Lake before. As far as Heckenast, honestly, I was very impressed by his run as he stayed in the top five the entire race.
BS: For me all three of those performances stuck out. First you have Marlar, who seemed to possibly be done in the Bryson Motorsports ride two months ago, and is now on fire over the past month with big wins and strong runs including a third in the USA Nationals. Then you have Shirley, who has struggled in the big shows and especially 100-lap features and turns in a fourth place run. Heckanast has been real down on himself this year after letting opportunities slip away, but he put himself on the radar this past weekend with his fifth-place run. It's always great to see new faces near the front in big races.
DJ: You know who really flew under the radar was Bobby Pierce. He started 21st and finished 9th, stayed out of trouble and kept his nose clean. To be 15 and run 100 laps on that racetrack is a tough task for anyone, so kudos to him.
JJ: Good point, Dustin. I was gonna mention Pierce myself. That’s definitely a solid performance for him.
Let's move from the World of Outlaws to the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series and this weekend's Sunoco Race Fuels North-South 100 at Florence. Jimmy Owens is certainly among the favorites after winning this race the past two years and in three of the past five years. And Lanigan is still looking to win his home track’s biggest race. Are there any other storylines you guys are following this weekend at Florence?
BS: After a sub-par weekend by his standards, I'll be curious to see if Scott Bloomquist can get things back on track at Florence. I fully expect Don O'Neal to be on kill this weekend after last weekend's tough ending.
DJ: For me, I think there will be a close eye on the track surface. Josh King will be the first to admit that. With the hot and dry summer the Midwest has had, the track hasn't been as consistently good as he would like it. So, with a race that has produced two last-lap passes for the win in recent years, I think the expectations as very, very high for this to be another classic.
JJ: I've got my eye on Eddie Carrier Jr. and Josh McGuire. They've both been nothing short of dominant in regional events this year and both seem to be on top of their game at a very good time. I think they'll be among drivers to challenge the heavy hitters like Owens, Lanigan and O'Neal.
BS: Agreed Josh. Both Carrier Jr. and McGuire are carrying a lot of momentum into this race.
DJ: Carrier is definitely due to break through and get himself a crown jewel win. If he does it at Florence, they may tear the place down.
JJ: Time for another round of predictions. Let’s go with the winner and highest-finishing home-state driver other than Darrell Lanigan or Steve Francis.
I’m gonna say Lanigan gets the job done and becomes the first home-state North-South winner since Jack Boggs in 1994. And I’ll take Josh McGuire as the highest-finishing other Kentucky driver.
BS: It's hard to bet against Lanigan right now, and yet I still did it last week, so I won't make that mistake again this week. I'm taking Lanigan. Earlier this year Hazard, Kentucky driver Eric Wells set a new track record at Florence. He's been getting better and better in his Bloomquist Race Car, and I look for him to be the highest finishing Kentucky drivers outside of Lanigan and Francis.
DJ: Seriously, how do you go against Lanigan? I know everyone is going to pick him — and because of that I usually like to pick someone else — but I simply think Lanigan has everything going for him right now. So that Brinks truck will be make a very short drive just up the road to Lanigan Autosports when the night is over.
Highest finishing home-state driver besides Lanigan and Francis will be Brad Neat. He's slowly starting to get back in a rhythm and runs very well on big, slick tracks, especially Florence.