Fast Talk: Don O'Neal and DTWC preview
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. Contributor Ben Shelton subs for Joshua this week (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s review another busy October weekend, starting with Don O’Neal’s victory in the 18th annual Coors Light Fall Classic at Whynot (Miss.) Motorsports Park.
I know O’Neal has a solid ride in the Crothersville, Ind.-based MasterSbilt Race Cars house car, but after seeing him win $15,000 for Louisiana-based Childress Racing at Whynot — along with his occasional runs for Illinois-based Moring Motorsports in other major events — I’m wondering if MasterSbilt’s plan might just be to have a team for him based in every state instead.
I’m joking of course, but it’s impressive O’Neal can win in cars he’s never driven. As he said in victory lane, it speaks well about the products of Keith and Tader Masters along with the support of Ronnie Stuckey and others.
Michael Rigsby: If someone told you, "a guy won at Whynot in a ride he'd never been in before,” I'd say Vegas odds would be almost even-money that it was O'Neal. There's just something about that guy's style that makes him good in virtually every ride he climbs in. Of course he's a good driver, but his "wheelman" style makes it so the car doesn't matter as much as it does for some guys. Track also racy again, as Whynot has delivered over and over the past few years.
Ben Shelton: It says a lot about the cars, the Mastersbilt infrastructure, and it clearly says a lot about O'Neal. Even though he had never been in the car before he was fast right out of the box in practice on Thursday night, and Ronnie Stuckey was there the whole weekend to tweak on that thing. To claim such a dominant win against such a talented field of competitors in a new car is just impressive.
TT: Ben, you announced the race and were a co-promoter of the Whynot show. It appeared O’Neal was just a little bit better than everyone although runner-up Mike Marlar — and maybe even third-finishing Dane Dacus had the race been a little longer — kept him within sight. How did you see it?
BS: Honestly when the caution came out on lap 66, I thought that Marlar had the best car on the track and would drive past O'Neal on the restart. However, after staying with him for a few laps on the restart, O'Neal just motored away from him. His car was good everywhere. Sometimes the battle for the lead takes all the attention, but the race for third through eighth during the event's middle stages was the show-stealer with guys like Marlar, Dacus, Steve Francis, Klint Byars, Bub McCool and others going four- and five-wide at times. Another great job by the Whynot Motorsports Park staff.
TT: O’Neal is in the hunt with likely WoO champ Darrell Lanigan for national Driver of the Year honors. But as we’ve talked about regarding DirtonDirt.com’s Top 25, it’s weekends like this that make those rankings murky. O’Neal clearly gets a boost from his 15th victory, but Lanigan has shied from non-WoO events. Other than the World 100, Lanigan hasn’t run a race unconnected from the WoO tour since June 2. With Lanigan planning to skip this weekend’s Red Buck Dirt Track World Championship, those differences of where drivers choose to race throw a wrench in determining if Lanigan, O’Neal, Billy Moyer, Jimmy Owens or someone else is the top driver. It’s tricky, isn’t it?
BS: It’s definitely tricky because Lanigan has clearly had a dominant season, and when on the occasions where he has gone head-to-head with all of the nation's best he's definitely maintained his status. However, after missing Knoxville, Florence, and now likely Portsmouth it's definitely getting harder to compare apples to apples. I'll just say I'm glad I don't have to vote in that Top 25 poll, ha ha!
MR: I've said it on here before: it’s easily the hardest thing we do on the website, and people that think it's easy, probably don't take a true "national look" at this sport, and see just how difficult it is to come up with a fair and true ranking system. Like you said Todd, an event like Whynot should be telling in the fact it drew more than 50 cars, but I think most people will look at it like it doesn't mean as much. Rankings aren’t easy.
TT: I agree Ben, but even outside any poll published by anyone, the court of public opinion leaves us to endlessly debate this stuff, right?
MR: Oh totally ... I mean the AP college football poll and BCS get tossed around like a rag doll every year, and quite frankly, I think they carry just a little bit more clout than us (sarcasm alert).
BS: It definitely does Todd, and that's one of the best parts of our sport, that we can all agree to disagree. By skipping these events, Lanigan is definitely providing top-notch roundtable discussion material.
TT: Let’s look at some of the other weekend events, and feel free to expound on Kent Robinson (career-rich $5,000 payday with a strong run at Florence Speedway’s Fall 50), Randy Weaver (topped Chris Madden in East Alabama Motor Speedway’s Alabama State Championship in his first feature at the track) or Michael Chilton (the young Kentuckian who had an $8,000 weekend sweep at Lake Cumberland Speedway). Or someone else altogether?
MR: Tim Fuller's $10,000 victory at Hesston definitely caught my eye. It's been a tough year for Tim, and to get his first win in that Kennedy Motorsports ride had to feel like the weight of the world was being lifted off his shoulders. That was a good field out there in Pennsylvania as well, as that area of the country continues to produce some of the best regional fields that just happened to be filled with national stars many of the time.
BS: For Kent Robinson, winning at Florence felt like winning the World 100 after the tough season he’s had. Mechanical failures, wrecks, the learning curve on the road and bad luck have left that team struggling to not get down the whole year. That was a big confidence booster. Chilton has had a breakout year in 2012. It's not like he's new to the sport, and he's run well in the past, but his World 100 performance along with his some key victories this year are definitely commendable. Also would be amiss to not recognize the great end of the year streak that Rick Eckert has put together with four victories in five October starts. That team is on fire right now.
TT: Let’s turn to the upcoming weekend with the Carl Short-promoted DTWC at Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park, the $50,000-to-win finale on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. This is a race that for a long time was clearly No. 2 behind the World 100 in prestige, but that’s been shaken in recent years with up-and-down car counts and annual moves to another racetrack. This will be the fifth straight year the race is at a track that didn’t host it the previous season. The event needs some stability to regain some of its cachet, doesn’t it?
BS: Another debatable topic, but originally when this race started bouncing to different venues I thought it was a cool concept to have a crown jewel floating around. However, I've since come to see that it might not be in the best interest of the race to move so much. In fact over the past few months I've been talking to people about the DTWC, and it's been interesting to note that some of them weren't event totally sure where it was being held this year. Hopefully Portsmouth will be a win-win for all parties involved and this race can set up shop there for the foreseeable future. It's a good location relative to a large number of competitors.
MR: I actually don't mind the moving event at all when it comes to this race. While I agree every year might be a bit much, I actually find it somewhat neat that it's sort of a “traveling event.” The crowds have always been good wherever they've taken it, and as long as the weather and racetrack hold up, I think people will come to the DTWC no matter where it is. I love this event because it feels so much like “the” Fall event in our sport. The event that really means the season is coming to a close.
And Ben is right. I think Portsmouth is a good spot for it. The Ohio Valley location is what this race needs.
TT: Portsmouth seems to be marked as a track where regional drivers can really hang with the national touring guys, most notably Jackie Boggs, Steve Casebolt and Eddie Carrier Jr. Do you guys see a surprise winner coming?
MR: Running 100 laps at Portsmouth certainly levels the playing field, but yes, Todd, you're onto something there. Carrier, Boggs, etc., will all be in the mix, and I guarantee starting near the front of their heat races. They're just too good there not to.
BS: While I would love to see a surprise driver win this event, other than Marlar’s worst-to-first run in the Hillbilly 100, it seems this season’s crown jewels have been dominated by the sport's elite. As a result, I expect to see much the same in this event.
TT: We haven’t done predictions in a while. Let’s hear it: Car count, winner and top finisher under 25 years old.
BS: Car count 76, winner Jimmy Owens and Eric Wells as top finisher under 25 years old.
TT: I’ll go with 83 cars, Earl Pearson Jr. wins, and Eric Wells as the top finisher under 25.
MR: I'll say 81 cars, Carrier gets his biggest career win and best youngster is Eric Wells, who is always good at Portsmouth.
TT: Not to put any pressure on Wells.