Fast Talk: Owens, Charlotte and 'What if?'
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 (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: While it’s not quite the stature of Jonathan Davenport’s impressive late-season streak last season, Jimmy Owens is cobbling together a nice stretch lately with victories at Brownstown’s Jackson 100, Dixie’s Shootout, the Dirt Track World Championship and most recently the Cotton Pickin’ 100 at Magnolia Motor Speedway. He’s earned more than $100,000 over the last month or so during his hottest streak of the season.
While he led 100 laps at Magnolia, his long-time racing buddy Mike Marlar — who has also had a strong fall season — took a few cracks at him late in the race. What did you all think about the race after watching the video reports?
Joshua Joiner: The race itself turned out really good, which Magnolia needed after it's other big race, a $20,000 Lucas Oil race in July, uncharacteristically locked down in the bottom. Early in the race, it looked like Owens might run away with it, but Marlar, much like he did a couple weeks ago at Whynot, stormed through the field and made things interesting late. Some lapped traffic worked in Owens' favor around five to go, giving him a gap. It looked like Marlar was tracking him down and might have made it much more interesting on the final lap if he hadn't clipped the infield tire with two to go. Would have been interesting to see how that turned out.
Michael Rigsby: Owens clearly had the best car there, despite Marlar's late efforts. I thought of Davenport's late-season run as well, but this series of races that Owens has won is more impressive. I know we're going to touch on the Driver of the Year award later, but Owens is doing his best to make our decision more difficult in what should be a runaway for Darrell Lanigan.
JJ: For Owens, it is a really nice late-season run he's putting together. Don't forget, he was also leading the Lucas Oil race at Rome Speedway the night after Dixie and very well could've won that one if not for a flat tire. The thing about Owens this season, is he's been consistent but rarely dominant, at least not for multiple races. After being frustrated earlier in the year because he felt he wasn't winning enough races, he's certainly making up for it now. He's turning a good year into a great one, that's for sure.
TT: Regarding Driver of the Year, we might be beating a dead horse here, but how are you all seeing the chase at this point? I’m virtually certain that, after breaking down the seasons of World of Outlaws Late Model Series champ Darrell Lanigan, Owens and winningest Lucas Oil Series driver Don O’Neal, that Lanigan has it in the bag regardless of what happens at Charlotte this weekend.
Let’s kick around some factors in our views: the comparison of whether it’s tougher to win with WoO or Lucas Oil, what “penalty” a driver gets for missing a feature field, or what “penalty” a driver gets for skipping a major race altogether. There’s obviously a lot of gray area when you try to compare drivers who aren’t racing head-to-head every week.
MR: If Owens would sweep this weekend at Charlotte, I think it's a dead heat. My biggest hiccup with Owens is that he missed both Eldora’s Dream and World 100 lineups. That's a big red flag that I think, even if he'd made one, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. But those are both big X's. At the same time you look at Lanigan and say, ‘Well, he didn't miss the shows at Knoxville, Florence, Portsmouth — because he didn't show up.’ So how heavily do you penalize him for not coming? I still tip slightly towards Lanigan, as the head-to-head on the year tilts in Lanigan's favor, but with an Owens sweep at Charlotte, we've got a fun discussion.
TT: I suppose all those variables and intangibles is what makes it so interesting — and so difficult to convince someone else who sees things a different way.
JJ: The more I think about, the more I'm leaning to either Lanigan or Owens. O'Neal's had a great year, but I feel like the inconsistency is once again hurting him while national touring titles are bolstering Lanigan and Owens. I think you definitely have to consider that Owens seemed to be facing a bit stiffer competition on the Lucas Oil tour this season compared to Lanigan on WoO. A lot of people want to knock Lanigan for skipping races like the North-South, Knoxville and the DTWC. That definitely doesn't help him in my view, but for me, when someone attends but fails to make the starting field for the two biggest races of the year (i.e. Owens at Eldora's Dream and World) I think that carries more weight.
Either way, those two factors cancel each other out. I'm leaning more toward Lanigan right now, but I probably could be persuaded if Owens comes out and dominates Charlotte against what should be a great field and head-to-head against Lanigan. It'll be interesting to watch.
TT: Let’s look ahead to the Peak Motor Oil World Finals presented by NAPA, the three-division event coming up this weekend at the Dirt Track at Charlotte. World of Outlaws Late Models are joined by WoO sprints and big-block modifieds as the World Racing Group wraps up the season for its showcase tours.
With live TV on the final night, the state-of-the-art racetrack and the inclusive nature of different types of race cars really helps make this event feel like a true season-ender for dirt racing.
The format calls for prelims on Thursday with complete racing programs (minus time trials) on Friday and Saturday. Are there any improvements or changes you’d like to see to spice it up further?
MR: Not really. I think this event, while not technically a crown jewel, is one of the top five "events" in all of dirt track racing. Here's the bottom-line: if you like dirt track racing, you have literally everything you'd want. And it really is a gathering that they intended it to be. I love the World Finals, and it's a good way to cap the year.
JJ: My favorite weekend at Charlotte was when they made up October's Showdown race on the Thursday night at the World Finals. The qualifying only is kind of a letdown on Thursday. It think it would add a lot of excitement to the event if there was some kind of racing on Thursday. This probably won't ever happen, but what about a challenge race between the top WoO drivers and top Lucas Oil guys follow qualifying. A race that has no effect on the rest of the weekend. Maybe even through in the top five drivers that don't follow a national tour, perhaps determined by some kind of vote. Draw for the lineup and let 'em get after for 30 or 40 laps.
TT: There are some noteworthy events still out there through November, most obviously the $20,000-to-win National 100 at East Alabama Motor Speedway, and Tennessee's Duck River Raceway Park has a $10,000-to-win race in a few weeks. Those are any other events worthy of some chatter about what’s coming up for diehard fans as the leaves continue to fall?
JJ: The Southern All Star tour's season-ending doubleheader at Cleveland Speedway and Cherokee Speedway Nov. 17-18 should draw some decent fields and it's always interesting to see how Crate Late Model regulars fair against Super Late Model invaders for Swainsboro (Ga.) Raceway's $20,000 Crate race.
MR: When I think of November, I always think about Cleveland and Cherokee. Even from the time I was a little kid, it's hard not to think about the Gobbler and the Blue-Gray. I have vivid memories of Ronnie Johnson, Scott Bloomquist, Freddy Smith and others always running those events, and everyone in the crowd looking like they were absolutely freezing, as the trees bare of leaves in the background. Those are great fall memories.
TT: Michael and I talked about the biggest “What ifs” of the season yesterday, and I thought it would make a good topic here. Obviously this comes with the caveat that asking “What if?” is purely conjecture, but it’s still interesting to kick around how things might have developed if races or circumstances or teams were different at key points in the season.
For instance, here’s a few of my own: What if Jonathan Davenport stayed in the Barry Wright house car? What if Darrell Lanigan’s suspension problems developed a lap earlier at Cedar Lake, allowing Jimmy Owens to slip by late? Any interesting “What ifs” you all want to toss out there?
JJ: Probably my biggest one would be what if Scott Bloomquist doesn't get penalized for jumping a restart in the Dream feature. He appeared to have a car capable of outrunning Shane Clanton while no one else could do anything with him. But after getting penalized a row, Bloomquist never got his momentum back.
MR: One of my biggest “What if” is certainly this: What if Darrell Lanigan went to those three big races? Obviously, you wonder if he wins one or two, there’s obviously no questions about him skipping a few big late-season races in the middle of his best season. Another is: What if Mike Marlar doesn't get into a scrape with Rick Eckert at Ocala in February? Marlar already has a great season going, but if he doesn't have that issue, could it have been even better in the spring?
JJ: Also, a little under the radar, but what if Austin Hubbard had been able to stick with the Lucas Oil tour and give Jonathan Davenport a challenge for the tour's Rookie of the Year chase. With the way Davenport struggled, I wouldn't have been surprised at all if Hubbard ended up on top of that battle.