Fast Talk: Evaluating the Bowyer shuffle
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: It was a busy weekend of November racing, but let’s first tackle some key off-the-track developments, starting with Clint Bowyer Racing absorbing the Barry Wright Race Cars house car team.
For the second straight year, Steve Francis takes a ride previously occupied by Jonathan Davenport — he took the BWRC ride when Davenport joined Bowyer a year ago — leaving Davenport without a ride while Jared Landers stays as Bowyer's second driver on the Georgia Boot-sponsored team.
While Bowyer’s backing should only improve the Wright-Francis connection that impressed with six Lucas Oil Series victories, including Batesville’s Topless 100 and Knoxville Nationals, it’s a blow for Davenport, who had developed into one of the sport’s stars the last few seasons. Dirt Late Model rides have often been more informal and with lower stakes, but this is one of those developments that shows if NASCAR-connected teams like Bowyer's play in the dirt, it’s big business. How do you guys see it?
Michael Rigsby: This is one of those topics I'd heard grumblings about for awhile, but you never really know if it has any legs or not until the announcement actually comes down. Obviously for Francis it's a big deal. He had a great rebound year this year, and is there any reason to think that with Barry and Clint next year, it won't be even bigger?
I do feel bad for Jonathan. I mean it is a business, but it seemed like just a year and a half ago he was set to take the Dirt Late Model world by storm — and he's still more than capable). But it's harder to develop a rhythm when you're bouncing around. Ask a guy like Mike Marlar how nice it is to be in one ride for a while. Davenport is very talented and he'll land on his feet. Depending on continued consistency of Jimmy Owens, maybe Francis an early title favorite on Lucas Oil next year?
Joshua Joiner: Initially, you can't help but feel bad for Davenport. But as I wrote in a blog last week, I think there's no doubt he'll land on his feet somewhere and bounce back. It'll be interesting to see if his weekend ride in the Warrior house car grows into something else.
For everyone else involved, the moves seems like a slamdunk. Extra funding and support should help Francis and the BWRC house car team. And they should be able to help Landers pick up his performance, which many argue was worse than Davenport's this season. The only reservations I have about it is the trend Bowyer's team has for not getting the best out of its drivers. Shannon Babb couldn't find his groove there, and while Dale McDowell had some success, he's definitely picked up his performance since parting ways with Bowyer after last season.
It's worth noting that some of McDowell's success this season is due to cutting back to a more regional schedule, but the fact is Clint Bowyer Racing as a team struggles with consistency. I definitely think adding Francis and Wright should turn that around. But then again, I would have said the same thing last year when Bowyer signed Davenport.
TT: Davenport spent the weekend in the Warrior Race Cars house car, an unlikely full-time ride. You guys have any inkling of where he might land? Or at least a guess?
MR: Part of the tough part is the timing. It's hard to predict where he'll land with many of the rides for next year being sewn up already. If I had to predict, I'd say a good-sized Southern sponsor backs him to run an independent schedule. That's an early guess.
TT: Interesting that Troy Baird recently connected with Alabama driver William Thomas. Davenport might've been a contender for that ride had he been available.
MR: Exactly. The timing is tough. He just missed that one.
JJ: I'd love to see him get a full-time seat in the Warrior house car and maybe join Warrior driver Tim McCreadie on the Outlaws tour. But that's probably a stretch.
I'm with Michael. He probably ends up getting a solid regional ride. With that in mind, there's probably a number of guys wondering how committed their car owners are to them knowing that there's a driver like Jonathan Davenport available.
TT: In another recent development for a NASCAR-connected dirt team, Bobby Labonte Racing and its in-house Longhorn Chassis added the respected Kevin Rumley as chief engineer for the team’s chassis development, as well as an asset for driver Earl Pearson Jr.
Labonte’s program has struggled to get Longhorns rolling — Pearson hasn’t won a feature of any kind in more than two years — but they’re clearly investing in the brand. Can Rumley turn things around? Will we see other engineering-types employed by other teams or developing chassis?
MR: Obviously it's been a bit of a struggle for Earl as of late, but how can this not help? Kevin is one of the most respected guys in the pit area when it comes to knowledge and engineering. Pearson will win a Lucas Oil race in 2013, and I expect him to be much better — partly because he's due, and partly because of Kevin.
JJ: This move would've looked a lot better a year ago when Rumley was helping Steve Shaver put together one of the best seasons of any driver in the country. The Rumley-Shaver combination was down some this year, but I still think Rumley brings has a lot to offer to a driver like Pearson and a team like Labonte's. He's obviously a smart guy with his engineering success, but he brings the dirt knowledge that's critical and only comes from experience in the sport. I look for him — and the addition of Shaver to the roster of Longhorn drivers with K&L Rumley Enterprises running out of Labonte’s shop — to definitely help get the chassis headed in the right direction.
TT: Racing chugs on in November and Tennessee’s Mike Marlar had the biggest weekend as he continued a late-season surge, winning twice with deflating or flat tires for a $15,000 weekend. He survived a flat left-front tire over the final 18 laps to capture the Ultimate Series finale at Georgia’s Screven Motor Speedway, then babied his right-rear tire Cherokee’s Blue-Gray 100 for his first career Southern All Star victory. The tire went flat in victory lane.
Marlar already had one of the year’s most fascinating stories with his worst-to-first Hillbilly 100 victory, and he adds two more wins with compelling storylines to solid performances over the last three months. The talented Marlar is plenty versatile, but as an aggressive wheelman, I was more surprised about his Cherokee accomplishment than the Screven performance. But both are impressive, aren’t they?
MR: I think anyone who's covered the sport for a while is a “Mike Marlar fan,” and we've all always said that if he can just get a stable ride, that guy can really show his stuff. Well here we are, in the midst of probably his best career year, and it has a lot to do with him having a stable ride with Bryson Motorsports. As far as this weekend, they both caught me off guard. He's so hot right now, though, I guess it shouldn't have.
JJ: This was the kind of weekend Mike Marlar needed. With everything that happened at East Alabama, he seemed more than ready to give up racing altogether when he left there last week. Controversy aside, he needed this kind of performance this weekend.
TT: As Joshua alluded, you can’t help but view Marlar’s victories in light of his disqualification at East Alabama Motor Speedway’s National 100. He has vehemently and passionately protested an official's ruling that he used a chemically-altered tire at EAMS, volunteering to take a polygraph to proclaim his innocence. Any chance the determination stirred up by the EAMS ruling helped fire him up for his major two-victory weekend in more than three years?
MR: Oh for sure. Any time turmoil surrounds a sports team, driver, etc., they have a tendency to refocus and make sure everything is in working order. Not to mention, let's be honest, he feels very pissed off right now. Part of being pissed off, is the desire to go out there and win races, which is exactly what he's doing. Mike is a pretty mild-mannered guy, but anyone can see right now, he's determined as hell.
JJ: He definitely seemed like a man on a mission this weekend. Don't forget, he was probably another a lap or two away from winning Friday night's unsanctioned event a Screven for a three-victory weekend.
TT: Also at Cherokee, Randy Weaver wrapped up his third Southern All Star title in four years. He won Saturday’s Gobbler at Cleveland (Tenn.) Speedway — halting the five-race win streak of Jimmy Owens — for his sixth series win, and he finishes the season with nine victories overall in 30 appearances.
Weaver is one of those reliable drivers who, if he’s got good equipment, he’s always successful, and he’s certainly been that with the Outlaw Race Parts team in 2012. It’s be nice to see this team hit the road a little more in 2013 to challenge at some bigger events, wouldn’t it?
JJ: It would be great. And I think that's exactly what you'll see next year. I don't know that Weaver and that team hit a national tour, but he told me a East Alabama they're definitely planning to do more traveling and hit more national events in 2013. It'll be interesting to see how that works out. I think he definitely has the potential to win some of those bigger races.
MR: He's had some decent success in bigger events as well. Winning an Eldora heat race here and there, etc. Plus he's really funny, and quite frankly, the quotient of hilarious bloopers was down this year with no Jack and Jeep on the Summernationals tour. Is it too selfish for me to want Weaver on tour simply for the blooper ability?
TT: Smooth move in promoting your upcoming blooper segment for December's Best of 2012 coverage
MR: I have to take my shots when I can get them with you two!