Fast Talk: Reviewing Ocala, East Bay action
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday and sponsored by Out-Pace Racing Products. 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 contributor Dustin Jarrett subs for Michael today (edited for clarity and length):
Joshua Joiner: Let’s dive right into with a review of the past week’s Florida Speedweeks action, which featured events at both East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton and Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. | Out-Pace Racing Products
Let’s first start with East Bay’s 37th annual Dart Winternationals. The car count for East Bay’s six-race miniseries dropped for the second consecutive year, averaging just 39 cars per night. But where the cars were lacking, the racing action was pretty good for the most part, highlighted by Friday’s thrilling battle between Don O’Neal and Doug Drown. There were also plenty of storylines that kept things interesting throughout the week. Were there any that jumped out at you guys specifically?
Todd Turner: I thought the racing was pretty good the first three nights I was there, but after hearing about Friday's race (I'd already departed for Ocala) — and then seeing the video — I hated that I missed it.
That was classic East Bay racing and the back-and-forth with O'Neal was great. Looked like the surface was just right. Slippery through the middle grooves with a touch of moisture on the inside and outside. It was fantastic stuff.
Dustin Jarrett: At East Bay, the consistency of Dennis Erb was just amazing. I mean, by now, we probably shouldn't be surprised by that, but the guy is just so continuously consistent there it's amazing. Also, the strong runs by Doug Drown and Bobby Pierce were definitely the highlights. Both were in contention (more than once) to grab the paycheck at the end of the night and, which each came up just a bit short, it was a pretty successful week for each driver.
TT: Also can't forget about Winternationals stalwart Bob Geiger as he made his first East Bay feature in more than 20 years. Granted, we had smaller fields, but that was still a feel-good story, for sure.
DJ: Ah, yes...Bob Geiger! Definitely a feel-good story there.
JJ: You both definitely missed a good one Friday night. It was definitely the best race I've ever seen at East Bay. The young guys that ran well was impressive. Pierce, Reddick and Devin Moran all three finishing in the top 10 Monday night was a rare sight, perhaps even something that's never happened before in a national touring event.
TT: Erb looked better there than I've ever seen him. He's no doubt one of the sport's top drivers, but I've never seen him as dominant as last week during his two victories, especially.
Yes, the teens shined for sure. Lots of us racked our brains about a national touring race with so many teens in the top eight. It's hard to picture a scenario or era when it happened before.
JJ: Another storyline was Earl Pearson Jr., the four-time Lucas Oil Series champion, going somewhere we haven’t seen him in quite a while: victory lane. His triumph in Saturday night’s finale ended a two-year winless streak for the veteran driver in just his third race of the season.
Pearson definitely had some help in a race in which only five cars ran the entire distance without having to pit for a fresh right-rear tire. But he was competitive in each of the three events he entered. Are we ready to say EPJ is back, or is it still to early to tell?
TT: You can look at the Pearson victory two ways. He won, as you said, in a gimmicky race where tire wear is key. Or two, the team's winning because of the changes they made over the off-season, including reworking the Longhorn Chassis with the addition of chief engineer Kevin Rumley. I'd say the jury is still out, but I wouldn't be against them getting back on track.
DJ: Although I think it's still a little early to tell - and especially with Saturday's tire game - I do think that Pearson looked as good if not better than any race I saw him in last season. There were flashes of the EPJ of old, so to speak, running the bottom, picking off cars. That team has spent the entire offseason troubleshooting every possible component on the Longhorn Chassis to try and make it better. So it doesn't come as a complete surprise that he got a win, yet it's has to be a little comforting to that team to be so strong right of the gate.
JJ: Let’s move on to Ocala, which hosted three events for the World of Outlaws as part of the Bubba Army Winternationals Friday through Sunday. Reigning WoO champion Darrell Lanigan started the weekend on fire, winning Friday and Saturday’s races. But it was Josh Richards who took home the big money, earning $20,000 for winning Sunday’s 75-lap finale.
Like East Bay, there were plenty of storylines to follow at Ocala. What are some of your guys' thoughts on the tripleheader weekend?
DJ: One, there's no doubt Josh Richards is back. Everyone knew that, and I think everyone knew he would be a contender all season, but he hasn't shown any rust at all and his little foray into the world of NASCAR.
Two, I was impressed by how well Scott James. We all know the Shark is a unbelievably talented driver, but he seems to have adjusted to Goddard's car better than most would have guessed, myself included.
TT: It was a tricky weekend for drivers with varied track conditions from one night to the next, not to mention the egg-shaped oval gives drivers fits trying to exit that tight turn four.
Lanigan and Richards were the two fastest all weekend, although Richards missed it the first two nights. The most memorable moment of the weekend was likely Mike Marlar's slipup in turns three and four on the 49th of 50 laps in Saturday's race when Lanigan slid by to steal $10,000. Marlar was gracious about it, but that had to hurt.
DJ: And that's two years in a row Marlar's been in the thick of things at the end of an event at Ocala, Todd. Tough break, for sure.
TT: I agree about James. Warrior sometimes shuffles drivers in and out of that car with mixed success (Dale McDowell was probably the most successful in recent years), but James hit the ground running in that car. Really, really impressive to have three top-fives in WoO action already this season. And if Josh Richards' move to the high side late in the finale didn't pan out, James was poised to capitalize.
JJ: What about the Richards vs. Lanigan dynamic? Many expected the Outlaws title to be dominated by those two this season after Richards announced plans to return to the tour following a year of NASCAR competition. Who would you guys say has the upper hand so far, and is there anyone else on the WoO tour capable of consistently competing with those two?
DJ: Yeah, I'm going to pass on this one. LOL! I don't know how a person could choose between one of those two guys right now. However, at this point in the game, it looks like Shane Clanton is positioning himself to be a solid contender for the WoO title as well. I certainly don't want to say those are the only three drivers capable of winning, but right now I'd say those three have a slight advantage over the others.
TT: It should be a shootout. Lanigan will have a tough time repeating his 2012 success of 15 victories, especially with Richards added to the mix. Richards clearly hasn't lost a step in his brief departure from full-time dirt racing.
While Lanigan won the first two races, you could argue Richards had the fastest car all three nights. He set fast time twice, dominated his heat race all three nights and won the finale. He drew the worst No. 8 starting spot in one of the earlier features, and blew his tire choice the other time.
Clanton would be my pick for the driver best to keep up with those two, but you'd probably have a hard time finding anyone who wouldn't rank Lanigan-Richards or Richards-Lanigan 1-2 with WoO.
JJ: Let’s close our discussion with a look ahead to this week’s six-race UNOH DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park. We’ll be broadcasting all six events live here on DirtonDirt.com, so fans all over the country can check out the action. What are some things they should watch for as Speedweeks wraps up this week at Volusia?
TT: It appears car counts are going to be lower — probably 60 or fewer competitors throughout the week, about 20 fewer than last year — but the competition will be no less intense. This week has become one of those weeks that driver regard as a real honor to grab a victory because the competition is so tough.
One thing I'll be watching for is Billy Moyer. He hasn't left Speedweeks winless since 2007, the year he started dabbling with the Victory Circle Chassis, but he's been mostly a non-factor at Speedweeks so far this year. He's Volusia's winningest Winternationals driver, so keep an eye on how he performs, especially early in the week.
DJ: Personally, I'm looking for a couple of things. I want to see how the East Bay's top dogs do again Ocala's big guns. This week has become one of those "best of the best" deals where you get such a strong mix of national touring drivers from WoO and Lucas, the guys who run an 'outlaw' type schedule such as Moyer, and those who are excellent regional drivers like Satterlee and Carrier.
TT: I'd also keep an eye on the WoO rookies. Morgan Bagley as the early edge but Eric Wells and Dillon Wood aren't too far behind, and Brandon Sheppard is still considering joining the pack. That's a pretty interesting mix of drivers.
DJ: As a fan of the underdog, I want to see if someone unexpected can sneak away with a win. We havn’t really seen that yet this year, although Drown came close Friday night at East Bay. I mean, it just wouldn't be Speedweeks without an unexpected victory, right?
TT: Speedweeks surprises are always great.
DJ: Maybe the Turk will return, Todd. Just for us...