Fast Talk: Blankenship's prospects in title chase
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.
Joshua Joiner: Let’s dive right in to this week’s discussion with a review of the weekend’s biggest race. John Blankenship backed up his solid start to the season with his biggest career victory in Batesville Motor Speedway’s Bad Boy 98, leading the final 30 laps for a $20,000 Lucas Oil Series victory.
Blankenship has been consistent all year on the Lucas Oil tour, entering the event third in the standings behind Don O’Neal and Jimmy Owens but without a series win on the season.
During last week’s Fast Talk, Todd, you said that breaking through at Batesville would be a good way for Blankenship to show he's for real in challenging O'Neal and Owens in the Lucas Oil title chase. Now that he’s followed the advice, what do you guys think of Blankenship? Is he a championship contender?
MR: I mentioned in the VideoCast this week that I think all us in the media and fans were getting awfully close to putting Blankenship up a notch in the hierarchy of Late Model drivers. This may have cemented that. And the most interesting thing to me has to be the points. I mean think about that. He's ahead of Francis and Bloomquist right now. Yes, I know it's only May, but still, those are two of the greatest points racers of all time ... and he's out-running them. It's so clichï¿½ to say he's "arrived” but I think he has.
TT: Oh, I think he's a contender. I guess it depends on the degree of how serious a contender he can become. We've talked about John that years ago, he could seem disinterested and unmotivated. It seems he's past that the last few years, but even in recent seasons, he can have stretches of races where he'll post a bunch of middling finishes. That's not going to cut it.
If he can back up his Batesville performance — simply pulling away from everyone during the key part of the race — that will show he can become a serious contender. Although stacking up against Jimmy Owens, Don O'Neal, Steve Francis at the top of the heap is certainly a challenge.
JJ: The thing about Blankenship, is he finally seems to have the consistency down. In recent seasons, he's been able to run up front and win races here and there, but also had some off nights that hurt him points-wise. I wouldn't pick him to win the title if I had to pick a favorite right now, but he certainly seems to be capable of at least challenging the tour's top drivers.
TT: He's run well at Wheatland, so backing up Batesville quickly could certainly help bolster his confidence.
MR: I'd say he's in the upper-tier for a Show-Me "favorites" list as well.
JJ: Was there anything else that caught your attention this weekend at Batesville? It was certainly heartbreaking for Dennis Erb Jr. to fall out of another big race while leading.
TT: I guess Erb's demise was most striking to me, reminiscent of losing last year's race at Virginia Motor Speedway after leading most of the way. And Brady Smith's runner-up finish gives him a pretty solid two-weekend run, coupled with a Lucas Oil victory at La Salle, and might mean he'll venture away from home a little more?
MR: It looked to me like Batesville raced a little differently than normal. I mean it still had many of the same characteristics that make it Batesville. But it was a bit different than normal (obviously they've had a ton of rain as well). I agree on Erb ... it smelled an awful lot like Virginia Motor. Another heartbreak for him in an otherwise really good year.
JJ: Rain once again took its toll on the schedule, but I think for the first time this month, more races were run than were rained out. Looking at the regional races, was there any that caught your attention? Michael, I know you were particularly excited by the racing action at Fairbury’s Sunoco ALMS race on Saturday.
TT: I hate to give Fairbury props with Michael trumpeting (literally) the glories of "America's Dirt Track," but that was an impressive race. And while we're all, of course, unbiased, I'm never bothered to see Kevin Weaver win, especially in the twilight of his career.
MR: Obviously I'm an unapologetic Fairbury homer ... but once again the black-dirt oval packed in a huge crowd, and had a fantastic race where it felt like 1998 with a Kevin Weaver/Shannon Babb battle. Great run by Bobby Pierce at Danville as well where the fans were so excited he was making the pass for the lead the entire bleachers were shaking the camera stand. Also kept a close eye on Chris Madden's win at County Line. I know he hasn't raced much this year, and this weekend was even up for debate if he would race or not. But he did (against a good field by the way) and came out on top.
JJ: I want to give a shoutout to Ross Camponovo for his first MSCCS victory at Greenville Speedway. He’s one of those up-and-comers who has been on the cusp for a while now with a lot of strong runs. It’ll be interesting to see if this win propels him to more success.
TT: Other noteworthy performances included Jason Feger winning his first Corn Belt Clash race at Davenport (Iowa) Speedway. That's exactly the kind of race he needs to win to help him endure the three-month World Racing Group suspension that's going to take him out of racing close to home.
And Ohio's Doug Drown now has five victories in his last six starts. Critics would chime in about the quality of the competition — and mention Tim McCreadie's untimely flat tire that help Drown win at Southern Ohio — but winning five of six races anywhere, anyhow against anybody says something for sure.
JJ: The upcoming Memorial Day weekend is shaping up to be a busy one (provided we get a break from the weather). Both the Lucas Oil Series and the World of Outlaws have big weekends planned with Lucas Oil competitors headed out to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo., for the 21st annual Show-Me 100, while the Outlaws have a tripleheader on tap.
Let’s first preview the Show-Me 100. The $30,000-to-win race is the first traditional crown jewel event of the season, and has produced great racing during the 100-lap feature in recent seasons. This year’s Show-Me weekend includes a $5,000 Lucas Oil MLRA event as a tune-up race in place of the traditional Thursday practice night. What are you guys looking forward to as we turn our attention to Wheatland?
TT: First, any fans who haven't gone to Wheatland need to go. What a showplace for the sport. The video board, creature comforts and beautiful facility will spoil you for your weekly track, but it's worth it.
MR: I've talked to a couple of guys that will be racing this week, and raced the MLRA show there in April, and they spoke specifically about the re-configured track. It's a bit wider, and the banking is different. Both Eric Turner and Terry Phillips said it improved the racing greatly. So I'm looking at that first. Secondly ... LOVE the idea that they're racing on Thursday night. LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT. Did I mention I'm a huge fan of it? Just makes perfect sense and will help draw cars in my opinion.
TT: As for what I'm looking for, it's to see if anyone can beat Jimmy Owens. He clearly has the place figured out with four victories in his last six trips. And notice we haven't had a Missouri winner in Lucas Oil Series events at the track ... I'm sure Phillips and Turner would love to take a crack at being the first.
And I'm with you on the Thursday night race — paid practices are much more entertaining.
JJ: The WoO tour kicks off its weekend with $10,000 on the line at the rescheduled Buckeye 50 at NAPA Auto Parts Wayne County Speedway in Orrville, Ohio, before heading to Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, W.Va., where the two-race Jackpot 100 offers a $6,000 winner’s pay on Saturday and $15,000 Sunday.
If they get all three races in, it’ll match the same number of races the WoO tour has had in the past month thanks to all the rainouts. What are some storylines you guys are following as *hopefully* the Outlaws finally get to do some racing.
TT: Wayne County gets a chance to get back on the national Late Model stage, which is great for a track that used to be among the key stops on the old STARS circuit. They've got a pretty solid bunch of weekly racers there, too.
And Tyler County can always be a bit of a grab bag on who's going to be fast, and it's another place the guys with extensive track experience — like Jared Hawkins a few years back — can knock off the traveling stars. It's a nice weekend combo.
MR: Scott James and I chatted about this today ... that there's not many places more "old-school" Dirt Late Model racing than Tyler County Speedway. Close confines, dirt flying, fans RABID about the sport. If you've never been to Tyler County, go at least once. It's a feel that you don't get at many places in 2013, but if you're a purist you'll love.
James even mentioned at one-point they were FIVE-WIDE down the backstretch there last year, and he said "not one of those announcer five-wides, but actually five cars wide" ... Point being, the racing is great.
I'm looking to see what non-Outlaw guys can mix it up at Wayne County. That's a fertile spot for non-touring guys to make a run at the series regulars. Also a shoutout to Ryan Pearson and the guys at Wayne County ... some of the best weekly results senders in the country. Makes our jobs easier.
TT: An "announcer five-wide" ... that's a good one. I didn't even know they could hear the announcers in the cars.
JJ: We’ll finish up with predictions. Let’s keep it simple ... who wins the Show-Me 100?
I'm taking Erb. He's pretty tough there and deserves a big win after the Batesville heartbreak.
TT: Gotta go with Owens. Of course the "O Show" Orb lost the Preakness, but the smart money is still on Owens.
MR: I say Blankenship goes back-to-back with big wins. And at some point we'll have at least one ... "announcer four-wide"...
TT: Now that's a prediction. Can't wait to see Gus the Cool Mule!
MR: Let's get Todd in the Gus costume! That's what I want!
TT: That was me in 2008; you didn't recognize me?