Fast Talk: Hell Tour, Blankenship and more
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. Eldora Speedway announcer Dustin Jarrett subs for Michael this week (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s start with the UMP DIRTcar Summernationals this week — after all, it’s finally wrapping up heading into the sixth week with the tour heading for Dustin’s neck of the woods in Ohio at Attica and Oakshade. Diving right into the crux of the title chase: Can points leader Brandon Sheppard maintain the lead he’s held virtually the whole way?
Dustin Jarrett: The top three in points are so consistent, it's hard to imagine Sheppard not getting the title. In the same sense, because they're so consistent, one bad night could really shake things up. They're heading to tracks this week that, in my opinion, suits each of their driving styles well. So, with that in mind, I really can't see B-Shepp losing this deal. Nevertheless, it's going to be interesting to watch and see what happens.
TT: I admire Sheppard's consistency, and six weeks ago, I would've listed inconsistency among reasons he wouldn't win the title. Running the series last year with the Rocket Chassis house car team was no doubt invaluable in helping him take this impressive step.
Joshua Joiner: I think the odds are more likely than not that he does hold on and win his first championship. It really looks like it's just between him and Bobby Pierce at this point, with Shannon Babb just too far back and Ryan Unzicker already dropping off the tour. Pierce's recent hot streak has definitely made things interesting and worth watching the final week. But Sheppard has been right there each night as well, keeping up his consistency on the tour. It's not a sure-bet that Sheppard will win it, but as long as he keeps doing what he's done almost the entire tour, it's his title to win.
DJ: Or his title to lose.
TT: Let’s also take a closer look at Bobby Pierce. As we’ve said, everyone expected a successful Summernationals for him, but he’s exceeded expectations as a legitimate title contender and winner of four events, three of them paying $10,000. Is he the best 16-year-old we’ve seen since Josh Richards? Or better? Or the best 16-year-old we’ve ever seen in a Dirt Late Model?
DJ: I was actually thinking about that when I watching him at Haubstadt the other night. There are times when I seriously forget he's just 16 years old. He's that good. He hits his marks, he doesn't seem to get rattled when he's leading, and he works through lapped traffic as well as anyone. There's been a lot of great drivers who have had success at a pretty young age, but I definitely believe he is one of the best at 16 years old that I've had the opportunity to see.
I know there will be some skeptics who talk about the solid equipment he's in, etc, etc. But good equipment has never made someone automatically have the talent it takes to do what he's doing.
JJ: He's the best 16-year-old I've ever seen. How many 16-year-olds have won a $10,000-to-win race? How many have won two? Three? He has the benefit of having so many big races at tracks he's grown up racing, but there's no doubt he's taken full advantage of that this season. What impressed me most about Bobby actually wasn't any of the four wins, but rather his performance Sunday night at Vermilion County. In each of his four wins were won on the bottom when tire choice had a lot to do with it. On Sunday, he had to get up on the wheel and drive, and he did a great job of it. He's definitely came a long way this year. It'll be interesting to watch how much more he improves in the next year, maybe two. That will give a better idea of how far his career might go in the long run.
TT: Moving onto the national tours, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series has a new points leader in what seems like the first time in three years (it’s actually not) with John Blankenship’s victory and runner-up finish over the weekend thrusting him to the top spot over two-time champ Jimmy Owens, who dropped out at Tri-City without completing a lap.
I think everyone was waiting for the moment we could truly affirm Blankenship’s arrival as a title contender, and that might’ve happened twice — when Owens broke and then again when Blankenship outdueled him for a victory the next night at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo. It’s on, isn’t it?
JJ: What a turn of events for Blankenship this weekend. Entering Tri-City, it was kind of like “Well, he's making it interesting, but I don't know if he can keep this up.” Now, he might be the favorite to win the championship. He had some help getting the points lead with Owens' misfortune, but he definitely made a statement with his performance Saturday at Wheatland.
DJ: I agree, Joshua. It's on! Blankenship is legit and, the question now is, can he continue to do this for another three months? I see no reason why he couldn't. This is a classic situation of a driver who you feel like has the talent to make a title run, but was simply waiting for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. That's happened and Blankenship looks to be one of a few guys who will be there vying for the title at Portsmouth in October.
TT: Typically Lucas Oil’s points chases have been two-horse races, but Steve Francis is right in the mix with Don O’Neal, Earl Pearson Jr. and Dennis Erb. Jr. within a hot streak of getting into serious contention themselves. You all like anyone other than Owens or Blankenship?
JJ: It's not out of the question, but I just don't think any of those guys are quite on the same level as Owens or Blankenship right now. Unless one of them gets on a really good hot streak soon, I see it being decided between Blankenship and Owens.
TT: I know you like the consistency of Francis, Dustin.
DJ: I think Steve Francis makes a run at title. He's been quietly consistent all year long and picked up a nice win at Tri-City Friday night. Where Francis may succeed is at the stretch of big money shows and 100-lap races they have coming up. While Owens and Blankenship are obviously no strangers to such events, those are traditionally the types of races where Francis excels.
TT: The World of Outlaws Late Model Series wrapped up its Wild West Tour with Josh Richards getting a victory in what turned out to be the finale after the second of two rainouts. The coronation might’ve begun after Richards had a three-victory sweep at Lernerville’s Firecracker 100, but Darrell Lanigan and Shane Clanton made up some ground in the points chase out West. Any thoughts about the Outlaws or the Wild West Tour?
DJ: I hated to see two of their races fall victim to rain because I feel like that took a little steam out of the Western swing. Nevertheless, from what I saw, there was some solid racing. And I'll go on record and say it sure was nice to see Rick Eckert get his WoO win of 2013.
JJ: As far as the points go, I don't think Richards has it quite wrapped up just yet. Every time Richards starts to build so momentum and open a gap, those guys seem to come right back and keep themselves in it.
It was also good to see Tim McCreadie and Rick Eckert win, once again showing that Outlaws tour really has quite a few really competitive drivers this year.
TT: How about a little potpourri to wrap up? Impressed by Justin Kay’s personal eight-race winning streak which came to an end Sunday on the Deery Brothers Summer Series at Dubuque? How about Tony Jackson Jr. backing up his recent hot streak with a third-place Lucas Oil finish at Wheatland? Who do you like in Ray Cook’s Schaeffer Oil Southern Nationals that start tonight at Wythe? Answer any or all, or throw something else out there.
JJ: Justin Kay and Tony Jackson Jr. have both been very impressive after coming seemingly out of nowhere to dominant their respective regions. And it's always great to see a driver back up his regional success when the national touring guys come into town. Jackson definitely did that with a great run at Wheatland.
TT: People might dismiss Kay as a spec-engine racer, but we've seen him run strong in open-competition events in Arizona. And winning eight straight races anywhere ranks in my book. Kudos to Jackson ... no doubt his confidence is sky-high and he'll go back work on the regional events as a favorite in just about anything he enters. I have a feeling we'll be hearing the name Chris Madden a lot on the 10-race Southern Nationals, as is usual with the four-time series champ.
JJ: I’m excited for the Southern Nationals, just to see those guys in the Southeast get to finally do some racing. It seems like that region has been hit the hardest by rainouts in the past month or so, killing the momentum of guys like Chris Madden, Jonathan Davenport and Mike Marlar. It'll be interesting to watch those guys over the next two weeks, especially Davenport and Madden, who have both been among the hottest drivers over the past couple of months.
DJ: The Southern Nationals is a fun series and the fans in that part of the country are strong supporters of the events. I agree with you, Joshua, in that it may be a three-horse race for the title.