Fast Talk: Healthy payoff at Silver Dollar Nationals
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 Ben Shelton subs for Michael (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s jump in by reviewing I-80 Speedway’s Silver Dollar Nationals, where Jimmy Owens lost the lead twice before collecting the $27,000 victory in the 80-lap finale in Greenwood, Neb. There were several interesting storylines — we’ll get to Ryan Gustin’s remarkable charge shortly — but this is a race Owens needed to steady his hopes for a third straight Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, especially with points leader John Blankenship continuing his solid runs. Owens wasn’t in a factor in the previous two events at Lakeside and Hamilton County, so his first series victory in nearly two months was a big one, wasn’t it?
Ben Shelton: I think it was huge for Jimmy and his team. Obviously they weren't in panic mode, but it never hurts to get a win to re-establish your confidence and morale. As we've seen in the past, a single victory for Owens can lead to an extended streak of victories. If he can do that with the Silver Dollar win, we are going to see an epic battle to the finish for the Lucas Oil championship among Owens, Blankenship, and Francis
TT: Yes, Francis wasn't quite in the mix at the Silver Dollar Nationals, but his runner-up finishes at Lakeside and Hamilton County showed he's right there.
Joshua Joiner: This was definitely one that he needed. Just when you think he's starting to slip, Owens proves he's still a force to be reckoned with. There's something about the big races that always seem to bring out the best in Owens. And it whenever he gets one of those major-race wins, it always seems to carry over for a while. He'll need that to happen again, because Blankenship appears to be on his A-game as far as the championship battle goes, and Francis isn't far behind. Either way, it was a great weekend. A great race that continued a great points battle.
TT: Gustin’s stunning 34th-to-first charge that ended when he wrecked trying to lap Kyle Berck was no doubt remarkable. First off, few Dirt Late Model events start 30 or more cars, so the opportunity is rarely there. Second, think about the drivers he overtook — Billy Moyer, Scott Bloomquist, Don O’Neal, Steve Francis, Jimmy Owens and the list goes on and on. It was great to see him pump up the crowd in what’s among the sport’s best charges in recent memory. I heard varying opinions that (a) Gustin would’ve won easily had he not wrecked and (b) Gustin would’ve eventually faded after having to charge so hard. Which is correct?
BS: From the looks of his right-rear tire and how hard he was pushing the car, along with Owens lurking in the shadows, I really think Owens was going to win. It would've been interesting to see if Ryan could've held on to the finish to stay with a podium finish. One thing for sure, though, his charge to the front in just over 40 laps is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in this sport.
TT: I think when Gustin got to about fifth before halfway, I figured that'd be his high-water mark. A lot of guys charge from way back to the top five and stall. But he just kept rolling. It was unbelievable. I think Owens would've given him a run over the final 25 laps. I think we can all agree we'd rather have seen the race end with Gustin still running instead of getting knocked out.
JJ: If his car was still that good after that charge and that late in the race, I don't think there's any possible way he fades. He was simply in another league Saturday night. Nothing was going to stop him other than a mistake on his part, and unfortunately that happened. Still, I can't help but think that this was a big night for Gustin where he introduced himself to the Late Model world. I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of him going forward.
TT: Going forward? Pun intended, right Joshua? A few other Silver Dollar Nationals odds and ends. Jason Feger’s fourth-place run was solid and might’ve been three spots better if his vision wasn’t obscured by a flapping panel halfway through the race.ï¿½ Tony Jackson Jr. continues to impress, and I’d suggest he’s among the country’s top 10 drivers over the last two months. And kudos to the Kosiskis and I-80 Speedway for a new major race that has quickly hit its stride. It was perfect in nearly every respect, with the exception of Saturday’s program starting and ending too late. Any thoughts on those or other topics?
BS: While Feger didn't get the win he wanted Saturday night, he showed me that he's maturing even more as a driver as he lost the lead before charging back to it several laps later. He's becoming a contender everywhere he goes. Tony Jackson Jr. has been beyond impressive over the past few months. He paid his dues with struggles early in his career on dirt, but he was a dominant asphalt racer, and he's starting to show signs of dominant possibilities on dirt. I-80 is an awesome place with awesome racing, but hopefully time management will be a little better next year. Other than that, no complaints from me.
JJ: It really was just a great weekend all around. How often do we see that great of a race with such a great mix of contenders? You had your national standouts like Owens, Birkhofer and Landers in the mix, a stout regional guy like Feger, and newcomers in Gustin and Jackson. It really was something to watch.
TT: Let’s hit the UMP DIRTcar Summernationals one last time where the super-consistent Brandon Sheppard eventually had some bad luck when he broke in the finale — but fortunately for him, he’d already locked up the title. Joshua you were confident in Sheppard’s consistency almost from the outset, so props for making that call. Bobby Pierce finished just 15 points behind at the finish, so it ended up being tight among the Illinois youngsters and, as Sheppard noted, his runner-up finish the previous night at Attica, one spot ahead of Pierce, was critical. What are some takeaways from this year’s tour? Thoughts on Sheppard? Pierce? Is there consensus that six weeks stretched the series too long?
JJ: First of all, yes, six weeks is way too long. It seemed like all the drivers felt that way, and I think Shannon Babb said it best when he told me: "If I'm tired of racing, you know there's a problem.”
BS: The thing I take away from this year's tour is that it was just too long. I think that led to fewer drivers running all of the races, and also a little less interest from fans. On a positive note there was a lot of great young talent on the tour this year, and that really bodes well for the future of our sport.
JJ: As for Sheppard, I believe he really turned a corner on the series. I'll admit that I had doubts about him going into the series, but he showed that he can not only when races, but click off the consistent top-five and top-three finishes it takes to be a champion. His performance over the past six weeks really changed my opinion of him, from thinking that maybe he had hit a wall in his development to thinking really the sky's the limit for him. It'll be interesting to see where he goes from here in his career. I really feel like this will point people look back on a few years from now and say that's when he really got going.
As for Pierce, how can you not be impressed with what he's accomplished. Four wins, three of them paying $10,000 and he was right there in the points chase almost to the end. I think it was also a great year for him, and he's only gonna go up from here. I think that says a lot about the future of the sport, especially for the Midwest, to see those two young guys having so much success. They'll both be fun to watch in the years to come.
TT: The tour that patterned itself after the Summernationals, Ray Cook’s Schaeffer Oil Southern Nationals, has been stymied by rain two straight nights, but it’s shaping up to be — as expected — a tight points battle between four-time series champ Chris Madden and Jonathan Davenport, who leads the title chase after two straight victories. Those guys should be tough at North Georgia, Smoky Mountain and Tazewell, but I’d suggest Duck River’s bullring will be the wild card in determining the champ. What do you guys think?
BS: It’s really a tale of two different seasons for Davenport and Madden. Davenport has stayed busy with a successful season with multiple wins while competing in several races. Conversely Madden has also enjoyed success this year, but has raced far fewer times. Those two drivers are clearly the prominent contenders in that area right now, so I think it will truly go down to the final lap of the final race at Tazewell to determine the series champion.
JJ: It's good to see Davenport and Madden battling it out on the Southern Nationals again. Those two guys are kind of what made that tour so compelling over the past few years, and with both of them on top of their game right now, it really is something to watch. I'm predicting a really tight points battle between those two with Davenport probably having a slight edge.
TT: Let’s wrap up by looking ahead to this weekend’s Prairie Dirt Classic for the first World of Outlaws Late Model Series event at Fairbury (Ill.) American Legion Speedway. As non-Illinoisans — as opposed to our “biased” staffers Michael Rigsby and Derek Kessinger, solidly among the Fairbury faithful — we can bring a measure of perspective to a race that’s been long-awaited. Indeed the event brings together a racetrack that has the best atmosphere combined with national touring drivers getting their first taste of the track. It should be fun, and Ben will even get to do some series announcing in his first trip to what Michael lovingly calls “America’s dirt track.” You guys looking forward to it?
BS: I am really looking forward to it. As bad as I hate to feed the ego of Michael and Derek the videos of the racing I've seen from Fairbury are always awesome. This place has arguably the best fans in the nation with every track worker from the ticket window to the concession stand to the push truck driver working on a voluntary basis. The place has one of the biggest weekly crowds in the country. Adding all of this together looks to results in a huge event at a racy bullring. What is there not to like about this one?
JJ: I, too, hate to feed Michael and Derek's frenzy any more, but this has the making to be a really great weekend at Fairbury. That track has one of the toughest roster of regular weekly racers in the country, and we all know central Illinois is home to some of the country's top regional racers with guys like Sheppard, Babb, Pierce, Shirley, etc. Giving them to race against the WoO guys at a track they're not familiar with, could really shape up for an upset. Not to mention, the racing at Fairbury is almost always great.