Fast Talk: Speedweeks ends with a huge upset
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a DirtonDirt.com feature each Monday sponsored by Out-Pace Racing Products. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Andy Savary gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who’s hot, who’s not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing. World of Outlaws Late Model Series publicist (and soon-to-be DirtonDirt.com staffer) Kevin Kovac subs for Michael (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s first focus on Volusia Speedway Park’s 43rd annual DIRTcar Nationals presented by Summit Racing Equipment before wrapping up Georgia-Florida Speedweeks altogether, and that means discussing a week where first-time and unexpected winners dominated.
Scott Bloomquist, the DIRTcar Nationals champ, was the only winner with previous Speedweeks success at Volusia as first-timers Kenny Pettyjohn and Casey Roberts along with home-state drivers Ivedent Lloyd Jr. and Kyle Bronson cracked victory lane. Anyone have a theory on the first-time success? Was it something in the water at the Gator Pond?
Andy Savary: The quartet of Volusia first-time winners is probably the biggest storyline of Speedweeks, in my opinion. As these “upsets" were happening, there was quite a bit of initial shock among everyone, but now that we’re a few days removed from Volusia’s action, they make a little more sense to me. We’ve talked for a while now about how good all of these cars are and all of this equipment is today, and I think this is a somewhat simply a product of that combined with the right set of circumstances.
It's no secret that the gap in equipment between the national race teams and the regional (and even weekly, to an extent) race teams is narrower than ever, which has leveled the playing field quite a bit. With lower Speedweeks car counts, favorable track conditions and better equipment across the board, opportunities like this can present themselves. Make no mistake, the equipment can only take you so far and you still have to go out and win the race. Kudos to Ivedent Lloyd Jr., Kenny Pettyjohn, Casey Roberts and Kyle Bronson for doing so.
TT: I like your analytics, Andy, but I think when you comb through the winner's lists at Volusia over the years, 2014 will be an outlier. Especially over the last 10 years, very few names pop out at Volusia as drivers you wouldn't expect to win a big race anywhere.
Kevin Kovac: It was a crazy DIRTcar Nationals … just crazy. If anyone out there would have predicted that Ivedent Lloyd Jr., Kenny Pettyjohn, Casey Roberts and Kyle Bronson would win features, they would have been summarily dismissed. But it happened — and it was so, so refreshing. I have no idea what led to it, other than it shows that the if teams step up their programs and the driver runs that car for all its worth, then special things can happen.
TT: Let’s look closer at Volusia's finale and Kyle Bronson’s upset. The other first-timers were perhaps surprises, but Lloyd is a two-time Southern All Star champ with extensive home-state success, Pettyjohn is Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway’s reigning champ and a Speedweeks stalwart who made every feature lineup at East Bay, and Roberts is a seven-time champ on regional tours who previously had a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victory.
Bronson’s Super Late Model resume is considerably thinner, in part because he’d made fewer than 10 starts in the division while focusing on modifieds along with Crate and spec-engine Late Model action the past few seasons. I’d rank Bronson’s as the biggest Speedweeks upset at any track over 10 years or more, and perhaps the biggest since unheralded Steve Cornelius of Richmond, Ky., won the 1996 opener. How do you see it?
KK: It’s almost inconceivable that Speedweeks could have ever seen a bigger upset than Bronson's win. I don't think there has ever been a bigger upset winner on the World of Outlaws Late Model Series itself. I mean, come on, looking through the list of WoO winners since '04, no one on it had just a handful of Super Late Model starts under their belt. Add in the fact that Bronson did it against an even stouter Speedweeks field, and it's just a historic performance.
TT: He certainly made it exciting. Between nearly getting sideways on the frontstretch at the white flag, then slipping over the turn-four cushion heading for the checkers, it was one of those races where you weren't sure Bronson would hold on until he literally crossed the line first.
AS: I agree, Todd, that Kyle Bronson's was the most shocking upset of them all and with Kevin that Bronson's is probably the biggest upset in WoO history, too. That race looked like it was over, and then it wasn't, and then he had it again, and then he didn't, and then he took the checkered flag. Kyle's got a ton of laps at Volusia in a variety of different cars, which plays to his advantage, but that is still an incredible run against that caliber of cars. In the big picture, Kyle had perhaps the best Speedweeks of any driver, when you couple his Late Model victory at Volusia with all of his modified success over the previous weeks in Florida.
KK: You’re right, Todd. Twice on the final lap, I thought Bronson was going to suffer an unbelievably crushing defeat. He hung on, though. He said afterward he was so happy that he almost didn't know how to react.
TT: Also noteworthy at Volusia was Jimmy Owens taking a test drive in Darrell Lanigan’s personal Club 29 Race Car. That drew plenty of attention with a World of Outlaws champion trying to lure a Lucas Oil Series champion to his new chassis, and Owens liked the car at least enough to set fast time.
Owens has been perhaps the most successful Bloomquist Race Car driver in recent seasons, but along with his dabbling last year with a Barry Wright Race Car, these are signs that nothing lasts forever.
My take: Any driver considering a chassis change takes the chance of increasing lost confidence in the current chassis, which might explain the struggles of Owens during Speedweeks (just two top-five finishes in 11 starts and not a factor at all at Volusia). What's your take?
KK: The rumors of “someone” getting in Lanigan's car for at least one race early in the week at Volusia started to circulate at Bubba Raceway Park, then Lanigan mentioned he might have “someone” drive his car after he won the BRP finale. When it became clear it was Owens, it definitely got the pit area talking.
From all indications, though, it seems that Lanigan and Owens have quietly developed a friendship over the past year or so, parking near each other when they run the same race, talking often. Considering that chassis-driver relationships usually don't last forever, I guess it's not a surprise that Lanigan and Owens have gravitated together — perhaps, it appears, on more than a one-race basis.
AS: To say Owens has found some success in the Bloomquist Race Cars would be a wild understatement, but it doesn't seem that far-fetched to me that he would consider making the switch to join Club 29. I don't think that Owens is necessarily unhappy in his Bloomquist cars, but like with many things in life, sometimes it can just be time for a change. Jimmy and Darrell are very similar people in terms of their racing and personalities and they seem to recognize the match. I'll go on record saying that I think Owens makes the switch, and I'll even set May 1 as the over-under date.
TT: Overall at Speedweeks, we had 16 Super Late Model winners in 18 races. For comparison, we’ve had no more than 11 different winners any of the past six seasons (and only eight in 2011). The expanded 2004 Speedweeks has 13 different winners, so it’s likely that 16 is an all-time record. A ringing endorsement of the sport’s parity or a fluke aided by Volusia’s unpredictable week?
AS: For me it's a combination of both. As I mentioned earlier with the Volusia first-time winners, I think there is more parity right now than there has ever been in the sport, but it's worth noting that many drivers went with a pick-and-choose strategy this year at Speedweeks. The grueling three-week stretch now leads to a lot of guys taking nights off on the fly and some drivers (like Jonathan Davenport and Chris Madden at Golden Isles) won races right off the bat and then decided to park it for the remainder of Speedweeks. Both of these things leave the door open to spread the love.
TT: What’s a little perplexing to me is that car counts are lower, but there are more different winners. If you look at it that way, it's all the more surprising we've had such a crowded winner's list.
KK: I certainly wouldn't call it a fluke, but I wouldn't go so far to say that 2014 will be a season that sees no dominant forces in the sport. Yeah, there is “parity” because top-notch equipment is readily available to those who can afford it, but over the long haul experience always wins out, and we'll see the usual suspects winning races regularly.
TT: Give me the drivers who raised their stock the most during Speedweeks overall. For me, Billy Moyer proved his learning curve in the Longhorn Chassis will be short. Brady Smith impressed with a stretch of five straight finishes of third or better against top-notch competition. And Eddie Carrier Jr. really kick-started his second attempt at running the Lucas Oil tour. What about for you guys? And maybe a guy who’s stock dropped?
AS: Not to revive a dead horse and then beat it again, but it sure seems like a good time to buy stock in the entire Longhorn Chassis crowd. Brady Smith is another bullish stock, with his strong Speedweeks, especially at Ocala and Volusia. As for someone whose stock dropped, I'll say Don O'Neal. Clint Bowyer Racing’s latest addition challenged on occasion — his solid runner-up finish at Ocala was his high-water mark — but he certainly wasn't the Don O'Neal we are accustomed to seeing at Speedweeks. O'Neal never seriously contended at East Bay or Volusia, places where he has historically been on his A-game.
KK: Brady Smith is the driver who sticks out most to me. His new Rocket Chassis really gave him new life. Not only did he win the WoO opener at Bubba Raceway Park, but he ripped off five consecutive top-three finishes between BRP and Volusia — that's a string of success that is very rare. He did struggle a bit the final few nights at Volusia, it's clear Smith will be a factor this year. He's even considering following the WoO tour if he can arrange the additional sponsorship and manpower (he doesn't have a full-time mechanic right now) to make it happen.
On the other side, Tim McCreadie's positive preseason vibe took a bit of a hit in Florida. He surprisingly struggled with his new Rockets.
TT: We’re glad to have Kevin joining us today, and this is a good time to let DirtonDirt.com subscribers know he’ll be officially joining DirtonDirt.com as a staff member a week from today as he’s leaving his World of Outlaws post. Share some words of welcome, Andy. And Kevin, give us a brief preview of what you’re looking forward to in moving from publicity back to reporting.
AS: I think I speak for all of us at DirtonDirt.com when I say that we are thrilled to have Kevin coming on board. As fellow staffer Derek Kessinger would say, “he's a legend,” and we're lucky to have such a talented and experienced writer joining the team. I've always known Kevin to be one of the nicest guys in the sport and look forward to working with him. Welcome to DirtonDirt.com, Kevin!
TT: Despite his big-block modified heritage (we forgive you, Kevin), he's at the top of the list among Dirt Late Model writers and will provide great analysis and intriguing feature stories at DirtonDirt.com in the coming years.
KK: Thanks for the welcome. I’m thrilled to join a great, truly journalistic website like DirtonDirt. I've enjoyed my eight years as the WoO PR director, and learned a lot about the dirt Late Model industry, but once a reporter, always a reporter, I guess.
I started out writing for Area Auto Racing News back when I was a teenager — yes, mostly covering Northeast Modifieds — and I'm pumped to get back to that side of the business. Hopefully I'll be able to bring DirtonDirt's subscribers plenty of interesting news — and live up to Derek’s hype.