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Lucas Oil Series notebook

Notes: Fertile racetrack could give Pearson a lift

March 17, 2016, 12:38 pm
By Kevin Kovac
DirtonDirt.com senior writer
Earl Pearson Jr.
Earl Pearson Jr.

A new race car and a track where he’s enjoyed plenty of success — Earl Pearson Jr. is hopeful that’s the combination he needs this weekend to turn around his racing fortunes on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

One week after debuting a Longhorn Chassis machine, Pearson returns to action on the national tour for the first time since experiencing a thoroughly frustrating Georgia-Florida Speedweeks. He heads to Atomic Speedway near Chillicothe, Ohio, for Friday night’s Buckeye Spring 50 and, more notable for him, Saturday evening’s $12,000-to-win Indiana Icebreaker at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway, the quarter-mile oval that has treated him very well over the years.

Pearson, 44, of Jacksonville, Fla., won last year’s Icebreaker, the third time in his career that he’s captured what is traditionally the first major Dirt Late Model event of the season in the Midwest. He also was victorious in Brownstown’s Jackson 100 in 2009, adding further evidence of his prowess at the historic facility.

“There must be something about that track that agrees with me because, however it all works out, we usually run very good there,” said Pearson, who previously won the Icebreaker in 2006 and ’09. “I do like the place. It’s kind of wide and short, and you can move all over the racetrack and do what you gotta do. I just really enjoy going to that place.

“It ain’t like I got figured anything out by no means because the guys we’re racing against in this day and time are tough, tough, tough, but I just got a good line around that place. Hopefully we can continue that this year.”

Pearson couldn’t be more in need of an uplifting performance. Last month he began Season 2 of his second tour of duty with Carlton and Kemp Lamm’s Dunn-Benson Motorsports operation in disappointing fashion, finishing no better than seventh in 10 Lucas Oil Series-sanctioned starts during Speedweeks. The four-time circuit champion ended the stretch ranked a distant 11th in the points standings, already a substantial 305 points behind leader and defending titlist Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga.

The poor Speedweeks results prompted Pearson and Co. to skip last month’s DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., in favor of regrouping at the team’s North Carolina shop. A team meeting led them to make a significant change, ordering a new Longhorn car after Pearson had exclusively driven Black Diamond mounts since returning to the Dunn-Benson camp for the 2015 season.

Pearson, of course, has history with the Longhorn firm owned by former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions Bobby and Terry Labonte. He was the first high-profile racer to campaign the cars when he drove for Bobby Labonte’s Dirt Late Model team, which the younger Labonte disbanded after the 2014 season.

“We sat down with the car owners after Speedweeks and had a long discussion about it,” Pearson when asked about the decision to try a Longhorn car in an effort to pull out of his slump (a down period that actually extends back to the mid-2015). “We’re still friends with the Black Diamond people, (co-owners) Ronnie Stuckey and (Darrell) Lanigan and all them … it’s nothing against them guys. We just felt like it was a business decision and we needed to make a change for now, and that’s what we did.

“One thing we want to make sure everybody understands is there’s no hard feelings with us and Black Diamond. We made that call to make a change.”

Pearson, who will continue working with Stuckey when he makes selected non-Lucas Oil Series starts in Larry Moring’s Black Diamond cars, was welcomed back to the Longhorn fold with open arms.

“We talked to Bobby and Justin Labonte (Terry’s son) and Bob Labonte (the family patriarch) and all them guys at Longhorn,” Pearson said. “One thing about it, when I left there we all stayed on great terms. We went back there, and it’s like we never missed a beat.”

Pearson hit the track with his new Longhorn for the first time in last weekend’s Old Man’s Garage Spring Nationals-sanctioned Tennessee Tipoff Classic at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville, Tenn. He finished a quiet 10th but was pleased with the initial returns.

“We felt like we qualified pretty decent and we raced pretty good,” said Pearson, who will continue to carry a Black Diamond car on the road as a backup until the team takes delivery of a second fresh Longhorn vehicle. “It’s just that we were on a high-speed racetrack where you gotta be really, really good to drive by somebody, so it was hard to race on.

“Overall, we felt pretty good about the new car after getting a race under our belt. All the guys at Longhorn did a good job getting this car put together, and we kept everything pretty standard to figure out what they was doing as far as a group. We don’t have a lot of notes yet, but all them guys are helping us — Matt (Langston), Justin (Labonte) — and everybody on our crew (chief mechanic John Pfeffer, Chad Capps, Catfish Lucas and Mack Hyatt) is working hard to get things turned around. We feel good about it and I hope we can get back on track.”

Start of something big

Atomic Speedway promoter Brad McCown couldn’t be more excited for Friday night’s Buckeye Spring 50.

“We’re super anxious to get started,” he said two days before his 3/8-mile track’s season opener. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on here this year. We’ve got a super-aggressive schedule — I think we’ve got 34 nights of racing, and of course the biggest Late Model race (the $50,000-to-win Lucas Oil-sanctioned Buckeye Nationals on May 13-14) and the biggest sprint car race (the Oct. 21-22 All-Star Circuit of Champions season finale paying at least $20,000-to-win) at the track. It’s definitely the biggest year ever around here.”

Last year’s Buckeye Spring 50 drew a solid 40-car field and a strong crowd that McCown said numbered over 4,500 fans despite a weather forecast that wasn’t ideal. With clear skies in the forecast for Friday evening, he’s expecting to kick off his third full season at Atomic’s helm with a blockbuster $10,000-to-win show.

“We added some new dirt to the track and we had a test-and-tune this past Saturday and (the surface) looked pretty good,” McCown said. “It rained all night Thursday night (before the practice) and we rolled it in pretty good. It’s actually dry right now — we haven’t really had any rain this week — so we’re putting some water to it and packing it in even more. The guys are working their butts off on it … we’re gonna try to get it as smooth as we can.

“It don’t need to be as fast as it was last year,” he added, noting the heavy track conditions for the 2015 lidlifter. “But we had 12 inches of snow about eight or 10 days before last year’s race, so that contributed to the fast track. We’ve been blessed with better weather this year (leading up to the race). It’s been windy here (Wednesday) and it dried everything out pretty good. It’ll be a little cooler this weekend which will make the moisture stay in the track Friday night, but there’s no rain in the forecast so we should be in good shape.”

Friday night’s program will serve as a tuneup for the inaugural Buckeye Nationals that’s less than two months away.

“All the Lucas Oil guys coming in will get all their notes and stuff for the big one from this show,” McCown said. “I’ve talked to some of them, and they said they know the track surface will probably be a little different in a couple months but they’ll get a good baseline about what they have to do to go after the big money in May.”

T-Mac humming along

Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., has stood in victory lane at both Atomic and Brownstown, but it’s been awhile. His Atomic triumph came in a World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series event in 2006 — when the track was still called K-C Raceway — and he captured Brownstown’s $20,000 Jackson 100 prize in 2008.

The 41-year-old driver will concede that both those wins came during two of the best stretches of his Dirt Late Model career — in 2006 he was the WoO champion, and in ’08 he sandwiched his Jackson 100 checkered with a $25,000 Topless 100 victory and a $40,000 Knoxville Late Model Nationals score. He’s been searching to recapture that type of consistent strength ever since.

“I’ll be honest,” McCreadie said in an interview with DirtonDirt.com’s Michael Rigsby during Tuesday night’s Late Model LIVE program, “I’ve tried not to think about and put it in the rearview mirror, but it’s hard to not look back — heck, maybe even the last seven, eight years of my career — and say, ‘Man, what’s happened here? Why have we become a team that can win a $50,000 show and then take a provisional the next night?’ It’s not an easy road to live when you’re on top one day and then the next day you’re down.”

McCreadie has good reason to feel that he’s on his way to finding that elusive level of synchronicity with his Sweeteners Plus team’s program as he heads to this weekend’s Atomic-Brownstown doubleheader. He’s coming off a solid Georgia-Florida Speedweeks; running new Longhorn Race Cars, he qualified for all 16 events he entered and registered five top-five finishes, including a top run of second on Feb. 10 at Volusia.

“Right now, the way the season’s started off with these cars, and just everything we’ve done … we’ve pulled together as a team and it’s amazing,” said McCreadie, who hasn’t raced since his wife, Karen, gave birth to the couple’s second child — a daughter named Cambria — on Feb. 27. “It’s probably the first time I’ve left Florida where I’ve thought, Man, this is a lot of fun. We ran one B-Main out of a 16-race stretch. It’s building blocks, for sure.”

Sitting third in points as he begins his first season as a Lucas Oil Series regular, McCreadie carries plenty of confidence into the weekend.

“I guess for me it’s like, can we get out there (this weekend) and just be comfortable and be up to speed and just continue the success of us having speed?” said McCreadie, who will celebrate his 42nd birthday on April 12. “The wins will come if we can continue being fast.

“At the end of the day, you want to leave everything on the table,” he added during his conversation on Late Model live. “I feel like that’s what we’re gonna try to do (this year). We’re gonna try to always leave everything on the table, and we can look each other in the eye as race team and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Scott Bloomquist was better tonight’ … and, ‘Damn it, if that Josh Richards or Davenport didn’t drive above the cushion when I should’ve been out there … we’ll get ‘em tomorrow.’ Right now, I feel like we’re gonna try as hard as we can and I feel like we have a shot — and when you have a shot, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Odds and ends

Pearson will bid to become the first driver to win back-to-back Indiana Icebreakers at Brownstown since Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., did so in 1999 and 2000. … O’Neal, a two-time Brownstown track champion, has won a Super Late Model special event at his home track in 15 of the past 23 seasons. He last captured the Icebreaker during his 2014 Lucas Oil Series championship campaign. … The two biggest stars of last month’s Georgia-Florida Speedweeks — Davenport and Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va. — will face off for the first time since then in Friday night’s program at Atomic. Neither driver has entered a race since Speedweeks. … Davenport won last year’s Buckeye Spring 50. … Richards only has Atomic’s event on his schedule. … Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., is planning to make his first start of 2016 at Brownstown. … After running only Brownstown’s Icebreaker last year (finishing sixth), Chris Simpson of Oxford, Iowa, has both ends of this weekend’s twin bill on his itinerary. He hasn’t raced since competing in January’s Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout in Tucson, Ariz. … Mason Zeigler of Chalk Hill, Pa., who won his first-ever Lucas Oil Series event last month at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla., plans to enter only Atomic’s action. … Cody Mahoney of Madison, Ind., will race in his backyard at Brownstown one week after scoring a $5,000 Spring 50 triumph at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky.

Correction: Removes incorrect detail about Mason Zeigler winning at Atomic Speedway.

 
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