Notes: Erb's perseverance weathers caution
ROSSBURG, Ohio — Dennis Erb Jr.’s perseverance at Eldora Speedway’s Dream XXII presented by Ferris Mowers was on display throughout the 100-lapper as three times the Carpentersville, Ill., lost the lead, and three times he gamely charged back ahead. | Complete Dream coverage
But even then the 43-year-old thought it was over — fewer than three seconds before the checkered flag was ready to fly — he was required to summon another big dose of perseverance to close out the $100,000 payday and his first crown jewel victory.
With Erb in turn four and heading for the checkers, a tangle betweens second-running Josh Richards and the slower car of Jared Landers exiting turn two brought out a caution flag, and Erb was greeted with a yellow instead of checkered flag as warning lights blinked around the track. For a driver who, on previous restarts, appeared to need several laps to get rolling, it was not what he wanted to see.
“Man, I was coming out of four when they started to wave and yell. I was like, oh I couldn't believe it. I was like, here we go,” Erb said. “I’m sitting here trying to win the biggest race here and then caution comes out coming out of four.”
Suddenly the pursuers that had fallen behind Erb after he’d taken the lead on lap 90 — Richards, Dale McDowell and a charging Jonathan Davenport — got one last shot at Erb during a two-lap shootout. Anything could happen, the drivers knew, with a double-file restart and Erb picking either the inside (where he’d run most of the race) or the outside (which allowed him to gain more momentum quickly).
“I could tell Dennis was struggling whether he should take the bottom or take the top and he took the top at the last second,” Richards said. “I knew it would be tough trying to get a run up the bottom.”
McDowell wondered “if those guys get to racing hard, I thought maybe I was in the catbird’s seat,” the third-place finisher said. “I thought well these guys might go down there and beat and bang and I can sneak by, but that wasn't the case.”
Erb indeed got a solid jump and didn’t face a serious challenge over the final two laps, relieved that the race ended like he believed it would moments earlier.
“I had to make the call on where to go to restart and I was hoping just to take (Richards’) line there,” Erb said. “I knew we had a good car and I knew, I think we could have floated around there pretty good. It just worked out for us.”
Eldora rookie shines
The first-year Eldora driver that turned the most heads during Dream XXII weekend was Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., and that continued into Saturday’s 100-lap finale.
Thornton, who improved 12 positions for a second-place finish to Brandon Sheppard in a Thursday preliminary feature, tackled his first Late Model grind on the historic high banks driving the Baldwin, Wis.-based car of J.R. Haley.
“I'm honestly tired. I haven't ran a whole lot of 100-lappers, definitely never one in a Late Model Luckily yellows kind of helped me out a little bit,” Thornton said. “The biggest thing I probably learned is just about the air. I don't run a Late Model enough to know it at all. Now I know you can't restart behind a guy, you can't get in the corner behind him, just be able to move around what you can and can't do.”
The eighth-starting Thornton figured it out enough to work his way into the top five on the 44th lap, and he was running sixth late but got shuffled back to 10th on the final restart.
“I felt like it'd probably take me anywhere from five to 10 laps to get going (on restarts), which hurt us there, especially that last restart, but once we finally got going then I was fine,” Thornton said.
Thornton adds the 10th-place finish in his first crown jewel start to a solid, if part-time, 2016 season in Haley’s machine. Thornton earned $5,000 for a second-place finish in January's Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout finale in Tucson, Ariz., and a third-place run in late March at La Salle (Ill.) Speedway. When will the driver with 23 modified victories in 2016 be back in a Late Model?
“I don't know,” Thornton said. “Hopefully it's here pretty soon, but it depends on J.R. He's the man that makes the decisions.”
Comeback falls short
In trying to become the first driver to win back-to-back Dreams, Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., had his work cut out for him when he ran into problems just before the race’s midpoint.
After settling into fifth for most of the first half of the race, Davenport made his move by lap 40 and was up to third when he suddenly slowed on the frontstretch to draw a lap-43 caution, ducking into the infield pits.
He’d been running relatively conservatively because “the pace was faster than I wanted to go. I just really got going there and I drove up through there pretty easy and we had a great car. Then I just hit that lip over there coming off (turn) two and it packed the right rear full of mud, so I had to come in and change that.”
Davenport returned to the track in 15th spot and took second from eventual winner Dennis Erb Jr. on lap 73, but when Erb regained the spot on lap 87 Davenport never ran higher than third again.
“Then I just burned the edges off (his tires) trying to get back up there and really, I didn't think I could make it up there that fast or I wouldn't have went so hard,” Davenport said. “Then I got behind Josh (Richards) there and just somebody running your line, just that little bit of air, just made me a little too free and got a push in a little bit getting in a corner and ended up hitting a wall there and I bent my toy up there a little bit. Then I just was trying to hang on from there.”
The Dream’s third-place finisher will get another shot at becoming a back-to-back winner in September at Eldora’s 46th annual World 100 when $49,000 is on the line.
“I love this place. … They keep working on the banking just a little bit. I can tell it's just a little bit different than what it was when I was here last year. It's definitely a heck of a race. We could run top, bottom, middle, just wherever your car was good at is where you could go.”
Another top-10 for Madden
Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., has been among Eldora’s most consistent top-10 drivers over the past 10 years, but his eighth top-10 finish at the Dream — with a best of fourth in 2010 — doesn’t quite meet his expectations.
Starting 16th, Madden’s high-water mark came when he got to eighth, but he settled for ninth at the conclusion of the 100 laps.
“We got in a rhythm right there one time and felt like we were going to be able to get a few more guys picked off and then we kept having those caution after caution and we never did get our rhythm back going again.
“You can get in a rhythm at this place and really find some speed and be fast but you know what? We made another top 10 again, but I'm not getting what I want. I want to win here and I missed it, just a couple adjustments and that's all it takes. It don't take but one and you won't beat these guys. I guess we'll be happy with our ninth-place finish and go home and make some good notes and come back next time and try something different.”
Madden is glad to be an Eldora contender, but he’s still looking for that breakout performance at the Tony Stewart-owned track.
“When you make this field it's an accomplishment. It really is,” Madden said. “You have to be honest with yourself but I'm still hard on myself too at the same time because I want to win. I come to win but we'll take our ninth place finish again. We'll see what we come back and do at the World (100).”
Odds and ends
With Scott Bloomquist failing to make the Dream starting grid for the first time since 2003, Dale McDowell now has the longest active streak with nine consecutive starts going back to 2008. … The seven Illinois starters in the 28-car field were twice as many as any state except Georgia, which had four starters. … Rocket Chassis and Longhorn Chassis had a race-high five starters apiece in the Dream field. … What did eighth-place finisher Shane Clanton learn after 100 Dream laps? “I guess I've got to knock the deck out of it like everybody does — we've got to get up on the wall,” he said.