NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty, Vol. 4: 2021 Sunshine Nationals & Wild West Shootout Finale

The A-Main – Blairsville, Ga.’s Jonathan Davenport capped a strong performance in the desert with a commanding win in the $25,000 super late model finale of the Wild West Shootout at Arizona Speedway. Davenport, on the back of his third Shootout win, captured an additional $10,000 bonus for scoring three feature wins in the Shootout.

Davenport, whose car was routinely fastest in clean air all week but had struggled in lapped traffic, benefitted both from high early-race attrition and a mid-race caution that cut down the number of lappers. Davenport built a 2.5-second lead inside of 20 laps to go before catching the back of the field. New Waverly, Texas’s Tyler Erb, who had won the last two Shootout features and was also eligible for a $10,000 bonus, got within a couple car lengths of Davenport in the closing laps but never mounted a serious challenge.

The B-Mains – After Davenport stole the headlines out west last weekend, winning two of the first three super late features, it was Erb that brought the fireworks this week heading into Sunday, besting Arizona-native Ricky Thornton Jr. and Davenport in thrilling finishes on Friday and Saturday night. 

Home state Florida driver Kyle Bronson kicked off the World of Outlaws Late Model Series season with a dominant performance that saw him top qualifying and his heat race. Sans a self-induced mistake on lap 22 of the feature, Bronson was untouchable opening night. Saturday night saw soon-to-be Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series regular Kyle Strickler put on a similar display, scoring his first career WoO LM win.

Bronson also won the biggest crate late model purse of the year to date, scoring the $10,000 CRUSA 604 late model feature at Volusia after Ice Bowl champion Michael Page was disqualified for an issue with his valve springs.

Longtime veteran Bobby Hogge of Salinas, Calif. won a dramatic IMCA modified feature at Stockton, making the pass for the lead on the outside on the white-flag lap and enduring heavy contact by a desperate, dive-bombing Anthony Slaney of Martinez, Calif. in turn 3 to preserve the victory.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

The battle that Erb and Thornton staged over the last 12 laps of Friday’s super late feature at WWS may not be topped all year. Racing does not get better than that duel. Take a bow gents. Erb and Davenport didn’t quite match the barnburner from Friday, but their late-race duel Saturday night put the Chili Bowl A-main to shame, and went a caution-free 40 laps to boot. And as for Davenport, he made it clear on night one of the WWS last weekend that they made the trip to Arizona for big money. They missed out on the six-figure bonuses, but still left with more than $50,000 in the bank.

Floridian Bronson turned Volusia into his personal playground over the course of the Sunshine Nationals. He was all but untouchable in WoO competition on Thursday, posting the fastest qualifying lap, winning his heat and proving his own worst enemy, one he overcame, to win the season opener for the WoO late models. Bronson followed that up Saturday with a big-money win in the Crate Racin’ USA Winter Challenge feature thanks to a disqualification. Two days work at Volusia, and Bronson racked up more than $22,000 in winnings. I doubt there’s any driver from Florida or any other state more ready for Speedweeks to start.

Calera, Okla.’s William Gould capped off a $5,000 sweep of the Bash from the Beach IMCA modified features at South Texas Speedway Saturday night driving a car with a broken shock and an engine on seven cylinders. Props to Gould for the W, though having watched that feature it felt like that was partially a product of a track that proved tough to pass on and rife with yellow fever.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

For all the sympathy Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was garnering Friday night for his heat race woes in Tulsa, there was no driver in America that had more cause to be aggrieved that night than Clyde, Texas’s Robby Crabtree. Part of a stellar limited modified feature that was easily the highlight of the rain-delayed Battle from the Beach at South Texas Speedway, Crabtree had run down race leader Marcus Mikulenchak of Corpus Christi, Texas inside of five laps to go and was all but certain to take the lead as Mikulenchak struggled with lap traffic. That riveting battle was derailed by a questionable debris caution that robbed Crabtree of both momentum and the lapped traffic he was using to his advantage, and it likely cost him the win; Crabtree spun trying to get underneath Mikulenchak for the race win with two laps to go. 

And while maybe not as victimized as Jason McDougal was in the Chili Bowl D-main Saturday afternoon, sport mod driver Andrew Pearce at the Stockton Dirt Track had every reason to be upset. The first time he caught Galt, Calif.’s Les Friend for the lead near the mid-race point, he was unable to make it stick in turn 4. On lap 20, with five to go in the feature, he struck with a clean pass exiting turn 2. Come turn 4 on the same lap, Friend absolutely ran over Pearce, eventually driving away to the win. Members of Pearce’s crew accosted Friend in victory lane after the race, so much so that the track had to cancel Friend’s victory lane interview. Cancel culture in California, who’da thunk it?

Frontstretch Regulars

Former Truck Series champion Matt Crafton qualified for his first A-main in the modified division of the WWS on his third try Friday night, but only posted a 22nd-place result in said A-main. Crafton snuck into the Sunday A-main as well but posted an unremarkable finish, going only 2 for 5 in qualifying for features.

Former Cup Series regular Ken Schrader won a heat and led the opening 10 laps of Wednesday night’s Sport Compact feature at Cocopah Speedway before the engine went south and sent him packing early. Schrader also won an IMCA modified heat Thursday night before fading in the feature. Schrader qualified for the final two A-mains of the IMCA Winternationals on Friday and Saturday night, finishing 11th and 10th.

And of note, Mikulenchak that won the limited modified feature Friday at STS was driving a car owned by former Xfinity Series racer Joe Aramendia.

Fanning the Flames

If there are series in dirt racing capable of voluntarily opening its season against both the WWS and the Chili Bowl Nationals, the WoO Late Models is one of them. Having said that, even with the Chili Bowl proving a misfire on its biggest night, the Sunshine Nationals felt like nothing more than a false start. For starters, as Brad Doty summed up Friday:

But beyond that, the heavy hitters spent their time punching below their weight. Brandon Sheppard, one of the winningest drivers in series history, won at Volusia last Speedweeks and finished no worse than sixth in a half-dozen starts at the track last year. He finished seventh and ninth this weekend. Defending Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model champion Jimmy Owens had to scrape in the back of a B-main just to make the feature on Thursday, and though he ran better on Saturday the No. 20, which won multiple races at Volusia a season ago, was never a contender. Strickler looked every bit the contender Saturday, scoring his first career WoO LM win, but he’s chosen to run the Lucas Oil tour in 2021. Series regular Tony Jackson has suffered a season’s worth of mechanical failures in two features. And 2015 series champion and expected title contender Shane Clanton was nowhere to be found, recovering at home after being hospitalized with COVID-19.

That’s not to say there weren’t some bright spots. Watching local late model standout Bronson dominate Thursday’s opener was one of those rare moments of the locals slaying the dragon that the WoO can produce. Rookie Parker Martin showed a ton of raw speed before fading in the A-main. But perhaps most important, neither of the Volusia A-main features could hold a candle to the repeated barnburners super late standouts Davenport, Thornton and Erb continually staged out west. Here’s hoping WoO rethinks this early start come 2022.

The super late model racing at Arizona Speedway was more than capable of holding its own compared to the best the Chili Bowl had to offer. The intensity of said racing can’t be surprising given the WWS pay structure. Winning the points title for the WWS paid $3,000, meaning every single feature win was worth more than the points crown. Sunday’s super late feature alone paid $25,000 to win. Emphasize winning and racing thrives. This isn’t rocket science people. Though a Rocket Chassis never hurts.

The Saturday night feature at Arizona was not as good as Thursday’s, but it got good at the end thanks to a long green-flag run. After watching both a stellar limited late feature at STS and a subpar WoO feature at Volusia Saturday night marred at the end by very questionable caution flags (at Volusia, for a car that was off the racing groove and still moving), friendly reminder that it doesn’t matter if it’s 40 laps or 400 miles, green-flag racing will cure most ails.

Saturday’s program at Stockton Dirt Track marked the first such event in California in 2021 that did not see a racecar flip over. Given the small car count, all involved are likely breathing a sigh of relief.

Page’s active 2021 start to the crate late model season is a curious case. Proving utterly dominant on track with an Ice Bowl win and a CRUSA Winter Challenge win Thursday night at Volusia before Saturday night’s DQ, the No. 18 in some ways has been a face crate racing should want. After all, Page competes with what the DirtVision commentary crew described as resources beneath that of a national touring series driver. Even more impressive? That Page’s now-stripped $10,000 win on Saturday night came behind the wheel of a 17-year-old racecar. Dream come true for what’s supposed to be an economy class of late model racing?

Not entirely. Let’s assume for a second Page’s win Saturday had held. Put that $10,000 back in his bank account, and Page driving a crate late model would have posted winnings for the start of the 2021 season that would be comparable to the super late drivers that spent nearly a full week racing in Arizona. Taking a stance against big-money races of any kind is a tough place to be, especially considering that putting up $10,000 to win the 604 crate feature at Volusia Saturday night resulted in more than 60 late models showing up. Can’t argue with results.

I will, however, also not argue with DirtonDirt’s Robert Holman, who back in November wrote an excellent column expressing concern with the proliferation of big-money crate late model races. Putting big money in economy classes means only one thing: that big-money teams are going to proliferate in economy classes.

For as frustrating as it was to watch the best feature STS could muster all night long spoiled by the officiating, the bigger takeaway I had from this weekend came from the event being my first use of the RaceXR+ streaming service. At $34.99 a month for a schedule that right now is one event a month, it’s steep. But dirt race fans had better get comfy with this service and fast, as they will be the exclusive home of March’s Bristol Nationals. The Dirt Nerds podcast a few episodes back expressed concern about a lesser known streamer (i.e. not Flo Racing) handling such a major event. After this weekend, my concerns are assuaged for two reasons. One, there are some clever minds obviously working on this thing, because RaceXR’s production integrating race control radio transmissions into the live audio feed at all times is FANTASTIC and something that all streamers, including the mighty Flo, should “borrow” immediately. More racing, less personalities always.

Second, RaceXR was part of several instances of promoter goodwill being on display throughout the weekend. Arizona Speedway took the opportunity to feed their competitors midweek…

…while RaceXR opted to pay out a full purse to the racers that contested South Texas’s IMCA stock car class despite the car count proving the smallest of the four classes run (fewer than 10 cars contested the class). Respect to both entities for taking care of the truly “essential” workers.

On a final note, let’s go back to that bit about listening to race control radios. As I emphasized in yesterday’s column recapping the 24 Hours of the Chili Bowl, making dirt racing shows more efficient is a concern that the entirety of the sport needs to recognize. On that note, I will say this after listening to race control comms from two programs at South Texas Speedway… this is not solely for race control to own. I can’t count on my fingers, toes and freckles the number of times that drivers were either not listening or not comprehending instructions to get in line, slow down or form up. It got so bad on Friday night that a race that was supposed to start Dixie-style double file ended up starting single-file… because the drivers in positions 2-5 were not listening to race control commands. Nobody wants to be told what to do these days.

Numbers Game

1 – car entered in Stockton’s “spectator race.” Said spectator jumped the cushion in his 1993 Corvette and had to be pushed back to the pits.

10 – number of dirt tracks confirmed to have contested oval events this weekend

307 – largest car count (the Chili Bowl in Tulsa)

$3,000 – Davenport’s winnings for scoring the Wild West Shootout super late points title (by comparison, his three wins and six podium finishes in six starts netted more than $50,000).

$25,000 – largest purse of the weekend (the super late finale of the WWS)

Where it Rated (on a scale of one to six with one can a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll end the weekend with four cold Busch beers. The super lates at the Wild West Shootout were in a league of their own, overshadowing every other racing program in America. Those features, coupled with a few dramatic sport mod races caught on tape delay from South Texas and Stockton, redeemed an otherwise unremarkable weekend for the WoO at Volusia.

Up Next: It’s more kickoffs all next week. The marathon Winternationals at Easy Bay Raceway Park commence with modified features, the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Models open their season with features at All-Tech Raceway and the Arizona Speedway debuts the “Wild Wing Shootout,” bringing 410 sprint cars to follow up a stellar week of late model racing. Thanks for reading, and to all dirt fans out there, remember that wearing a mask, staying six feet apart and even web streaming are no reason you can’t think (or play) dirty.

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