NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty, Vol. 5: 2021 General Tire Winter Nationals & Wild Wing Shootout

The A-Main: If anyone needed more proof that 2020 never ended, take a look at the evergreen hot streak of one Elk Grove, Calif.’s Kyle Larson.

In only his fifth career late model start, Larson absolutely stomped a stout field in the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series season opener at All-Tech Raceway, leading the last 35 laps of a caution-free feature to win the $15,000 General Tire Winter Nationals A-main.

Larson proved insurmountable on a rain-slick surface outside Gainesville, Fla., moving from sixth to first in the opening 15 laps. What’s more, Larson lapped all the way up to ninth in the final running order, putting both World of Outlaws Late Model winners from a week ago at Volusia Speedway Park (Kyle Bronson and Kyle Strickler) a lap down before the checkers flew.

Defending series champion Jimmy Owens of Newport, Tenn., had his best run of 2021, climbing from 13th to fourth in the final running order. Of the series regulars, Dresden, Ohio’s Devin Moran was the top finisher in second. Winfield, Tenn.’s Mike Marlar finished third after posting the fast qualifying time and announcing that he would be running the LODLMS full time in 2021.

The B-Mains

The inaugural Wild Wing Shootout at Arizona Speedway proved a coming out party for Keith Kunz Motorsports driver Buddy Kofoid, who took to 410 sprint car racing like a duck to water. Kofoid swept the opening two A-mains on Friday and Saturday night, though he told the Flo Racing team in victory lane that his engine let go on the last lap. With Kofoid down a peg with a replacement engine on Sunday, none other than Smoke himself, Tony Stewart, set a new track record and proceeded to hold off a strong charge from Fresno, Calif.’s Dominic Scelzi to win Sunday’s $10,041 A-main.

Saturday’s 75-lap UMP modified finale capped the first week of the annual Winternationals at East Bay Raceway Park, and it was decided by a matter of inches, with Cameron, Wis.’s Kevin Adams using the high-side to best Watts, Okla.’s Jason Hughes after a restart with two laps to go. Adams also clinched the UMP modified points crown with the feature win, his second of the week.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Everyone knows Larson is a generational talent. That doesn’t reduce the jaw-dropping impact of the ass-whooping he put on one of the strongest late model fields in recent memory down on Saturday. Anyone looking for a masterclass in throttle control, look no further. Wow.

Kofoid was fast and aggressive winning the sprint car A-main in Arizona Friday night. Saturday night was more of the same, but still different. Not only did Kofoid again dominate the A-main Saturday, he also set the tone for the evening with a bold, rattle-his-cage slide job that brought Stewart to a near-stop in their heat race.

While Flo Racing’s crew commented that Kofoid’s interview after his heat race demonstrated superb concentration, with the driver able to recount every move he made on track, I saw something else: swagger. Kofoid had a smirk on his face that said he knew how hard he raced, and who he bested doing it. Youth indeed topped age and treachery.

Until Sunday, that is. Stewart looked vintage on Sunday night, breaking the track record, aggressively throwing slide jobs throughout his heat and bobbing and weaving at will to score the A-main. Scoot over, Tom Brady, you’re sharing the old man stage this Sunday.

Adams clinching a $5,000 feature win and a points crown at East Bay with a last-lap pass was quite the, well, accomplishment. Adams spent the final 10-lap run of Saturday night’s race all but scraping the concrete on the high-side of the track, eating up a three-second lead. That was strong, but weathering a lap 74 caution and winding enough momentum during the two-lap run to the checkers to make the winning pass on the high side was a real power move.

For all that success, Adams did not have the fast mod in Florida. That title went to Paris, Tenn.’s Lucas Lee, who won his heat race all five nights of Winternationals competition at East Bay, as well the modified feature Thursday night. But for all that speed…

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

…Lee was easily the most underachieving driver in the mod field. Be it a flat tire Wednesday night, a self-induced mistake in lap traffic Friday while leading the feature or dropping like a rock through the field outside the top 10 after leading the early stages of Saturday’s feature, no driver left more on the table in Tampa than Lee.

North Pole, Alaska’s Bill Balog won the unofficial award for flip of the year after a nasty crash at WWS.

Both B-mains at All-Tech saw big name drivers squander transfer spots to Saturday’s LODLMS A-main on the final lap. The first B-main saw Arizona native Ricky Thornton Jr. forced to roll out of the gas after an ill-advised dive bomb on leader Jesse Stovall, allowing Josh Richards to steam by on the high side to take the last transfer spot. Uniontown, Pa.’s Mason Zeigler followed that up with a poor exit on turn 2 exit that allowed Frankfort, Ill.’s Frank Hackenast Jr. to swoop in and secure the final spot in the A-main field.

Greensboro, N.C.’s Neal Allison nearly lost the micro sprint feature he dominated at Millbridge after the lapped car of Southern Pines, N.C.’s Brianna Lawson spun herself front of the leader exiting turn 4 with two laps to go. Big mistake for a micro race.

Frontstretch Regulars

Defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed made his second micro sprint start of the year at Millbridge Speedway. Creed was a non-factor in his heat race but was running top five in the feature before spinning on lap 4 and suffering damage that put him behind the wall. Creed finished 10th of 13 cars.

Truck regular Stewart Friesen made no glaring errors in his super late model debut at All-Tech but was a distant backmarker in his B-main and missed the feature by a wide margin.

NASCAR Cup Series regular Larson:

Former Truck champion Brett Moffitt also took part in the micro sprint event at Millbridge, finishing second in his heat. Moffitt ended up broadsiding Creed after his spin on lap 4. Moffitt was able to continue, only to get swept up in another wreck on lap 19. He finished 12th of 13.

Three-time Cup champion Stewart was all but invisible the first two nights in the desert but posted the fast time in qualifying Sunday night with a new track record and won the $10,041 A-main finale of the Wild Wing Shootout.

Fanning the Flames

The season-opening LODLMS race went caution-free for 50 laps, featured a racing surface so slick that no driver could stay full throttle, saw comers and goers and leaders forced to deal with lapped traffic while managing tires. Two straight weeks now, dirt late models showing the country how stock car racing is done. Really strong stuff, boys.

It was a tale of two Floridas, because the same could not be said of the opening week salvo of the Winternationals at East Bay. Yellow fever gripped numerous evenings of UMP modified and street stock competition at the infamous Tampa bullring, with Tuesday night’s feel-good street stock story also going up in smoke after Dover, Fla.’s Richard Livernois failed a post-race tire test. Those problems all climaxed on Saturday night during the 75-lap weekend finale. The event format was flawed from the start; any dirt race that requires an on-track intermission for fueling is too long. There’s no reason a 50-lap finale for a $5,000 purse isn’t sufficient. Not to mention that said intermission broke up a brewing green-flag battle for the lead and triggered a rash of cautions; five cautions ensued between the post-intermission on lap 38 and getting to lap 40 on the scoreboard.

Format aside, Saturday’s A-main felt like the dirt racing equivalent of the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. Yes, the finish was nuts, but it took an eternity to get there. 75 laps on a 3/8 mile oval took nearly 80 minutes to complete. There were 12 caution flags in those 75 laps.

Let’s put that into perspective. Bristol Motor Speedway’s spring race is 300 laps, four times the length of Saturday’s feature. Imagine a Bristol Xfinity Series race that takes over six hours to run and features 48 caution flags. Proportionally, that’s what Saturday night at East Bay added up to. Yellow fever? It felt like a plague.

Fortunately, the vaccine for that particular disease has already arrived at East Bay.

The winged sprint car season has officially kicked off, yet leaving Arizona Speedway the only car class in America with more flips than Chili Bowl midgets is… the IMCA modifieds?! Between California’s new year’s opener races and multiple flips at the the Wild West Shootout this weekend, it’s the blocky open-wheel rides that are proving the high flyers of 2021.

Flo Racing reported that Rico Abreu, who was sitting in the No. 57 Silva Racing seat that Larson made a fixture in victory lane coast to coast in 2020, jokingly told fans in the pits that he was filling in until the soon-to-be Cup regular flew in to run the feature. As great as it is to have Abreu running sprint cars anywhere, it’d be hard to fault any dirt fan wishing that Abreu wasn’t joking.

One more note on Larson. Search Kyle Larson and see how racing Twitter has been in full-blown meltdown arguing that Larson’s lack of accomplishments in Cup racing limit his stature as a racecar driver. With all due respect, that Larson thrives in 900-horsepower cars and falters in restrictor-plate machines with spoilers taller than he is speaks volumes as to his talent.

Between the Super Bowl impacting scheduling the annual Winternationals at East Bay (Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is a stone’s throw from the track) and the impending NFL schedule change with an extended regular season, Speedweeks (month?) in Florida is definitely going to be impacted, especially with NASCAR unlikely to leave the Daytona 500 on President’s Day weekend and likely in direct competition with the Super Bowl come 2022.

The good news for dirt fans? Speaking to Area Auto Racing News, World Racing Group CEO Brian Carter observed that “our crowds have continued to grow at Volusia despite what has been happening at Daytona. We had historically been dependent on the Daytona fans, but not as much anymore.” Rare good news in 2021. The more independence that can be put between the asphalt circus and dirt racing, the better. To steal a line from the great Greg Graffin, “come join us.”

It was great to see winged 410s back on track, but a car count of 26 sprints for the inaugural Wild Wing Shootout was disappointing after the super late model field was so rich at Arizona Speedway last week (B-mains were not needed over nights two and three of the event). With the World of Outlaws still yet to start their season, it makes me wonder if Arizona Speedway would be better off extending the Wing program to include a few more features. The purses were good, but Arizona is a long haul from the Ohios and Pennsylvanias that are rich in sprint cars. Five features would offer more chances to amortize tow expenses.

I don’t want to come off as overly critical, as the Shootout organizers run a tight ship, so compliments to them for a two-class program that got in, raced hard and got out. Fans took note.

I know this isn’t a new practice, but after sitting through the World of Outlaws Late Model openers last weekend where 30 seconds of heavy metal got blasted through the track PA as the cars hit the backstretch coming to green, and then watching the WWS pull the same stunt with the sprint cars during the A-main pace laps, the question I’d ask is, why? Metal makes for great promo ads, but pumping in a bunch of noise to interrupt the calm before the storm of 24 obscenely overpowered machines going full throttle robs more tension than it creates. There is no greater sound in sports than racecar engines; let them speak for themselves.

It was a bad week for dirt racing as it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, the indoor dirt championships in Trenton, N.J., have now been officially canceled for the second year running. The Dirt Track at Las Vegas was forced to cancel its scheduled Spring Break event next month due to fan restrictions. And worst of all, Cardinal Motor Speedway in Eunice, N.M., has fallen victim to pandemic hardship, with the track owners announcing this weekend that the track will be closing for good. 

https://www.facebook.com/cardinalspeedway/posts/3613476652033212

We’ll have more on the ongoing challenges facing dirt racing (outside the state of Florida anyway) in this week’s Thursday Morning Thunder.

Numbers Game

4 – flip count at the weekend’s Wild Wing Shootout (and only half were sprint cars)

4 – number of tracks confirmed to have hosted dirt oval track events this weekend

57 – Lucas Oil Dirt Late Models entered at All-Tech, the largest car count for any class this weekend

75 – longest feature by lap count; Saturday’s UMP Modified A-main at East Bay

$15,000 – largest posted purse of the weekend for Saturday’s Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model A-main

Up Next: Speedmonth in Florida throttles up to full speed this week, with the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Models taking up annual residency at East Bay, modifieds hitting Bubba Raceway Park and every form of late model under the sun heading to North Florida Speedway. Buckle up dirt fans, there will be at least one A-main event contested for the next 30 straight days.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading, and to all dirt fans out there, remember that wearing a mask, staying 6 ft. apart and even web streaming are no reason you can’t think (or play) dirty.

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