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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty, Vol. 8: 2021 Sugar Bowl Nationals at Hendry County & Speedweeks Finales

The A-Main – East Moline, Ill.’s “Flying Taco” RJ Gonzales led flag to flag in Saturday’s (Feb. 13) Sugar Bowl Nationals A-main for the IMCA STARS Mod Lite Series, scoring the $5,750 victory at Hendry County Motorsports Park. Gonzales also won the mod lite prelude race at the track Friday night, capping a $6,600 weekend.

https://www.facebook.com/modifiedlitestars/posts/286318579766533

Gonzales led all 30 laps from the pole in what was a largely uneventful feature sans a lap 24 red flag that saw a nasty three-car wreck spread across the frontstretch after Eustis, Fla.’s Bo Bass got turned into oncoming traffic. Getting the worst of it was Fulton, N.Y.’s Kyle Demo, who took several minutes before climbing out of his car unscathed.

Gonazles’ win was the only big money feature in the country left on Saturday night after steady rainfall led to cancellations of the World of Outlaws Late Model Series at Volusia Speedway Park, the USAC National Sprints finale at Bubba Raceway Park and the King of the 360s Winternationals event at East Bay Raceway Park.

The B-Mains

Prior to Saturday’s cancellation, VSP was the headliner for dirt racing all week long. Riverton, Ill.’s Justin Allgaier won the $5,000 UMP modified finale at the track Monday night, with Watertown, N.Y.’s Tim McCreadie and Oakwood, Ill.’s Bobby Pierce scoring wins in the two $7,000 DIRTcar-sanctioned super late model features Tuesday and Wednesday.

From there, the World of Outlaws LMS kicked off their season. Mooresville, N.C.’s Kyle Strickler took care of business Thursday night in a calamity-filled event, with Evans, Ga.’s Brandon Overton rebounding to win Friday after enduring a hard crash in Thursday’s race. Strickler, who on the strength of Thursday’s win plus his victory in the Sunshine Nationals last month, leaves Florida leading the WoO LMS points as a rookie. It was thus no surprise to hear that Strickler has opted out of his pursuit of the 2021 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series title in favor of the WoO tour.

There were few surprises to be had in the season-opening USAC races at BRP this week. San Jose, Calif.’s Thomas Meseraull won the rain-delayed midget feature on Monday night, with Cullman, Ala.’s Kevin Thomas Jr. and Ione, Calif.’s Justin Grant splitting the two sprint car features later in the week.

Byhalia, Miss.’s Dale Howard was crowned “King of the 360s” after rain cut the EBRP Winternationals schedule a feature short.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

The two best races of the weekend came courtesy of the hobby stock support class at BRP and the street stocks at HCM. At BRP on Friday, Starke, Fla.’s Jason Garver and Ocala, Fla.’s Jason Gamble put on a 10-lap, squeaky clean side-by-side battle that ended up decided by half a car length. The second half of that feature was stock car perfection.

Having said that, there must have been something in the water, as Friday night’s street stock feature at HCM saw Plant City, Fla.’s Tim Gay and Okeechobee, Fla.’s Tim Powers put on a similar display. The BRP feature was the better race, though HCM had more drama. Because it’s arguable whether it was more impressive that Gay won or that he talked himself out of a penalty after jumping two initial starts (per the IMCA broadcast, the track gave Gay a mulligan after he reported a transponder issue).

There’s no doubt that starting from the pole was a major advantage for T-Mez in Monday’s make-up USAC national midget feature at BRP. That doesn’t change the fact that he did an impeccable job dealing with lap traffic that allowed him to hold off a spirited charge from defending series champion Chris Windom, and it gave race fans the interview of the week, if not the year.

Kewanee, Ill.’s Ray Bollinger had an easier go of it than T-Mez in smacking the UMP modified field at HCM the way he did Saturday, proving untouchable in both his heat race and his feature despite having never taken a lap at the track prior. When interviewed after his win, Bollinger said he had intended to race at HCM Friday as well, but had to abandon that plan after getting too drunk fishing during the day.

After getting on my soapbox recently about drivers using caution periods as a chance to get even on the track, credit goes to Waterloo, N.Y.’s Matt Sheppard for finding a non-violent way to get his point across. For those that missed it, Sheppard got spun and was unhappy with Mooresville, N.C.’s Max McLaughlin on lap 1 of Thursday’s Super DIRTcar feature. Sheppard was upset and then went matador on the field, turning his car around the wrong way, parking in front of McLaughlin’s car in turn 1 and refusing to move.

What’s more, Sheppard recovered to score a top-10 finish in Thursday’s DIRTcar feature. However, in just the latest example of racecar drivers/people in the state of Florida having no restraint whatsoever…

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Sheppard proceeded to earn probation from DIRTcar for reportedly punching McLaughlin post-race.

Sheppard’s efforts proved fruitless, as McLaughlin proceeded to win fast qualifier and his heat race and finish top 10 the following evening. Plus, he earned a big gator for his efforts over Speedweeks (we’d have put McLaughlin as a driver who accomplished something, but it felt more appropriate here)….

Ocala, Fla.’s Rick Elwood brought out more yellow flags solo in his heat races Friday and Saturday in Thunderstock competition at BRP than the rest of the field combined did the entire weekend. Driving a car that has “for sale” painted on the quarterpanels, maybe BRP would be better off buying the damn thing and parking it in the name of a better show.

There’s no doubt that driving 410 wingless sprint cars is about the hardest thing to do in dirt racing, but that doesn’t change the fact that Laveen, Ariz.’s Stevie Sussex wrecked his car during the pace laps at BRP on Friday.

I’ll admit this comparison is partially because I had Robby Gordon on the brain after the Frontstretch staff group chat Friday night melted down commenting on his likeness to Cory Roper. But watching Sorrento, Fla.’s Anthony Barrett drive into oncoming traffic and the retaining wall repeatedly without lifting during his modified heat Friday in a No. 7 car reminded me a lot of the other Gordon.

Frontstretch Regulars

  • NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Allgaier capped the UMP modifieds residency at VSP by scoring the win in the $5,000 finale on Monday night. A “big gator” trophy for ‘Lil Gator.
  • Former ARCA Series regular Steve Arpin finished 20th in the UMP modified finale at Volusia Speedway Park on Monday.
  • Former Xfinity Series regular Cale Conley qualified for both 360 winged sprint car A-mains at EBRP, finishing 10th and 21st. Conley won a B-Main on Thursday night.
  • Two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton finished eighth in the UMP modified finale at VSP on Monday.
  • Former Truck Series regular Tyler Dippel qualified for all the DIRTcar Super Series features at VSP this week, scoring three top-10 finishes.
  • Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott recovered from a spin in qualifying to win his heat race in Monday’s USAC National Midget Series program at BRP. Elliott finished 14th in the A-main.
  • Former ARCA Series competitor Chad Finley missed the first two super late model features at VSP before qualifying for Thursday night’s WoO late model feature. His night was short-lived, however, as Finley ended up in a lap 2 wreck with Darrell Lanigan’s racecar parked on his hood.

  • Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen dominated the opening two events of the DIRTcar Super Series season, winning the fast qualifier awards, heat and feature races on both Tuesday and Wednesday night. Thursday’s extensive rain delay prevented Friesen from going for three straight wins.
  • Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley finished 10th in the UMP modified finale at VSP on Monday.
  • Former Cup Series regular David Reutimann won a last chance qualifier on Monday to make the UMP modified finale at VSP. He finished 17th.
  • Former Cup Series regular Ken Schrader finished third in a last chance qualifier at VSP on Monday and failed to advance to the UMP modified finale.
  • Former Cup Series regular David Stremme transferred from an LCQ to Monday’s UMP modified finale at VSP, finishing 31st.
  • Former Cup Series regular Kenny Wallace won a last chance qualifier on Monday to make the UMP modified finale at VSP. He finished ninth.

Fanning the Flames

You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t, and that’s the spot that the promoters at VSP found themselves in after rain interrupted the DIRTcar Nationals program Thursday night. VSP opted to restore the track surface and press on to complete their races, citing the need to give the paying race fan a complete program. The problem? Feature races for a weekday race didn’t start until 12:36 a.m., with the final feature finishing close to 2 a.m. I’ve been on both sides of this issue as a fan before, and while on a weekend I’d be fully onboard with VSP’s decision to press on and get racing done, had I not had a regularly scheduled off day on Friday I’d have had to pack up and go home or risk reporting to work groggy and unproductive. I’m sure the audience at VSP skews tourist, especially for Speedweeks, but 2 a.m. on a weekday before driving home is asking a lot of fans to endure.

I fully concede that I’m a newbie learning the many ranks of USAC racing, but why is a C-main called a C-main and a B-main called a semi? If the Chili Bowl has taught us anything, alphabet soup is tasty and easy to digest.

The only downside to the streaming proliferation that is making dirt racing more accessible than ever is that along with more races, there’s more subscriptions proliferating as well. Having said that, let’s extend some well-deserved applause to the folks at Flo Racing and Racin’ Boys working together to make more major-league sprint car racing available to existing subscribers (read here for details).

In the dirt world’s worst kept secret, super late model rookie Strickler has dropped his intent to run the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series full-time, instead opting to join the WoO LMS. The results speak for themselves; Strickler failed to crack the top 20 through the entire LOLMDS residency in Florida. Driving in WoO, Strickler posted two wins and leads the points through five events. The points make it a necessity, but given that the WoO have run all of their 2021 races to date at Volusia, it remains to be seen if this decision is going to pan out long-term, because between VSP being one of the longest dirt tracks in the country and being home to a new clay surface that threw the entire field for a loop is hardly representative of the tracks across the circuit.

It’s also no secret that EBRP’s days as a racetrack are numbered, but credit to Flo Racing for scoring an interview with track owner Al Varnadore to give fans an update on the track’s life expectancy. As it stands, EBRP will host its final Winternationals in 2024, with nearby mining operations having purchased the land to utilize as a de facto landfill for waste rock and water. Worth a watch.

I’ve been plenty harsh on the center-drive modifieds all through Speedweeks, and I really want to credit them for the classy “Le Mans-style” driver introduction they utilize with cars formed up on the frontstretch. But the entire effect of said intros is massacred with the decision to blare the same Ennio Marricone music that’s been made (in)famous in Modelo’s overplayed and overdramatized “fighting spirit” ad series. I’ve said it multiple times this season and will say it again… our sport is blessed with the greatest sounds in, well, sport. It doesn’t need a soundtrack.

The third heat race for the wingless mini sprint cars at HCM on Friday featured an extended caution after a car suffered a failed axle and spewed debris all over turn 1. The issue? Track officials couldn’t find the transponder that had been on the car and wanted to locate it before turning the field green and having it run over. I’m honestly surprised this hasn’t happened before… maybe they need to start painting those things neon orange like an airplane’s black box?

Things that make you go hmm. February 3, Beckley Motorsports Park posts on Facebook that the track is in absolute need of $30,000 to modernize their PA system and scales, and that opening for the 2021 season is in jeopardy. A week later, the West Virginia track has scheduled a $20,000 to win even for the Iron-Man Late Model Series on the 4th of July.

West Virginia is sorely lacking in dirt tracks, so hearing that one is scheduling major league late model racing is a big plus. But unless an anonymous donor stepped up in a huge way overnight, this whole episode has an awful Morgan Shepherd “we’re going broke every other week” vibe to it. 311 Motor Speedway pulled a similar ploy in December, posting that the track wasn’t going to open for 2021 only to post a season schedule a few weeks later. Dirt track promoting 101: don’t be like Mike Fulp.

Speaking of dirt track promotion, SMI’s efforts to get dirty are going far beyond transforming the Bristol Motor Speedway this spring. The dirt track on the Texas Motor Speedway campus kicks off their 2021 season this coming weekend and working with the same RACEXR.com company that will be streaming the Bristol Nationals this month have announced a full slate of weekly races for the track this summer, culminating with a $50,000 to win super late model event in September. The Dirt Track at Las Vegas is getting in on the fun as well with their own $50,000 to win late model event this fall. I love seeing big money races for late model drivers proliferate. I don’t love seeing such a NASCAR-centric entity wetting their beak in one of the only segments of motorsports that still behave like their own thing rather than every other professional sport.

Gonna steal a page from colleague Phil Allaway’s Couch Potato Tuesday. The IMCA broadcast from Hendry all weekend sounded completely amateur hour, with track officials yakking in the background all night long, including arguing over whether a competitor paid an entry fee (the booth even got involved) plus a scorer lamenting having someone else run their car on track. I’ve streamed over 100 feature races this season, and this stream was the worst of 2021 by literal miles. One of the guest commentators Saturday night said he believed what the crew considered “running comedy” should be part of the commentary at racetracks more often. Well, turning commentary into a comedy show is one of the many reasons I left big-league NASCAR. But, having sat through the farce of a Sugar Bowl broadcast, I missed DW. Congratulations universe, you win.

Numbers Game

4

Number of engines late model driver Ashton Winger went through during his Speedweeks at Volusia.

7

Number of tracks confirmed to host dirt oval track events this week.

123

Largest car count, seen in the IMCA classes contesting the Superstition Showdown at Arizona Speedway.

$10,000

The largest posted purse this week, for each of the two WoO Late Model Series events at VSP. 

Where it Rated (on a scale of one to six cans, with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’re going to give this one three Against the Grain Bo & Lukes. With seemingly the entire country sans Arizona and Florida crippled by terrible weather, having plentiful dirt racing available to stream was a blessing. But after a literal month of “Speedweeks” at Florida and few classics to pull from so many features, by week’s end the rainouts were almost merciful.

Up Next: Florida Speedweeks is over, and dirt racing scatters across the South. The World of Outlaws head west to Mississippi and Louisiana, while the Dirtcar Xtreme late models head to South Carolina for a doubleheader. And, weather permitting, the sprint car scene of the great white north will get started with the Icebreaker at Lincoln Speedway.

About the author

Senior Commentator at Frontstretch

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate. Here till I get canceled.

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