Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anticipation Remains High for 2014 Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series

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Despite much uncertainty within the national late model landscape heading into this past offseason, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (LOLMDS) will emerge as strong as ever in 2014. The series, now in its tenth season, boasts an impressive 47 events among 19 states along with a very competitive field of new and returning drivers. 

Crown Jewel Events again include the Knoxville Nationals, Show-Me-100, Silver Dollar Nationals, North South 100, Topless 100 and the Dirt Track World Championship.  With a schedule full of high paying events across the country’s heartland, the series is sure to provide many thrilling and competitive events.

The Contenders:

Nine returning drivers from last season include Earl Pearson Jr., Steve Francis, John Blankenship, Jimmy Owens, Eddie Carrier Jr, Don O'Neal, Jared Landers, Billy Moyer Jr. and Dennis Erb Jr. Six new drivers have announced their plans to follow the tour including past touring driver Ray Cook and rookie of the year contenders Brian Shirley, Jason Papich, Ricky Weiss, Jason Hughes, and Randy Weaver.

2014 Outlook: Owens is coming off his third straight points championship. He earned eight victories on the tour last season and a third consecutive Show-Me-100 win. 2014 looks to be another banner year for the Newport Nightmare, as he again looks to dominate the tour in his familiar #20 car.

Owens started off slow by his standards at Speedweeks this year. With only one top five finish in the points events, Owens sits 6th in the standings.  Consistency was not an issue for Owens, as he scored seven top ten finishes out of the nine races in Speedweeks.   Nonetheless, history dictates that Owens will find that extra competitive edge needed to be near the top of the series this season.

2014 Speedweeks Results:  Best Finish: 3rd Top 10s: 7 Points Position: 6th

2014 Outlook : The Kentucky Colonel enters his fourth straight season chasing the tour, following his best season in 2013.  Despite winning only two features last season, Francis earned runner up in the points championship thanks to consistent finishes throughout the year.  2014 will be a very pivotal season for Francis in his Clint Bowyer racing ride, as he looks to claim his first LOLMDS points title.

After a Speedweeks filled with consistent top five finishes, Francis indeed appears ready to make this title run.  Claiming the finale at Golden Isles, he led all 50 laps in a dominating victory. Francis sits in a tie for second in the standings after Speedweeks.   Clint Bowyer Racing seems to have found the driver who can deliver the first national touring title to this team. 

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 1st-Golden Isles Top 10s: 8 Points Position: t-2nd

2014 Outlook : Blankenship had a breakout 2013 that included three LOLMDS victories and his first career World 100.  A third place points effort was also his best in his six years following the tour.  The 2009 Rookie of the Year will certainly be a championship contender this season in his family owned #23 Rocket Chassis.

Performance at Speedweeks were likely nearly desirable for Blankenship, despite not winning any races.  He narrowly missed a victory at East Bay after being at the point for 35 laps before succumbing to Billy Moyer with six laps to go. The West Virginia driver sits in a solid top five points position heading into March.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 2nd Top 10s: 5 Points Position: 5th

2014 Outlook : The Hurricane returned to winning form last season at East Bay Raceway Park, his first victory since July of 2010. Adding another victory in mid-July at Wythe Raceway, Pearson made major strides in his #44 Bobby Labonte Motorsports Longhorn Chassis last season.  Claiming 4th place in points last season, the four time series champion will look to return to championship form again in 2014.

By far the most consistent driver throughout Speedweeks, Pearson used finishes of 2nd,3rd, 3rd and 6th to secure the early season points lead.  Pearson is no stranger to being atop the point standings, spending the better part of the 2005 through 2008 seasons at them. Pearson's early season performance surely suggests that his team has finally turned the corner with its Longhorn Chassis.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 2nd Top 10s: 5 Points Position: 1st

2014 Outlook : A perennial UMP summer nationals driver, Erb decided to follow the entire tour for the first time in 2013.  Claiming four victories on the tour and a 5th place in the points, the decision certainly paid off. This season is only looking up for Erb, who again plans to race his own #28 Bloomquist chassis late model for the full tour.

Erb scored one victory during the Winternationals at East Bay, but did experience setbacks in many of the other points events.   With a DNF at East Bay and Golden Isles, Erb sits eleventh in the standings after Speedweeks. No stranger to victory lane, Erb has claimed seven races each in the past two years. He will now to look to find more consistent results throughout the grueling season ahead.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 1st-East Bay Top 10s: 3 Points Position: 11th

2014 Outlook : O’Neal will move to Clint Bowyer racing this season, replacing Jared Landers in the Peak Motor Oil #5 Barry Wright car.  Claiming victories in the Jackson 100 and the North/South 100 in his #71 MasterSbilt, O’Neal will again look to excel in the crown jewel events this season.  O’Neal has been the model of consistency throughout the history of the LOLMDS, and will look to be near the top of the standings again this year in these new surroundings.

With a solid Speedweeks performance, O’Neal has adapted to these changes very quickly. Finishing 2nd, 3rd,3rd and 9th in the points events, he has made a smooth transition to Barry Wright Race Cars.  Given O’Neal’s past on this series, it is without question that he will be a title threat, especially with Clint Bowyer Racing behind him.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 2nd Top 10s: 6 Points Position: t-2nd

2014 Outlook : The 'Salt Rock Express’ followed the full tour for this first time last season, earning seventh in the point standings.   Carrier claimed one victory in his home state at the West Virginia Motor Speedway. Battling many new venues, Carrier gained valuable experience that will help to make 2014 even more of a success.

Likely the biggest surprise of Speedweeks, Carrier finished in the top ten in every race he started, including grabbing a win at Golden Isles.  Carrier’s sophomore season on the tour has gotten off to a strong start, as he looks to avoid a second season slump.  This strong start at East-Bay and Golden Isles has him sitting in a solid 4th place position heading into the regular season.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 1st-Golden Isles Top 10s: 8 Points Position: 4th

2014 Outlook : Landers struggled at times last season in the Clint Bowyer racing ride, and as a result lost his ride shortly after the season commenced.  Landers will field his own #777 Rocket Chassis this season, following the tour for the first time in his own car.  A talented open wheel modified and late model driver, Landers will aim for more consistent finishes this season.

The debut run for Landers in the Mark Martin Automotive #777 was filled with several mid-pack finishes.  These consistent finishes landed him in 9th place in the points after Speedweeks.  Landers certainly has the talent to compete in this series, and stronger finishes will likely come with time in his new equipment.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 8th Top 10s: 4 Points Position: 9th

2014 Outlook : Moyer earned the Rookie of the Year title last season, but more importantly earned valuable seat time against the best drivers in the country.   This season’s outlook is bright, as Moyer has already claimed a victory in Arizona with the NDRL.  It is still uncertain if he will follow the entire tour, but it is apparent that Moyer will be a major threat in his Longhorn Chassis in any event he enters.

Moyer’s Speedweeks certainly had its ups and downs.  Scoring three top five finishes between Golden Isles and East Bay, Moyer definitely has found speed in his Longhorn Chassis.  But, unfavorable luck spoiled several races for Moyer, including flat tires, multiple accidents, and a disallowed qualification time at East Bay.  The latter of this bad luck resulted in Moyer sitting out the final race at East Bay, and his status following the full tour remains up in the air after this incident.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 3rd Top 10s: 3 Points Position: 20th

2014 Outlook: After competing in just one tour event last season, Cook will return to the national spotlight in 2014 by following the full LOLMDS tour. Cook has had success on the regional level over the past three seasons, totaling 30 feature wins.  In 2014, Cook will have the opportunity to compete on a national scale again as the MasterSbilt House Car driver.

Cook’s return to the tour yielded many solid finishes at East Bay and Golden Isles.  Little rust was evident for Cook, who placed in the top 10 five out of eight attempts.  The veteran North Carolina driver will now look to achieve similar results throughout the season.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 6th Top 10s: 5 Points Position: 8th

2014 Outlook: Shirley will team up with Riggs Motorsports for this season, with the hopes of following the entire tour.  Riggs Motorsports fielded cars for Randy Korte and Jason Riggs last season in select national and regional touring races.  Shirley brings a history of winning to this team, especially on the UMP Summer Nationals tour. 

2014 will be the first time Shirley chases the full tour. Shirley’s Speedweek results were a model of consistency, as he qualified for every single event.  This feat has Shirley slotted in a solid top 10 points position, and more importantly shows that his new team will be very competitive this season.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 4th Top 10s: 3 Points Position: 10th

2014 Outlook: A relative unknown coming into 2014, Papich will look to make a name for himself on the tour this season. The California driver will have the opportunity to compete for the Rookie of the Year title. Papich has many new tracks to learn on the tour, as he previously competed only in the Western United States. Papich started 2014 strong by qualifying for five out of six NDRL features in Tucson.
The momentum from these results did not fully carry over to Speedweeks, as Papich failed to qualify in all three events at Golden Isles.  Improvement did follow at East Bay with Papich qualifying for three out of the six events including 11th and 12th place efforts against a deep, talented field. The Papich-Toste Racing team showed some resilience throughout Speedweeks, and will now face a long season ahead of battling new and different tracks.  

Best Finish: 11th Top 10s: 0 Points Position: 19th

2014 Outlook: A two time WISSOTA late model champion, Weiss is an up-and-coming driver from north of the border.  Weiss raced in limited LOLMDS and WoO events last season with plans this season to chase the Rookie of the Year title. Weiss has been successful on the local and regional scale. He will now have the opportunity to expand his racing resume on the national scale this season.

Weiss experienced some struggles, but also gained valuable experience at Speedweeks.  Qualifying for two out of eight features, he battled the best drivers in the country night in and night out.  Now the rookie will need to apply this experience to the long season ahead.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 14th Top 10s: 0 Points Position: 16th

2014 Outlook: A successful driver in the USTMS division, Hughes will make the transition to the super late model division in a big way this season.  Hughes claimed 12 USTMS victories last season along with a  2nd place in the Central Division points standings.  Hughes has teamed up with Rowland Motorsports to attempt a run at the LOLMDS Rookie of the Year title.

Despite being a true late model rookie, Hughes delivered solid performances over Speedweeks.  Speed certainty was not an issue, as Hughes qualified for seven feature events.  Durability, however, was the issue for Hughes who experienced early exits in four of these events.  With limited seat time in a late model, Hughes will use this season to build a solid foundation for his super late model career.

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 11th Top 10s: 0 Points Position: 15th

2014 Outlook: A veteran driver throughout the Southeastern region, Weaver will attempt to follow the LOLMDS full tour for this time.  “Dream” Weaver has claimed 338 features in his storied career and will likely be a strong competitor at many of the Southern speedways.   Weaver is the only driver in the series that uses GRT Chassis.

A perfect eight for eight in qualifying for A-Mains, Weaver begun his LOLMDS career with solid performances in qualifying events.   However, many of these A-Mains ended in disappointment for Weaver.  No top ten finishes and a couple DNFs leave Weaver thirteenth in the standings after Speedweeks. 

2014 Speedweeks Results: Best Finish: 14th Top 10s: 0 Points Position: 13th

Recapping Speedweeks:  
The season opening  Speedweeks at Golden Isles Speedway and Eastbay Speedway Park have the series off to a fast and competitive start.  Despite the competitive list of full time touring drivers, “outsiders” claimed six of the nine Speedweek events: Jonathan Davenport and Chris Madden (Golden Isles), young gun Bobby  Pierce, Billy Moyer (x2), and Davey Johnson (East Bay).   Francis claimed the finale at Golden Isles, while Carrier and Erb claimed preliminary features at East Bay.

The average number of entries for the point events totaled 40 cars, including all fifteen drivers planning to run the full tour. Pearson is off to a fast start leading the points after Speedweeks with solid top 3 finishes. He is followed by O’Neal (-35), Francis (-35), Carrier (-65), and Blankenship (-100).

Speedweeks seemed to suggest that the gap between full time national touring drivers and regional drivers is very slim.  This was also apparent at the DIRTCar Nationals as four regional drivers (Ivedent Lloyd, Kenny Pettyjohn, Casey Roberts, Kyle Bronson), bested the Outlaws and many of the Lucas Oil Drivers.   It will be very interesting to see if these  “upsets” can continue throughout this season’s events, as many regional and local drivers attempt to defend their turf.

The Schedule: 

The series now looks ahead to eleven straight $10,000 to win events from March through Mid-May. The lone March event takes place at Brownstown for the IceBreaker.  Then, April sees a southern swing with races in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. April closes with a pair of races in Maryland and Pennsylvania at Roaring Knob and Hagerstown. 

May sees a busy start with races shifting to the Midwest.  Following three events in Illinois and one in Kentucky, the Show-Me-100 takes place on May 23 and 24. The front crown jewel of the season, it takes place at none other than the Lucas Oil Speedway.

June sees a bit of a break in the schedule with only three races, including the Clash at the Mag at Magnolia Speedway.  Another stretch of $10,000 to win races in the Midwest highlights the first half of July before the $30,000 to win Silver Dollar Nationals at I-80 Speedway on July 17-19.

The action begins to really heat up in August, as two major events highlight the schedule on back to back weeks.  The top drivers in the country will battle for $50,000 in the North/South 100 at Florence Speedway (Aug 7-9) and  $40,000 in the Topless 100 at Batesville Motor Speedway (Aug 14-16).  Events in Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia round out the busy August schedule, including the Hillbilly Hundred at I-77 Raceway Park on August 31st.

The schedule wraps up in September and October with three more major events including the 35th annual Jackson 100 (Sep. 19-20), the Knoxville Nationals (Sep 25-27), and the season ending Dirt Track World Championship (Oct 17-18).  Overall, the LOLMDS features a grueling schedule of races across the country, including eight 100 lap features, one 80 lap feature, and thirty 50 lap features.

Boasting an expanded television package with MAVTV, CBS, and NBC Sports Network, fifteen series events will be broadcast on these networks, including many of the crown jewels.  The full schedule with events, dates and purse winnings can be viewed here:

Only three drivers have claimed championships in the history of the series: Earl Pearson Jr. (2005-2008), Scott Bloomquist (2009-2010) and Jimmy Owens (2011-2013).  Going into 2014, Owens appears to be  the favorite to repeat. However, with one of the deepest and most talented field in series history, the stars will align for a new champion. 

Veteran drivers Pearson and Francis will rise to the top of the series this season.  Each driver has seemed to found the right combination heading into this season with the Longhorn and Barry Wright Chassis, respectively.   Francis will take the title over Owens, followed by Pearson, Blankenship and O’Neal. 

Why Francis? He is coming off a strong 2013 where he gave Owens a serious run for the title. With another year of experience on the full tour, Francis is fully prepared to end the title reign of the Newport Nightmare.  Blankenship and O’Neal will be the drivers to watch at many of the crown jewels, but their overall performance throughout the season will leave them short of a podium points finish.

A driver to watch this season will be Eddie Carrier Jr. After a strong start to Speedweeks, he is the dark horse pick for winning the championship.  That is, it will be no surprise if Carrier wins multiple races this season and places near the top of the standings. 

Among the rookie contenders, Brian Shirley and Randy Weaver by far have the most experience racing in other series.  They are the clear favorites to claim the Rookie of the Year title.  Shirley has been selected to edge Weaver for the title due to Shirley's successes on the UMP Hell Tour and his increased resume of racing on a national scale.

Championship Standings
1. Steve Francis
2. Jimmy Owens
3. Earl Pearson Jr. 
4. John Blankenship
5. Don O’Neal

Dark Horse: Eddie Carrier Jr.

Rookie of the Year: Brian Shirley

The schedule is chalk full of many major events that bring large purses and storied histories.  Not only is the increased purse on the line, but these races also feature major bragging rights.

Here are predictions for three of the most sought after victories on the tour:
22nd Annual Show Me 100—Lucas Oil Speedway—May 23-24
Last Year’s Winner: Jimmy Owens
Predicted Winner:  John Blankenship

11th Annual Knoxville Nationals—Knoxville Raceway—Sept. 25-27
Last Year’s Winner: Darrell Lanigan
Predicted Winner: Scott Bloomquist

35th Annual Dirt Track World Championship – Portsmouth Raceway Park—Oct. 17-Oct. 18
Last Year’s Winner: Brandon Sheppard  
Predicted Winner: Don O' Neal

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