KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Another weekend, another laundry list of accomplishments for Ricky Thornton Jr. Leading 68 of 75 laps Saturday night (Sept. 16), Thornton scored his third consecutive Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victory, becoming the first driver since Billy Moyer in 2010 to sweep the Knoxville Late Model Nationals.
Unlike the first two nights of the Nationals though, Thornton was challenged almost immediately despite starting from the pole for Saturday’s finale. Three-time Knoxville champion Mike Marlar showed speed from the drop of the green flag, catching Thornton by lap 10 and taking the lead for the first time on lap 11.
The next dozen or so laps was an epic duel between Thornton and Marlar, with the two exchanging sliders and struggling with lapped traffic until Thornton capitalized on a move to the high side in turn 3 for Marlar that didn’t work.
Thornton’s next challenger emerged on lap 36, with Kyle Bronson becoming the first driver to figure out the high groove at Knoxville and blowing by Marlar to take second. Bronson rapidly ran down the race leader, only to have his momentum slowed by a lap 42 red flag.
Tyler Bruening, who endured the most spectacular of the rides in that incident, did have to be helped from his racecar into the track ambulance, though he later exited the ambulance under his own power to his team’s hauler.
Frontstretch spoke to the Skyline Motorsports crew after the race, who said that their driver was experiencing some lower back pain but was resting in the team hauler. The team’s car was also said to have suffered largely cosmetic damage.
Once the race restarted, Thornton moved up the track to counter the momentum Bronson had found, though Bronson’s No. 40 car managed to keep Thornton in striking distance. That is, until disaster struck on lap 59, when Bronson slammed the turn 4 wall and brought out the race’s second red flag. There was no replay made available of the incident, but the damage was extensive.
With only 15 laps to go, lapped traffic was no longer an issue as Thornton drove off to his 20th LOLMDS win of 2023, an all-time series record. A furious battle throughout the top five saw Marlar and Hudson O’Neal round out the podium.
“I didn’t know if we were going to be good enough honestly” said Thornton post-race. “I saw Bronson come … and I realized I didn’t have the balls to get up there and do what I needed to do at that point.
“I saw him getting closer and closer and I was like, ‘man, sooner or late, I’ve gotta move up.'”
“I drove my heart out after that and it worked out.”
Defending Knoxville Nationals champion Jonathan Davenport finished fourth on the night, an evening that saw him roundly booed by the Knoxville crowd during driver introductions after referring to the track as “a dump” Thursday night.
The Lucas Oil late models will return to action Friday night at Raceway 7 in Ohio.
About the author
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.
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