Dirt Racing’s Winning Moment: With an apparent engine sputter on the white-flag lap, Brandon Sheppard did just enough to hold off a hard-charging Hudson O’Neal to win the Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway Sunday (Oct. 22), his record-tying fifth triumph in the crown jewel event.
While Sheppard’s win was a storyline by itself, as his fifth DTWC trophy came the same week that Freddy Smith, the only other five-time winner of the event, passed away earlier, O’Neal’s second-place finish also clinched him the 2023 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series championship.
O’Neal’s title came courtesy of a last-corner pass on Devin Moran, as 2023 marked the first season that the LOLMDS adopted a NASCAR-style playoff format that saw Sunday’s race ultimately decide the series championship.
Dirt Racing’s Dramatic Moment: Speaking of that championship, it was over for the deserving champion on lap 9. Ricky Thornton Jr., who has won 23 races and led the series by more than 500 points entering Sunday’s race, found trouble after hitting a rut in turn 4. The damage was done and RTJ’s title hunt was over.
What Dirt Racing Fans’ll Be Group Chatting About This Morning
Ricky Thornton Jr. won more races on the Lucas tour in 2023 than the rest of the top-15 drivers combined. He scored 10 more top-five finishes than any other driver in series competition. He broke the series record for wins in a season. And he’s not the series champion. That says everything that needs to be said about this farce of a NASCAR-style playoff format adopted by what used to be the nation’s premier late model touring series.
There are no winners from the joke posing as a “Dirt Track World Championship” this weekend. Thornton had one of the greatest seasons modern late model racing has ever seen and it will now be a footnote, a third-place finish for scoring 23 freaking wins and nearly a million dollars in winnings.
And let’s not forget about O’Neal, who actually was named LOLMDS champ once the marathon weekend at Eldora ended. O’Neal has had a fantastic 2023, a breakout season for a young prospect that also saw the hot shoe return the Rocket Chassis house team to national relevance. He had a tremendous campaign that’s now going to go down mired with controversy not because of anything that he or his team did, but because they benefited from a format that all but kneecapped the best car in the field. Rocket and O’Neal both deserve better than that.
And I don’t want to hear any more apologists reminding upset dirt late model fans that “the drivers signed up for this” and that “the money was better in 2023.” Yes, the Lucas tour’s payouts were way better in 2023. So were the payouts in the World of Outlaws ranks. So were the payouts on the MARS tour. The Hunt the Front tour injected large sums of money into regional late model racing in the South. And none of those tours cheapened their seasons by adopting NASCAR mimicry to do it.
The Lucas tour may have the deepest pool of talent in their ranks. That pool of talent deserves a championship that actually legitimizes their season. This weekend was a joke.
One more note on this joke. It’s gaslight salesmanship trying to say that the playoff format is what made Sunday’s feature such a good race. The playoff format didn’t create choppy conditions that reduced aero dependence. The playoff format didn’t make Mike Marlar and Tyler Carpenter kamikaze the high side of the track to shock the final four contenders in the field throughout the feature. The playoff format didn’t make Eldora Eldora. It’s super late model racing at Eldora. Of course it’s going to be good.
No, the weekend was not helped at all by awful weather conditions that saw Thursday and Friday canceled outright and Saturday’s program ultimately delayed till Sunday after the Steel Block Late Model Series proved to be sacrificial lambs on a treacherous Eldora surface Saturday night.
Yes, fans were visibly upset and frustrated when Eldora pulled the plug after the wreck shown above. Eldora did the right thing. It’s a shame a number of steel block cars got torn up leading to that decision, but destroying racecars for the sake of the schedule is never the right answer.
There wasn’t a whole lot to celebrate anywhere in dirt racing this weekend. In sprint car country, the World of Outlaws ran the final races that will ever be contested on the Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Texas, the track where the series ran its very first event in 1978. Between this one and the impending closure of East Bay Raceway Park next fall, the continuing contraction of the short track scene is starting to really hurt.
Dirt Racing’s Hero(es) of the Weekend
Both Tanner English and Carpenter had some really impressive, ragged-edge charges throughout Sunday’s feature, English in securing a transfer spot through a B-main and Carpenter in leading laps in Sunday’s feature after blowing by a number of national powerhouse race teams. Both drivers ended up bruised and battered by feature’s end, but that was pretty much par for the course.
It’s come way too late to make an appreciable difference in 2023, but Tim McCreadie’s top-five finish and stronger runs in the last month of the year has to be encouraging for his fans and race team.
Dirt Racing’s Victim(s) of the Weekend
Thornton. There will not be a bigger victim in dirt racing (that didn’t suffer severe injury or death) than Thornton not being crowned the LOLMDS championship.
Jason Feger’s banner 2023 season didn’t carry over to the DTWC, as he endured a nasty heat race crash that parked the No. 25 for the weekend.
Ross Robinson’s day ended courtesy of a mud clod that got through his rock screen and broke the face shield on his helmet. His wife Amanda shared a Facebook post that put how hard a hit he took in perspective.
Up Next: Frontstretch will be back Monday morning (Oct. 30) with coverage of the USAC sprint car championship from Red Dirt Raceway in Meeker, Okla. Streaming coverage can be found on Flo Racing.
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