They call it the Sunshine State, but race fans take that Florida moniker with a dash of hope that February racing will be conducted beneath the warming rays by day and residual warmth at night. For the most part, Mother Nature was well behaved, but there is no stopping it when it comes out. Then again, when you race for as many consecutive days as Florida tracks in February, you have to expect a blip on the radar sometimes.
Three tracks were very active this past week with racing every night at two of them. Sooner or later, something has to give. When rain comes and there’s no break in the action to make it up, you move on to the next race. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t.
Let’s start with a place where rain had a minimal impact.
After hosting the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions, the Ocala oval played host to Winter Dirt Games with the arrival of the USAC NOS Energy Drink Midget Championships. Teams turned out en masse for the mid-week practice sessions, allowing the open wheelers to get a feel for the uniquely shaped oval. Experience played a key role as Alabama’s Kevin Thomas Jr., a two-time winner at the track last season, clicked off the best lap at 14.263. The money would come into the picture the next night with the first of two nights of competition.
Thomas would be the fast qualifier on the Friday opener, setting himself up for a row three start on the outside. His row mate was a familiar foe, Tyler Courtney as the two sparred in a down-to-the-wire battle for the National Sprint Car title last year. It would be Courtney, appropriately nicknamed “Sunshine”, who would steal the spotlight with his swift move through the field. Courtney grabbed the lead on lap 4 from Tucker Klaasmeyer and keep the advantage. It wasn’t easy as a number of mid- and late-race cautions stuttered the action and required Courtney to focus on good restarts.
“To win anytime is important,” Courtney said in Victory Lane. “To get the ball rolling this early in the year and obviously it’s early, there’s a lot of stuff that could happen, but you’ve got to get yourself put in that spot coming out of Florida.”
The second night of action would be a different path to the same destination. This time, Courtney was quick qualifier, so it was back to row three for the start. Passing wasn’t as quick as Courtney needed 21 laps to get to where he was attempting to finish. Using the early leads to study the track and the competition, Courtney stayed on the bottom in turns one and two and shot to the middle of turns three and four once he attained the lead from Klaasmeyer.
By winning the opening two nights, Courtney becomes the eighth driver in USAC history to start he season in such a manner. The last to do it was Rico Abreu in 2014.
The following night, Sunday, February 10, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series stop was cancelled due to rain.
“The Clay by the Bay” was unscathed by the weather that had negated the finale of the week previous. While rain did show up eventually, it wasn’t until 10 minutes after the Saturday, February 9, main event was checkered and teams were loading up to leave after six nights of competition.
The series arrived from a compacted single day/night double feature program at Golden Isles Speedway. A Sunday practice session provided key learning opportunities hat allowed teams to get a handle on the track. It was yeoman’s work to get the racing surface prepared after a 75-lap Modified main event, but the job was done to provide a fair racing surface.
Competition would open with non-points events, allowing series leader Earl Pearson Jr. to keep the orange spoiler on his ride. Young Gun Tyler Erb, a Golden Isles winner, would keep his hot streak intact, gaining his first career East Bay tally in the Monday night program that saw more than 50 cars in competition. Now driving for Best Performance Motorsports, Erb backed up his Monday win by recording his third series feature on Tuesday. The second win of the week was in convincing fashion, going wire-to-wire in the 30-lap main.
Erb’s streak would come to an end on Wednesday as defending series champion Jonathan Davenport would bust through to take the mid-week win as the payout jumped to $7,000 and feature lap count increased to 40. The following night, Thursday, would throw a little drama in the mix as Erb and Davenport would tangle up front in the late stages of the feature. Hudson O’Neal, who started deep in the field and fell even deeper after an early race caution, shot to the top of the track to sweep past the leaders and gain his first East Bay win.
Points were on the line for the Friday and Saturday, now paying $12,000 for 50 laps. While Erb and Brandon Sheppard were mixing it up in the late stages, Davenport was lurking. On lap 38, as the trio headed off turn two, Davenport split the middle of the track with a precision pass that took him from third to first, a position he would never relinquish. In the final event of the week, an afternoon shower kept patrons and competitors watching clouds, but the clouds vacated at race time. A final shot at Victory Lane would result in the same outcome as Davenport asserted himself again for his third victory of the week.
And then the rains came.
The DIRTcar Nationals started on February 5 and they’re not over yet. The menu included open wheel racing with the All-Stars and World of Outlaws, Modifieds of two different styles and Late Models. It as close to heaven as a racing fan can ask for. The World Center of Racing may be in nearby Daytona, but the outskirts hold a lot more attraction when it comes to pure oval track competition.
Modifieds opened the competition and there were 91 of them on the grounds, hailing from 21 different states and three Canadian provinces. Michael Long recorded his first Volusia by moving to the lead with eight laps to go, the last of three leaders.
Taylor Cook passed three-time defending DIRTcar Nationals champion Nick Hoffman, no easy feature at Volusia for the next night’s win. Hoffman would return to Victory Lane the next night as car count swelled to more than 100.
The planned use of the Quad 15s, a pack of four 15-lap mains, was upped to five features, now called the Five-Star 15s and saw five first time Volusia winners. Arizona racer R.C. Whitwell, NASCAR Xfinity Series racer Justin Haley, “The G Man” Gordy Gundaker, Brandon Green and Jesse Rupe all secured top finishes on Friday.
Saturday was where it all starts to come undone. Rain wiped put the feature competition and moved it to a busy Monday. An even rainier Sunday forced more changing of the schedule. Hopefully, it will be back on track as we’ll find out next week.
In the open wheel portion of the week, Shane Stewart prevailed in a race that saw the top three finisher in a unique. Stewart, runner-up Daryn Pittman and third-place Davey Gravel were all in new rides for the 2019 season.
The final ASCoC main went to the “Big Cat” Brad Sweet, claiming his first Volusia win, thanks to a lap 16 pass for the lead.
The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series took over as Daryn Pittman out the Roth Motorsports #83 on top in back-to-back efforts. After a Friday triumph, Pittman worked hard to slip past three-time Chili Bowl champion Christopher Bell in a caution free contest.
And we’re not done yet…more to come next week!