(Lead photo by Heath Lawson)
My 18-day tour of Georgia and Florida for Speedweeks 2019 recently drew to a close. Each year, this annual happening spurs countless story lines. The 2019 edition was no different. From historic performances, to increased car counts, the 2019 Speedweeks had a little bit of everything.
Here’s some of the news and notes that made this year’s Speedweeks so special.
New Rides, No Problem
The Sprint Car ranks saw some notable ride changes in the off-season. Two of those were made by Oklahoma-natives, Shane Stewart and Daryn Pittman. Despite being in new digs for 2019, both drivers hit the ground running during Speedweeks.
After departing Kyle Larson Racing at the end of the 2018 campaign, Shane Stewart enjoyed a grand start to the 2019 season in the CJB Motorsports #5 Sprinter. He finished Second in the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions (ASCoC) opener at Bubba Raceway Park on January 31. He backed it up two days later with the series’ win at the uniquely-shaped 3/8-mile oval.
His heroics didn’t stop there. Behind the wheel of the Barry Jackson-prepared entry, Stewart won the ASCoC event on February 6, at Volusia Speedway Park.
“This is my first gator,” Shane Stewart expressed with excitement in victory lane. “After coming here for all of these years, I’ve never actually won a race here. This win means a lot to me and this team means a lot to me. I left the ‘2 car’ thinking ‘this is probably the end of my career’ because I’m getting a little older. Then the phone rings. It has been a real pleasure working with Barry [Jackson] and the crew.”
For Daryn Pittman, he wasn’t sure what 2019 would hold for him after parting ways with Kasey Kahne Racing (KKR) at end of 2018. However, it didn’t take long for him to find a new ride with the venerable Roth Motorsports.
Pittman quickly validated the decision of the California-based team at Speedweeks 2019. He scored a pair of podium finishes in his first two races, which came with the ASCoC at Volusia Speedway Park. From there, the soft-spoken racer kicked things into high gear. He swept both World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car events at Volusia. With the finale rained out, Pittman was awarded the week-long DIRTcar Nationals Championship. It was the third title of his career at the half-mile oval.
“To be able to bounce back this year and dominate the way we did, by being the most consistent car every night, is pretty good redemption for myself, personally,” Pittman said. “There were a lot of questions about my move and changing teams, and you want to get off to a strong start. We’ll see what the rest of the year holds.”
We still have a lot of racing left this year, but we couldn’t ask for a better start to the season. – Tyler Erb
There was no shortage of ride changes in the Dirt Late Model world in the offseason. Most eyes were likely focused on Tyler Erb, who filled the seat vacated by Josh Richards at Best Performance Motorsports. While there were many doubters about Erb’s qualifications to lead the team’s charge, he quickly silenced the naysayers.
“I am super-excited to get this opportunity to work with Randall Edwards, Eric [Brock], and Kelly [Brock],” Erb said. “This is a dream come true for me. I have been dreaming of this chance for a long time and to finally get to this point is very satisfying, but you have to stay hungry. We still have a lot of racing left this year, but we couldn’t ask for a better start to the season.”
In eight starts with his new team, Erb finished no worse than Fourth. He exited Speedweeks Second in the LOLMDS standings.
New York’s Billy Decker made a triumphant return to Gypsum Racing after a three-year absence. The three-time Super DIRTcar Series Champion claimed the win in the series’ season opener at Volusia Speedway Park on February 13. He out-dueled teammate Larry Wight to get the win.
“It’s really cool to be driving for Gypsum Racing again and winning in our first race back together,” Decker noted in Victory Lane. “Scott Jeffrey [crew chief] gave me a great car tonight, and we were able to put all of the pieces together. I want to say thanks to John Wight and everybody who has made this opportunity possible again.”
Decker’s season-opening win was a major shot in the arm. It came on the heels of a 2018 season, which saw him go winless.
2018 World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series Champion, Mike Marlar shocked the racing world, when he announced he might not be racing at all in 2019. A few weeks later, he made news again when it was announced he joined forces with Kevin and Lee Roy Rumley to drive their potent #6 entry in select events.
While the team had previously planned to make their debut sometime in April or May, they thrashed to get ready for Speedweeks action. After a few lackluster performances at Screven Motor Speedway, the team headed south to Volusia Speedway Park. Marlar turned heads immediately with a thrilling win in the opener.
“I didn’t even think I’d be racing until like May probably,” Marlar said. “Kevin got this car done and said come get it and come drive it. It’s awesome that we got a win for Lee Roy. That’s what I’m pumped up about. If I only get one [win], I got one for him.”
Marlar added additional strong runs throughout the week, including a runner-up finish to Brandon Sheppard on February 15.
Pennsylvania-native Kyle Strickler battled adversity throughout the DIRTcar UMP portion of the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park. His week started with a pair of dustups with rival, David Stremme. However, when it counted most, he caught fire.
With Mother Nature postponing both Big Gator qualifiers to the same day as the Big Gator finale, Strickler capitalized on the situation. He raced to the win in his qualifier to lock into the redraw for the night’s $5,000 finale. The redraw positioned him Third on the grid, and he wasted no time charging to the lead in the 30-lapper. Once out front, he cruised to his second-straight Big Gator win.
“We’ve had a heck of a week with all the stuff that happened earlier here. We [Strickler and Stremme] might not like each other very much, but we’re both professionals and we definitely put on a show for the fans,” Strickler continued. “But, we put our heads down and went to work, and it all worked out. We went out and did what we were supposed to do. Man, this is so awesome, this is such a relief. I’m looking for a Late Model ride for this year. That’s where I want to go looking ahead, and this is the best way I can show what I can do.”
While Hoffman only visited Victory Lane once, his consistency allowed him to accumulate enough points to clinch his fourth DIRTcar Nationals Championship.
Four for the Record Books
Entering the final week of Speedweeks 2019, Brandon Sheppard was uncharacteristically winless. However, the Illinois racer epically increased his win total with a quartet of prolific performances at Volusia Speedway Park. He won not one, not two, not three, but four-straight World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series events at the fast-paced, half-mile oval.
With the stellar performance, he became the first Late Model driver to ever win four events in a row during the DIRTcar Nationals. He’s also the first racer to win four World of Outlaws races in a row since Tim Fuller accomplished the feat in 2009.
“It’s another accomplishment that we’ve added to the list as a team,” Sheppard commented. “Our team is phenomenal, and they deserve every bit of the success we have. To be the first driver in history to do that, it means the world to me, especially. And I know it means the world to my guys because they work their tails off, and they expect nothing less than a win.”
Super DIRTcar Series Parity
If you count Mother Nature’s win in the opening round of the Super DIRTcar Series Big Block Modifieds week at Volusia, then there were five different winners. While rain might be a questionable addition to the winner’s column, there’s no debating the legitimacy of the victories scored by Billy Decker, Matt Sheppard, Larry Wight and Stewart Friesen.
As previously mentioned, Decker won the opener. Meanwhile, seven-time and defending Super DIRTcar Series Champion, Matt Sheppard won the second round. Round three found a first-time Volusia winner in Victory Lane with Larry Wight notching the win. In the finale, Stewart Friesen won a thriller.
Via his weeklong performances, Larry Wight claimed his second-career DIRTcar Nationals Super DIRTcar Series Championship. His previous title came back in 2015.
Great Racing and Great Crowds; Bright 2019 Outlook
Speedweeks 2019 featured a ton of great racing action. Even better, the car count was up at multiple events from what we saw a year ago. Most notably, the DIRTcar UMP Modified portion of the DIRTcar Nationals saw an increase of 26 racers from a year ago. A whopping 105 competitors entered at least one event in 2019.
Fan counts were also on the upswing this season. The grandstands at East Bay Raceway Park for the LOLMDS week, were noticeably fuller than a year earlier. Volusia Speedway Park also posted stellar crowds throughout their 12-day run.
I’m trying not to read to much into what the 2019 season could hold, based solely upon my Speedweeks observations. However, I’ll say the pieces are very likely in place for our sport to have one of its strongest seasons in recent memory. We can only hope that my prediction comes to fruition.
Cheers to a great 2019 racing season for us all.