The final nights of the 2019 WinterNationals in Florida had plenty of drama, leaving many teams with critical information for use through the year ahead. Those up front were parked in Victory Lane . . . the others will be back to the drawing board when the northbound rigs arrive at home base.
Volusia Speedway Park
As we last left off, the Volusia Speedway Park DIRTcar Nationals were a target of rain showers, not all that uncommon for this time of year. Both Volusia and Bubba Raceway Park lost their planned Sunday shows. While Bubba would be dark until a Wednesday practice, Volusia soldiered on.
The Monday show managed to duck the nearby weather, bringing the DIRTcar Late Models in and wrapping up the DIRTcar Modifieds with the Big Gator on tap. The fact the speedway was able to complete the regular activity as well as all of the make-up events scheduled was a testament to commitment and track preparation.
Mike Marlar, driving for a different team in 2019, made his acquaintance with Victory Lane in the 30-lap Late Model main. The 2018 Morton Buildings World of Outlaws champion, who will run a limited schedule and not defend his title, swapped the lead with Josh Richards throughout the contest until finally prevailing.
On the Modified side, car counts and rainouts made for a headache in figuring out how to get everything in, while still giving everyone a fair shot. The combination worked, as Kyle Strickler claimed the main event, backing up an earlier win. The final race was the culmination of the point battle to determine the DIRTcar Nationals champion. Nick Hoffman claimed the title on the strength of a win, two Seconds, two Fourths, and a disappointing Sixth. It was the fourth-straight championship for the Illinois racer.
The Monday momentum was wiped out by persistent showers. Bad news for the DIRTcar Late Models who would not get their second event. The good news was it proved to be the last time rain impacted racing. The VSP pits cleared for Super Dirt Series Big Block Modifieds and World of Outlaws Late Models starting on Wednesday night. The action picked up right where it left off.
The exciting SDS Mods, a Northeast stalwart and regular visitor to Volusia during February, got the veterans off to the right start. The opening night was a victory for Billy Decker, who contended for the win with teammate Larry Wight, the reigning NAPA Super DIRT Week champion.
Night number two saw defending series champion Matt Sheppard get to the place he sought from the beginning. Sheppard had a good run in the opener until inadvertent contact by Decker resulted in Sheppard spinning. For night three, Wight, who had also been close earlier, broke through for his Florida win. The final night saw Stewart Friesen pull away on a late race restart to seal the win to close off the run.
Four different winners in the SDS Mods was a completely different script than what was experienced by Late Model teams and fans. Rocket house car driver Brandon Sheppard left Volusia last year with a victory in his pocket on his way to a campaign that nearly brought home a series title. The 2019 season wasn’t looking positive as Sheppard went 0-for-14 in his early racing. He is now 4-for-18, enjoying more wins than most other drivers.
Sheppard was Fifth-quick among the 44 cars that checked in on Wednesday night. He stayed competitive throughout to claim the win and get the monkey off his back. The primate was not invited for a piggyback ride on night-two either, as Sheppard led 39 laps of the feature including the one where the checkered flag was waving. To back up those two wins, Sheppard scored the Friday victory, but all of the talk centered on the charge of Mike Marlar. The defending series champion started 23rd and finished Second, easily the Hard Charger.
History was made on Saturday when Sheppard swept the four Late Model events, marking the first time it had been done at Volusia for the series. The last driver to win four-straight throughout the regular season was Tim Fuller, who did it 10 years. When it was all said and done, Sheppard led 174 of a possible 200 laps.
Bubba Raceway Park
Following the USAC Midget mains from the week previous, the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Cars arrived to get their action underway. With some of the drivers sticking around, those with the track experience had a perceived advantage. It didn’t take long for the others to catch up.
Chris Windom opened the action in grand fashion for his new team, Goacher Racing. Windom pestered early leader Kevin Thomas Jr., peeking inside often until he squeezed by. That wasn’t the end of the story however, as Justin Grant closed on the lead duo and sprang into action as Windom gained the advantage. Grant swung high to go by, but the car turned sideways in the final corners. Windom ducked under to lead his first lap of the night, the most important one.
“You’ve got to hound the guy and let him know you’re there,” he said of his strategy. The win for Goacher Racing was the first in 27 years and gave Windom the 22nd checkered of his career.
Fresh from the disappointment of letting one get away in the Winter Dirt Games opener, Grant was determined to give some highlights to the FloRacing.com cameras catching the action live. Taking the lead with just two laps remaining, Grant was determined to keep control and hit his marks for the remaining laps. The victory helped overcome some struggles, but the team understands you take the good when you can. “Enjoy it while you’re riding high and dig through when you’re low,” he stated. The win gave Grant the early season point lead.
The final night of action brought the third winner in as many tries, as C.J. Leary followed up his Friday runner-up with the 1.5-second victory. Now driving for Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports, Leary endured lapped cars and multiple restarts to park in the winner’s circle. The win allowed him to leave Florida as the point leader, but his effort through the three nights resulted in the most cars passed — an $800 bonus.
The Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s history was surely a star-studded roster. A win in the race, named for the former winner who perished a year after claiming the title, is often viewed as a highlight by those who have achieved it.
Over 50 cars gathered for the first night of action. Pennsylvania’s Mark Smith had a strong car and showed it by leading throughout the race. With a few laps remaining, a restart bunched the field with defending King of the 360s champion Terry McCarl, and Tony Stewar,t in Smith’s shadow. When the race went back to green, it was California’s Cory Eliason who had something to say about it all. Going to the high side as far as he could, Eliason picked off cars until only Smith remained. With the checkered in sight, Eliason stayed up top and swung down at the flag stand to squeeze out the win.
Night number two would be all Smith as no one could get to the front in a race that ran without a caution, completed in slightly more than 10 minutes from start to finish. In Victory Lane, Smith alluded to an engine problem he experienced near the end that had the crew working to diagnose and correct it.
The top-six drivers in the points after two nights automatically locked into the 40-lap $10,000-to-win feature. Smith and Eliason were there, joined by Seth Bergman, Tim Shaffer, Terry McCarl, and Tony Stewart. Despite the guaranteed starting spot, Stewart had to withdraw due to Daytona commitments, giving the final spot to former King of the 360s, Jason Sides.
The 24-car main saw Smith take the lead early, using a fresh powerplant installed overnight. Matt Kurtz was the surprise factor as he came into the top three early and hung around. While Smith darted through traffic, the rest of the field was locked into their own battles. McCarl, who led early, was bypassing Kurtz for Second and in pursuit. The last thing Smith needed was a yellow, but engine issues for Dale Howard provided just that.
McCarl had one final shot and he took it, making his way by Smith to head out for the victory. He becomes the only driver to win in back-to-back years and now has four crowns on his mantle.
The 2009 WinterNationals goes into the history books, its impact yet to be determined. For some, the highlights are already there. For others, it sets the stage. The value of lessons learned can only be seen in practical application. In the months ahead, the tale will be told of the impact of WinterNationals. It promises to be a good year!