This weekend Jonathan Davenport heads into the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series season finale — the Dirt Track World Championship at Ohio’s Portsmouth Raceway Park — with a firm grip on the championship. He leads second-place Tim McCreadie by 470 points. Likewise, when the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series concludes its season in November at the Can-Am World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Brandon Sheppard carries a 320-point lead. His nearest competitor, Chase Junghans, will not be able to overcome that deficit.
Unlike most major sports, championship races in auto racing don’t often come down to the wire. NASCAR viewed this as a problem and created the NASCAR Playoffs, which put more drivers in contention for the season crown. This format doesn’t allow one racer to lock up the championship until the end of the last race. Is this something dirt late model racing should consider? We asked three drivers who’ve both won championships and finished runner-up in points — Davenport, McCreadie, and Josh Richards — for their perspective.
How Playoffs Play Out
“The last [NASCAR] race, I usually watch it, because it is exciting,” said McCreadie, who won the 2006 World of Outlaws championship and made six starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. “I don’t know if [dirt late model racing] should come down to what you see [in NASCAR], where the very last race is a ‘coin flip’ on who wins.”
The NASCAR Playoffs reward those who earn victories during the regular season. If you win, you essentially make it into the 16-driver field that competes in the ten-race Playoffs. A series of elimination rounds culls the field down to four for the final race, which then determines the champion. This places more emphasis on the final ten events, especially the last one, and teams shift resources to perfecting their setups and strategies for the Playoffs.
“If you watch [the final race, the championship contenders are] the fastest four cars usually, because they’re putting all their eggs in one basket,” McCreadie said. “We don’t have the ability to do that [to concentrate a team’s resources on one race].”
The types of tracks in the Playoffs may favor a certain driver. That criticism frequently gets made of Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, who excelled at the one-and-a-half-mile ovals that, at one time, made the bulk of the NASCAR Playoffs schedule.
“Those [tracks in the Playoffs] might be somebody’s best tracks,” said Davenport, the two-time Lucas Oil champion who also made one attempt in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. “[If they did that system in late model racing], they would [regularly] test at those three or four tracks.”
A playoff-type system would change how late model teams view the regular season.
“Because of the emphasis on the one race, as long as you know you’re in position [to contend for the championship], there’s no need to put the extra effort for the rest of the year,” said Richards, a four-time World of Outlaws, and one-time Lucas Oil, champion. He also has nine starts in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and 14 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Unlike NASCAR’s top series, the touring dirt late model series’ only have 10 to 12 teams follow it full-time. The rest of the field consists of regional and local racers. At larger events, such as the season finales, entries come from the other series.
“At the Dirt Track World Championship, the World of Outlaws guys … could be a determining factor for the championship, if one or two of them get in the middle of the Lucas Oil competitors,” Davenport said.
World of Outlaws vs. Lucas Oil
The two series feature a slightly different points structure.
“The Outlaws’ points structure is based on consistency — and it’s really hard to make up points if you get behind,” said Richards. “If you look at our season from 2011, we won nine out of 32 races. We had a couple of DNFs. [Rick] Eckert was very consistent and beat us for the title.
“If you look at how Lucas Oil’s points ended in ’17 [which we won, after a three-way battle with McCreadie and Scott Bloomquist at the last race] … at one time, we were a few hundred points behind. We got through the summer, made up a bunch of ground, and then we lost a bunch at the end with a couple of bad breaks. To me, it’s a better system, because you always feel you have a shot.”
Despite different points structures, both series have rarely seen points battles go down to the wire in the past five seasons. From 2015 to 2019, the average points gap heading into the final event between first and second was 215.6 points for the World of Outlaws, and 363 points for Lucas Oil. A win awards 75 points for World of Outlaws, with 48 points between first and last (24-car field). In Lucas Oil, a winner gets 200 points for a win, with a 125-point gap between first and last.
The World of Outlaws season finale offers two features, with two points-paying opportunities. So, realistically, with championship contenders eligible for provisionals, if you enter the season finales with a 96-point lead in World of Outlaws, or 125 points ahead in Lucas Oil, you’ve locked up the championship.
How Fans React
Regardless of the championship battle, both dirt late model season finales consistently pack the stands. Much of this is due to the races at Portsmouth and Charlotte being two of the largest events in dirt late model racing. NASCAR events tend to be all of similar importance, including its season finale, with a few exceptions.
“I don’t think when we had me, Scott [Bloomquist], and Josh [Richards competing for the championship in 2017], it was a focal point of the race,” said McCreadie. “There was also $100,000 on the line. It’s a big race — that’s what gets you excited.”
What Should Define a Champion
“A championship should mean a yearlong battle, with the same cars [competing],” said Davenport. “We fought all kinds of adversity through the year—we didn’t just get good the last few weeks. The top three or four were pretty close through May. That’s where our consistency paid off, and that’s when other cars fell off.”
A championship should result from mastery of a variety of tracks, according to Richards.
“What makes [dirt late model racing] unique [is] you have to adapt to so many conditions,” Richards said. “You can go to a 3/8-mile in the Carolinas, versus one in the Dakotas, versus the Northeast, versus the Midwest, and they’re all going to drive differently. [In NASCAR], you go to a mile-and-a-half, and they’re pretty much all the same.”
A Playoffs finish may not reflect a team’s performance throughout the year.
“You can be the best car all year long and go to the last race, not have a good weekend, and not win the points,” Davenport said. “Somebody who finished Second and Third to you all year long, and they have one good weekend, and they win the championship. That’s winning one race. That’s not winning a championship.”