2023 Lucas Oil Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway

How Do Lucas Oil Title Chasers Feel About The Chase Now That It's Here?

How Do Lucas Oil Title Chasers Feel About The Chase Now That It's Here?

Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series drivers share their thoughts on the championship format ahead of the Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway.

Oct 17, 2023 by Kevin Kovac

No one could blame Ricky Thornton Jr. for being a bit salty, if not downright angry, about the new-for-2023 Big River Steel Big Four program to determine the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champion.

He’s put together a season for the ages on the national tour and, under the traditional points format, would've already clinched the title a couple races ago. So facing the challenge of racing Hudson O’Neal, Jonathan Davenport and Devin Moran in a best-finish-wins race for the crown in Oct. 20-21’s General Tire Dirt Track World Championship presented by ARP at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, simply seems unfair.

But while Thornton, 33, of Chandler, Ariz., certainly can’t completely strike the thought from his mind, he’s not cursing the Big Four concept. As much as he’d love to unload at Eldora with the championship in hand, he was on board with the change in the circuit’s title battle when it was announced during last December’s Performance Racing Industries Trade Show in Indianapolis and can’t change his opinion now that he’s the driver who has the most to lose in the season finale.

“We all kind of knew what could happen,” Thornton said when asked after his $30,000 victory in Sept. 30’s Pittsburgher at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Imperial, Pa., if he still supported the Big Four format. “The crappy part is, we all talked about this exact scenario, where one guy did have a really good year. No matter who it was, it would suck if they end up not winning (the title).

“The craziest part to me is thinking a guy that’s realistically a thousand points behind you has a shot to beat you in points. But at the same time, had this been last year, we would’ve been tickled to death to have the opportunity to still win it.”

Indeed, one year ago Thornton enjoyed the best season of his brief Dirt Late Model career with a runner-up finish in the Lucas Oil Series points standings, but he had no chance at the title in the season-ending DTWC at Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park because Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., had an insurmountable lead. This year is a different story, though, with Thornton’s sublime performance — 19 full-field and 23 total victories among 41 top-five finishes in 51 starts — propelling him to huge advantages of 530 points over O’Neal, 880 points over Davenport and 1,000 points over Moran.

If Thornton could have seen such a historically dominant campaign in his future, he likely wouldn’t have been a fan of the Big Four. But who could envision so much success, especially a driver who was entering the 2023 season with just four career Lucas Oil Series victories?

“We knew we were gonna try to have the best year we can have,” Thornton said. “I mean, we always say that, but …”


VIDEO: Chasing A Championship - Ricky Thornton, Jr.'s Path To The Big Four

Thornton’s voice trailed off. With his pause, you could sense he was conceding that his ’23 performance has exceeded even his wildest expectations.

So Thornton is mentally prepared for the prospect that his season might not end with a championship trophy. He can accept that possibility, just like he was able to gracefully handle having a huge triumph pulled out from underneath him earlier this year when his apparent $50,000 Show-Me 100 win on May 27 at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo., was stripped away by a four-position penalty for a deck-height infraction.

“But at the end of the day, whether we win or lose, we’ll take it and we’ll move on,” Thornton said. “Regardless, we’ve had one of the best seasons anyone’s ever had. If we win (the title), definitely no one’s gonna be like, ‘Oh, man, he lucked into it.’ It’s been a spectacular year.”

Thornton’s Big Four rivals would certainly agree, but that doesn’t mean their desire to snatch the championship from his grasp at Eldora will be lessened. All three drivers readying to battle RTJ acknowledge that Thornton deserves championship recognition this year but point out that this is the new reality instituted to create a blockbuster, drama-filled finale.

“Obviously, it sucks for Ricky, because he’s been so dominant,” said Moran, the 29-year-old from Dresden, Ohio, whose late-season run of consistency culminated with him scoring a runner-up finish in the 75-lap Pittsburgher feature to claim the final Big Four berth. “But he signed up to do it, just like myself, J.D., Hudson, (Brandon) Overton, Timmy (McCreadie). We all know, the Final Four, last race, it’s do-or-die. If you don’t wanna do it, go run the (World of) Outlaws, or if you want to do, step up and do it.”


VIDEO: Chasing A Championship - Devin Moran's Path To The Big Four

O’Neal, 23, of Martinsville, Ind., admitted that he has an old-school mentality when it comes to a championship chase, but the winner of last month’s World 100 at Eldora does relish the opportunity to race for the Lucas Oil crown on Eldora’s big stage.

“My feelings really haven’t changed. I have mixed emotions about it,” said O’Neal, whose six Lucas Oil victories this season include two full-field and four semifeature checkered flags. “I think it’s gonna be a cool event. I think it’s gonna be cool for the fans and the sponsors and everybody to kind of rally around their driver being able to win a championship. Big River Steel stepped up in a big way to make this an event, and they’ve just done that. It’s gonna be spectacular and I’m happy to be a part of it.

“But I also feel that it’s just not the way that we’re used to. I feel like the guy that’s been consistent all year long and raced hard and done smart things just to salvage good nights should be the one that gets the crown at the end of the day.

“No matter what my emotions are about the points and all that, I’m very pleased to be part of it. We’re gonna get a big check no matter what happens (all four drivers are assured of at least $100,000 in points-fund earnings) and somebody’s gonna walk out of there with a lot of money ($200,000 for winning the title). Hopefully it’s gonna be us.”

O’Neal paused, and then added a comment with Thornton’s situation in mind.

“I promise,” he said with a smile, “I feel way better about it than Ricky does.”

For Blairsville, Ga.’s Davenport, who at 39 is the oldest and most accomplished member of the Big Four, the NASCAR-style championship conclusion to the season is precisely why he decided to return to the Lucas Oil Series as a regular after bypassing full-time action on the tour last year. The format was always a positive for J.D., who knew his overwhelming successful track record at Eldora — nine career major-event wins, including this year’s Dream — would give him a great shot at capturing the $200,000 Lucas Oil title on top of a $100,000 DTWC triumph.

From the very start of the season, Davenport’s focus has been on just securing a Big Four spot so he could have a chance at a huge October evening at Eldora.

“I thought about it that way this whole year,” said Davenport, whose seven Lucas Oil Series victories this season include six in full-field features. “I never thought about it, like, grinding out a points battle or anything. But, obviously, we did at the end because we was way behind (in points). We was eighth at one time I believe, pretty late in the year, too. But in the summer months we started putting some things together and caught up.”

Regarding his approach this year, Davenport said he “would’ve went about it a little bit different” if he was looking to win a title under the traditional points system, though he expressed some doubt “if it would’ve mattered as good as Ricky’s been.” Nevertheless, he’s now in the position he’s been eyeing.

“Now, I’ve already won more (points money) guaranteed than I ever won winning the championship, so money-wise, we’re to the good, so that’s great,” said Davenport, whose three Lucas Oil Series titles were each worth $75,000 (along with various miniseries bonuses). “We’ll just go to Eldora and think of it like the Dream or the World — we go there to win, and that’s all that really matters. We’re not points racing or nothing else. We’ll just tune on the Eldora car a little bet and focus on it and get ready to go back.”

As the most recent crown jewel winner, O’Neal, who gave his Rocket Chassis house car owner Mark Richards a long-awaited first-ever World 100 victory, heads to Eldora brimming with confidence. 

“We go in there, and not that we don’t have anything to lose — we’re still second and we could end up third or fourth — but we have a way to improve, whereas Ricky doesn’t,” said O’Neal, noting that 2-4 in the final championship battle is worth $150,000, $125,000 and $100,000. “And for Devin, he has nothing to lose, so he’s loving it.

“I think we have as good a shot as anybody, and with what we learned and as good as we were there a couple weeks ago, maybe we can go back and have a little speed.”

“It’ll be more of a raw atmosphere,” O’Neal said. “When people get crowned on the stage at Portsmouth, it’s pretty much pre-known who the champion is going to be. This time, it’s not going to be like that. There’s going to be more raw emotion that comes with knowing you’re the champion, or maybe winning the race and being the champion at the same time. We’re excited about it. It’s a good deal. It’s going to be good for the fans I think.”

Moran’s final-race berth in the Big Four makes him feel as if he’s playing with house money as he bids for his first-ever win at Eldora and a career-first touring series title.

“Yeah, we snuck in, but at the same time, we didn’t, you know?” said Moran, whose two Lucas Oil Series victories this season include the $50,000 Show-Me 100. “My guys worked really hard. I think they said we have 16 top-10s in a row and the last four races have been two thirds and two seconds, so we’ve just been getting better and better. Who knows? We might pull (the championship) off somehow.”

Thornton, meanwhile, is confident that he can cap his 2023 superiority with one more impeccable outing. He might be seen by some as an underdog despite his success because he’s never won a crown jewel at Eldora and has relatively limited experience at the Tony Stewart-owned track, but he’s using the doubts surrounding his chances to close out his year with a championship as more fuel for his inner fire.

“At the end of the day, I feel like we’re still gonna be the one to beat even though everybody’s counting us out,” said Thornton, who plans to debut a new SSI Motorsports Longhorn Chassis — a car he’s named Bob — during his three-race trip this weekend to Tri-County Racetrack in Brasstown, N.C. (Thursday’s Castrol FloRacing Night in America event) and Georgia’s Senoia Raceway and Rome Speedway (Saturday and Sunday’s World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series doubleheader). “I felt like we had a good enough car to win (June’s Dream at Eldora before the track rubbered and left him with a fourth-place finish). Even the World (100), I feel like we would’ve probably ran top-five but I thought we had a motor problem because it was shooting water out so I pitted just to be safe (he finished 12th).”

Thornton has an idea of how the weekend will transpire.

“I know the way it’s gonna work,” Thornton said. “They’ll probably be two guys (of the Big Four) on the front row, one guy in the middle and a guy taking a provisional. I feel like that’s how it’s gonna go, so hopefully we’re the guy on the front row and not the guy taking the provisional.”

Then he’ll chase the big double of a second career DTWC victory and first-ever Lucas Oil crown.

“We won the Dirt Track a couple years ago (at Portsmouth), so if we can do that again, instead of it being $100,000, it’ll be $300,000 (total),” he said. “And regardless, we’ll leave with a hundred grand. I think we’ll be all right.”