Hudson O'Neal On Top After Epic Duel To Decide Lucas Oil Title At Eldora
Hudson O'Neal On Top After Epic Duel To Decide Lucas Oil Title At Eldora
Hudson O'Neal prevailed in a thrilling duel with Devin Moran to win the 2023 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series title at Eldora Speedway.
As Devin Moran stood in the middle of Eldora Speedway’s first and second turns wearing street clothes and a winter jacket and surveying the wavy, chewed-up racing surface after Sunday’s 43rd General Tire Dirt Track World Championship, he succinctly summed up the titanic battle he had just engaged in with Hudson O’Neal to determine the 2023 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series title. | RaceWire
“Just two young guys driving as hard as they could for a Lucas Oil championship,” Moran, 28, of Dresden, Ohio, said with a smile.
The series-record $200,000 crown went to O’Neal after the 23-year-old sensation from Martinsville, Ind., slipped past Moran on the final circuit of the 100-lap feature to finish second — by a mere 0.084 of a second — to an out-of-gas Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill. It came, however, in the dramatic, down-to-the-wire fashion Lucas Oil Series officials dreamed of upon announcing this year’s Big River Steel Big Four that pitted the top four drivers in the points standings in a best-finish-wins showdown for the championship on Eldora’s high-profile stage.
There were plenty of twists and turns throughout the century grind en route to the memorable season-ending flourish. O’Neal, of course, had to rally from two pit stops for flat tires and catch a break with a late caution flag to regain a lost lap. Moran fell completely out of the top 10 from his pole position starting spot before mounting a comeback. And runaway points leader Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., was effectively knocked from contention on lap eight with right-front suspension damage sustained from contact with Jimmy Owens of Newport, Tenn., and Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., retired on lap 80 while holding the championship spot because a mud clod destroyed his machine’s radiator.
What’s more, just seven cars — six on the lead lap — were still running at the checkered flag of the demanding race, but no one could deny that the ending reached classic territory.
“As far as the race went, I don’t think it could’ve got any better for the championship,” O’Neal acknowledged after capturing the Lucas Oil Series title that his father, Don, won in 2014. “You know, you hate to see that Ricky had bad luck early in the race and J.D. break like he did. But at the end of the day, we were all on the same racetrack and it’s just part of it I guess — bittersweet sometimes.
“You think about the way it all went down, two of ‘em break, and the race was pretty good for the championship. We’ll take it, and it don’t make it any less important to me. We still won the championship. We proved all year that we had a good car and we were just able to take advantage of it in the last race of the year.”
Highlights: 2023 Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway
O’Neal, who was 530 points behind Thornton before the top four drivers were reset to even after Sept. 30’s Pittsburgher at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Imperial, Pa., experienced several moments of doubt during his roller coaster ride of a feature.
“My thoughts were like this — up and down, up and down, up and down,” said Mark Richards, O’Neal’s Rocket Chassis house car owner.
O’Neal peaked as the leader for laps 8-23 before relinquishing fourth place to a flat right-rear tire on lap 35, pitting again to change a deflated right-front tire on lap 41 and then losing a circuit to Sheppard on lap 65. He finally found himself thrust back into contention when a caution flag flew on lap 74 and he received the Lucky Dog pass onto the lead lap, confirming to him that advice he heard during his midrace pit stops had been prophetic.
“Boom Briggs was a big help behind the scenes,” O’Neal said of his fellow Rocket Chassis campaigner who didn't qualify for the feature. “Every time I came in, while everybody else was changing tires, he was in my window talking to me, like, ‘Hey, there’s 60 laps left. Everybody’s breaking. You’re restarting like 15th. You’ve got plenty of time, plenty of laps.’ He said, ‘Just keep being patient and finish. If you just finish you’re gonna run in the front. You just need to make sure you pick ‘em off as you can.’
“He was a big help truthfully, because I was kind of frustrated a couple times, especially (after) leading like I was and then here comes Tyler Carpenter (to challenge for the top spot from the 17th starting spot) and I’m looking up and I’m like, ‘I know where he’s running. He’s running the fence!’
“It was just a different Eldora,” he continued, noting the choppy surface that remained for Sunday’s postponed action after the track was soaked by the wet weather that plagued the DTWC’s first-ever weekend at the half-mile oval. “This was a complete 180 from the way it’s been the last couple years, and, you know, hey, Eldora worked their tails off. Nobody told ‘em when they booked this race it was gonna rain all weekend, and they did the best they could.”
When O’Neal returned to the lead lap, he restarted in ninth place, just two positions behind Moran and three behind Davenport. Davenport’s hopes ended six circuits later when he limped into the pit area it left O’Neal directly behind Moran, who had turned up the wick for the stretch run.
“I felt like I was OK,” Moran said. “I was just riding (for more than half the distance). The track obviously was atrocious all night and I just wanted to survive and finish. I knew that was gonna be the first ticket, so I rode around, rode around, got back to 12th or 13th, and I saw lap 65 on the board and I said, ‘All right, it’s time to buck up,’ and that’s what we did.
“I didn’t know where I was, and I reeled in Dale (McDowell) and passed him, and I started reeling in J.D. (for fifth just before Davenport’s retirement) and I knew I was in pretty decent shape there. And then maybe 10 or 12 laps, or 15 laps to go, me and Hud started just going after it.”
VIDEO: Ricky Thornton, Jr. Damaged Early In DTWC At Eldora
Indeed, the two young guns with a close connection — Moran drives for the Double Down Motorsports that O’Neal departed after the 2022 season to drive the Rocket house car — spent the closing circuits deciding the championship in a virtual match race. They threw multiple sliders at each other, nearly traded paint, and, when a final caution flag flew on lap 97 for Thornton running out of fuel while 14 laps down but running in eighth place, Moran was third, one spot ahead of O’Neal.
“With about five or six to go I thought I gave it away,” O’Neal said. “I made a mistake coming off two and let (Moran) get by me.”
Richards was prepared to settle for second place in the Big Four battle as well.
“Moran got by him, and then they had that restart there at the end and I figured we was gonna run second, which, all in all, was’t gonna be the end of the world,” Richards said. “We’ve been second for most of the year, and it’s still a 150-grand, it’s nothing to sneeze at.
“And then, you know, Hudson got up on the wheel, as he usually does. He said his car was getting better and better because the fuel was burning off. These cars get freer when fuel gets out of ‘em, and guys get faster as the fuel runs out … we put an extra 5 (gallons of) fuel in when we put the last tire on.”
O’Neal made his move for it all on the last lap, blasting into turn one, crossing underneath Moran off the second corner and then beating Moran into turns three and four. He stayed just ahead of Moran off the corner and very nearly reached the finish line before Sheppard, whose Kevin Rumley-owned Longhorn development car was off the pace exiting turn four because its fuel tank had run dry.
“I knew that the other two (Big Four contenders) were out or were multiple laps down, and when we took the white flag, or two to go really, that top down there (in turn one) was staring at me, you know?” O’Neal said. “I just drove off in there the last two laps like I didn’t have anything to lose, which I didn’t. That was just the good thing about the situation I was in, and the last lap it stuck a little harder than the first and I was just able to get beside (Moran) and slide him.”
Moran couldn’t quite hold off O’Neal.
“We about hit each other a couple times down here (in turns one and two), about hit each other down there (in three and four),” said Moran, who settled for a DTWC career-best finish of third. “Ultimately, he was probably a bit better than us anyways, but the caution comes out, and I know I’ve got a shot. It’s no holds barred at this point and go for the championship, and I drove into one and got (ahead of) him. We both were bouncing through the holes and wide open into three and almost hit (eventual fourth-place finisher) Timmy (McCreadie) where the banking was and he just turned down the hill and I hardly saw him … I binded it up and I slid up and just maintained the spot.
“Then something was breaking on (McCreadie’s) left front — I could tell when that very last caution came out, and I knew I was gonna need to try and get underneath him on the restart going into one because obviously Hud was going for broke as well as myself. I got underneath of him and I was like, ‘Man, I got a shot.’ And honestly, I thought I might have a shot at the race.
“Coming to the white I was feeling pretty comfortable, and then I saw Brandon, he, like, blubbered or something — they said he was running out of gas — and I just got too close to him getting into one and two and it aeropushed me just enough. I don’t know, I gotta watch the replay, but I’d say Hud just railed the top and got a good run down the backstretch, and we are side-by-side going into the three. He had the better position at that point.”
And just like that, after a marathon affair that was dotted by 12 caution flags and lasted one hour and 17 minutes, O’Neal was celebrating becoming the youngest champion in Lucas Oil history, supplanting his car owner’s son Josh, who was 29 when he captured the 2017 title driving for Best Performance Motorsports.
“It was a rough and tumble race, that’s for sure,” O’Neal said. “It was survival of the fittest, and just really hats off to my guys and Rocket Chassis and everybody that’s part of my team, how hard they worked to build good components, along with other components that we bolt on that we get from other manufacturers. Man, they’re the best in the business and tonight proved that. I wasn’t easy on them the whole race because I kept going to the back and had to fight my way back up through and go through the holes and everything else, and my race car just never gave up. It just kept going and going and going.
“So if we didn’t have the best of the best parts on there, I don’t think that we’d be standing up there. That was the ultimate testament to them tonight. I appreciate all them guys for working hard and appreciate all my guys and everybody on my race car.”
O’Neal almost had to be reminded that he recorded a career-best finish in the DTWC, a race his father won in 2011 at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio.
“You know, I ran second in the Dirt Track World Championship and it was completely overshadowed by winning the championship, which was rightfully so,” O’Neal said. “But we ran second, we had a good showing. We’re on the podium once again, and we had a good car here all weekend. And it’s really refreshing that we can come here and win like we did (last month) at the World (100) and with a little bit slower racetrack and then in the holes and everything.
“Maybe it’ll sink in here in a little bit, but I’m the Lucas Oil champion and I can’t quite believe it.”
While the postrace scene in the pit area and at the Rocket house car trailer was decidedly different from the raucous crowds that followed O’Neal’s World 100 triumph that last month — the DTWC’s postponement to Sunday cut the crowd significantly and few fans went to the pits afterward — Richards was still jazzed about claiming his first Lucas Oil Series title as a car owner. He also praised the Big Four concept.
“On the live version of it, and up above (from the stands), it had to be exciting for the fans,” Richards said, “because whether you’re a Moran fan or a Davenport fan or a Ricky Thornton fan or a Hudson fan, there were different stages where, hey, Davenport’s leading, or Moran’s leading, or Hudson’s leading. It’s like, ‘We’re gonna win the championship,’ and then we have a flat tire.”
Richards acknowledged that the Big Four format produced its share of critics, with some decrying it even more loudly after Thornton suffered the cruel fate of finishing third (worth $125,000) in the championship battle after dominating the season because his car was damaged when he caught a rut in turn four on lap eight and bounced into the car of Jimmy Owens. But he supports the program designed to shine a brighter light on the national tour.
“Look, we signed up for it at the beginning of the year,” Richards said when asked about Thornton’s heartbreak. “Everybody can forget (Thornton’s problems), and I’m not saying that because we won. I’m saying that because we all understood it when we started. If we didn’t want to do it, we shouldn’t have did it. If I was in that (Thornton) position, I wouldn’t have nothing to gripe about, not one thing.
“Ricky’s had a great year and there’s no taking anything away from him. There’s no doubt. He deserves all the credit that he’s gotten, I respect him and praise him for what he’s done. That team, they do an incredible job. They run a team the way a team should be run. If you want to be successful in this business, you have to be that way.
“By the old standards, he was the champion. But they changed the format and brought 500-and-some-odd-thousand dollars into the championship (points fund) that wouldn’t have been here. So if it would’ve been by the old standards, the excitement tonight would not have been that much because Ricky Thornton wold have been crowned the champion, don’t matter what happens tonight at the finish.
“Some like it, some don’t. Myself, I agreed to do it because you don’t know where you’re gonna be at the end of the year. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d be running the (World of Outlaws) if I didn’t like it.
“Obviously, after you win it, you can say you like it, but I think, for the fans, it was probably one of the more exciting championships,” he added. “So I think for the fans, to bring anything into the last race of the year for the championship, I think the format provides excitement. It’s drama. The four different drivers, their fans know they have a chance to win that night. I think Lucas did a great job putting it together.”
The $200,000 championship check also gave a giant boost to his team’s bottom line, pushing his house car operation’s earnings for 2023 to a personal single-season high of just over $950,000. That means, of course, O’Neal, with two race weekends remaining on his schedule and points-fund money coming to him from the Castrol FloRacing Night in American tour and XR Super Series, will top $1 million in earnings, making him the third million-dollar driver this season alongside Thornton and WoO champion Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill.
“It’s incredible where this sport has gotten,” Richards said, remarking that three drivers will exceed $1 million in earning this season. “This championship created this for us. It put another team in that (million dollar) category.”
O’Neal’s percentage of that $1 million will make 2023 one very lucrative year for a 23-year-old. He’s well aware of that financial windfall he’s realized, but it’s not changing his humble demeanor.
“Man, I’m so fortunate,” O’Neal said. “Anybody who can do what they love for a living and be successful at it is a blessed person, a blessed man, and I’m for sure blessed. If it weren’t for my family and everybody that’s here — Mark Richards, Steve Baker — for believing in me, and everybody that came before Mark and Steve (like former car owner) Todd Burns, Craig Sims, Roger Sellers, MasterSbilt Race Cars, if it weren’t for each and every one of them, I wouldn’t be standing where I am today. Every one of them played a role in my upbringing today to be able to win a Lucas Oil championship.
“Mark and Steve, they’re the best team I’ve raced for and they’re amazing, but I can’t forget about everybody who helped me get here.”
- Heat Race Chaos: Hudson O'Neal Goes Around, Collects Field At East Bay WinterNationals Finale
Feb 11, 2024
- Devin Moran Experiences Top Fuel Drag Racing For The First Time
Feb 9, 2024
- Highlights | 2024 Lucas Oil Late Models Monday Make-Up at East Bay WinterNationals
Feb 9, 2024
- Hudson O'Neal Relishing Final Days, Stories Of East Bay Raceway Park
Feb 7, 2024
- Hudson O'Neal Reacts To Tuesday Winternationals Win At East Bay
Feb 7, 2024
- Highlights | 2024 Lucas Oil Late Models Tuesday at East Bay WinterNationals
Feb 7, 2024
- Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Tuesday Results From East Bay Raceway Park
Feb 7, 2024
- Five Takeaways Midway Through Georgia-Florida Speedweeks
Feb 5, 2024
- Devin Moran Feels Good, But Not RTJ Good, After Runner-Up Finish At All-Tech
Feb 3, 2024