2023 Lucas Oil Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway

Opinion: Lucas Oil Championship Chase Delivered In More Ways Than One

Opinion: Lucas Oil Championship Chase Delivered In More Ways Than One

The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series finale at Eldora Speedway delivered the most exciting battle for the championship in recent memory.

Oct 23, 2023 by Brandon Paul

When Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series officials announced a new “Championship Chase” format last December, they did so with the goal of elevating excitement around the battle for the series championship. 

On Sunday evening during the Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway, their mission was accomplished. 

A race that began with four drivers – Ricky Thornton, Jr, Hudson O’Neal, Jonathan Davenport and Devin Moran – eligible to win the $200,000 series championship ended with two of the sport’s brightest young stars duking it out for the right to be called a champion.

While navigating a demanding race track that was a product of three straight days of rain at “The Big E,” O’Neal and Moran threw everything they had at each other. The two championship contenders traded multiple sliders and nearly traded paint on a handful of occasions during the final laps. 

With half a lap remaining in the race and the season, two drivers battling for the series championship were side-by-side going down the backstretch at “The World’s Greatest Dirt Track.” This moment and this type of excitement was exactly what the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series hoped to deliver to fans in the series’ championship race. 

O’Neal powered ahead of Moran in turn three and slid up in front of the No. 99 before beating him to the finish line by 0.423 seconds. 

The excitement, the drama and the storylines were everything you could ask for.


VIDEO: Hudson O'Neal Reacts After Winning Lucas Oil Championship In Dramatic Fashion

But as O’Neal celebrated his first career national touring series championship, Ricky Thornton Jr. ended a dominant season with an eighth-place finish at Eldora and a third-place finish in the championship standings. During any other season, RTJ would’ve been crowned the series champion weeks ago following a 23-win season. He would’ve entered the Dirt Track World Championship with absolutely nothing to lose. 

At the same time, a straight-up championship format for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series would’ve again lacked excitement. 

Did you know that prior to this year’s championship format, the closest margin in the point standings over the last five years was Tim McCreadie’s 275-point advantage over Jonathan Davenport in 2022? 

There’s nothing exciting about that. And whether you loved the new format or hated the new format, the unknowns entering this year’s championship race created more buzz and led to more eyes being on the battle for the Lucas Oil championship than ever before. 

I can say this confidently because I’ve seen the number of people who were watching the championship battle unfold live on FloRacing. To say that a lot more people were watching this year’s Dirt Track World Championship compared to last year’s event would be an understatement. 

Dirt racing purists have said and will continue to say Ricky Thornton, Jr. deserved to be named the champion after the remarkable season he had. 

I can only assume those same fans believe the 2007-2008 New England Patriots (undefeated season) and the 2022-2023 Boston Bruins (most wins in NHL regular season history) both deserved to be named the champions of their respective sports during those seasons. 

In sports, the best team or the most deserving team isn’t always the team that wins the championship. That’s just the harsh reality in the world of sports. 

Professional sports leagues all over the world have their season champion decided in a single-day competition more often than not. This is not something new, and it’s certainly not specific to NASCAR despite contrary belief. 


VIDEO: Ricky Thornton, Jr. Damaged Early In DTWC Feature At Eldora

As heartbreaking as it was to see RTJ’s championship hopes squashed on lap 8 of Sunday’s race, he (and the rest of the full-time drivers) knew that this format was in place before they started the season. They chose to chase the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series schedule because of the unprecedented amount of money that the series put on the line. 

Don’t forget that very important point. The series put a lot of money into this program to reward the racers while also delivering excitement to race fans. 

For finishing third in the championship standings, Thornton, Jr. will still receive a check for $125,000 at this year’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series banquet. Additionally, as part of the new championship format, he received cash bonuses throughout the season for his placement at the top of the series standings. 

RTJ collected $2,500 following the Show-Me 100 in May, $5,000 following the Diamond Nationals in July, $7,500 following the Rumble By The River at Port Royal Speedway in August and $10,000 following the Pittsburgher 100 in September. Add all of that up and he collected $25,000 in cash bonuses for leading the points standings throughout the 2023 campaign. 

To say he wasn’t rewarded for his performance throughout the season would be misguided. 

Add that $25,000 in bonus money to the $125,000 and Thornton Jr. will take home $150,000 in total championship prize money. That is the same amount of money that Tim McCreadie collected for winning the series championship one year ago. 

Overall, more than $1 million will be distributed to the drivers and teams during the series’ banquet in December. Simply put, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series delivered big money to those who supported the series this season. 

The series also delivered the most exciting battle for the championship in recent memory, with more eyes on the season finale than ever before. 

In the end, the Lucas Oil Championship Chase delivered in more ways than one. 

Is the format perfect? Probably not. Having a winner-take-all race on a tough track surface is not the ideal situation; however, track officials did everything they could to provide the best track possible with the hand that Mother Nature dealt them. 

Is there a way to create excitement around the series championship while also avoiding a situation where outside circumstances impact such a major moment? Maybe. 

But at the end of the day, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series created something entertaining that we’ve never seen before. It will be interesting to see what the series takes away from this moment and what the championship format will look like in 2024.