2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at Smoky Mountain Speedway

Notes: Ricky Thornton's Savvy Key To His Smoky Mountain Lucas Oil Victory

Notes: Ricky Thornton's Savvy Key To His Smoky Mountain Lucas Oil Victory

Ricky Thornton Jr. captured the Mountain Moonshine Classic opener at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville, Tenn.

Jun 15, 2024 by Kevin Kovac

MARYVILLE, Tenn. (June 14) — Ricky Thornton Jr. had a crew member signaling him as he led Friday’s 40-lap Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series feature at Smoky Mountain Speedway. But he also used his own racing smarts to keep challengers behind him en route to a flag-to-flag victory worth $10,000 to kick off the Mountain Moonshine Classic weekend.

When the race’s lone caution flag flew on lap 26, the 33-year-old star from Chandler, Ariz., flashed his savvy instincts when the green flag returned.

“You pay attention to the (score) board (outside turns one and two) a lot here,” Thornton said. “And on that last restart, Dale (McDowell) was second and then (Tim) McCreadie got to second, so I knew he didn’t pass Dale around the bottom. Like, you’re not gonna pass Dale around the bottom, so I knew I had to move up.”

Thornton had actually taken a conservative approach on the Delaware double-file restart which saw McDowell chose the inside lane behind him. He didn’t want to open the door through turns one and two for either McDowell or McCreadie.

“I really didn’t know exactly where I needed to be,” Thornton said. “I tried to run hard (into turn one) and manipulate enough where, if McCreadie got a good start up top, he wasn’t gonna be able to just blow by me, and, if Dale got a good run on the bottom, he wasn’t gonna be able to just drive under me.

“I tried to arc out as much as I could down the front straightaway and then turn back across the racetrack … just kind of aero-block (a pursuer) more than anything. I felt like I got through (turns) one and two decent and I wanted to go back to the top in three and four, but I didn’t want to enter all the way out there and then screw up so I went in lower.”

The strategy worked to perfection. Watertown, N.Y.’s McCreadie swept around the outside of McDowell, surged into second off turn two and appeared to have a run on Thornton brewing down the backstretch, but RTJ’s lower entry in turn three staved off the two-time Lucas Oil Series champion. A switch to the outside through turns one and two on lap 27 — a split-second decision by Thornton after he glanced at the scoreboard and saw McCreadie had taken second from Chickamauga, Ga’s McDowell — helped solidify his control of the lead.

With Thornton rolling the top in turns one and two and entering turn three in the middle so he could “slide out to the curb on exit (of turn four) and drive off,” he went on to defeat McCreadie by 1.240 seconds.

The victory was Thornton’s ninth this season in Lucas Oil Series action and 14th overall. He’s on an amazing run since his Lucas Oil triumph on April 26 at Georgetown (Del.) Speedway, winning six of the tour’s last eight races and nine of his last 13 starts overall.

“We’ve been really good, really consistent,” said Thornton, who on Saturday night will bid to capture the $50,000 Mountain Moonshine Classic for the second consecutive year. “Obviously my guys have worked their tails off trying to get me the best car, and I feel like we have one of the best cars and the best crew. The results have shown it.”

Thornton noted that one change will be coming to his effort following the weekend: the predominantly white scheme he’s had on his SSI Motorsports Longhorn car since the Show-Me 100 weekend three weeks ago will disappear.

“We’ll run it tomorrow and then we’ll go back to our normal (largely blue) colors,” Thornton said. “The car owner (Todd Burns) loves all blue. He made us change from a black chassis to a blue chassis. We used to have a black deck and now we have a blue deck. Now we’ll have a blue body again. I feel if it was up to him it would be all blue with just a number on the side.”

T-Mac Making Progress

Tim McCreadie’s eyes lit up when Dale McDowell made his lane choice for the lap-26 restart in Friday’s feature.

“I was glad Dale took the bottom because I think I got the tires hot in that long (green-flag) run and I got to where I was just a little free (handling),” said McCreadie, who started second alongside Ricky Thornton Jr. but lost the position to McDowell on lap 14. 

“I just got racing too hard in traffic and spinning the tires and I think I just overheated the backs. When the yellow come out it cooled ‘em down, and I was kind of spinning ‘em up there (in the top groove) under the yellow and I thought, Well, there might be something here.”

With “nothing to lose,” the 50-year-old driver of the Rocket Chassis house car found the grip he needed high on the 3/8-mile oval to shoot past McDowell for second through turns one and two. Then, for a fleeting moment, McCreadie even thought he might be able to pull a slider on Thornton entering turn three and perhaps round up his elusive first victory since joining the Rocket1 operation in mid-March.

“I wanted to do it,” McCreadie said when asked he considered an aggressive slide job. “When I cut left down the back straightaway I had full intention of doing it, but (Thornton) went in way lower than he’d been going so I thought, I don’t want to do something stupid. I never would’ve cleared him. My T-bar would’ve been in his number probably.

“I should’ve stayed on the outside,” he added in hindsight. “If I would’ve went in on the top, he would’ve been stalling out on the bottom. We both kind of stalled out down there, so going to the top would’ve been my chance (because) then he went right to the top in one and two (the next lap). He’s a good racer, he knows what’s going on.”

Nevertheless, McCreadie was satisfied with his performance. It was his second straight runner-up finish on the Lucas Oil Series — he also was second in May 25’s Show-Me 100 at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo.— and moved him into fourth place in the tour’s points standings, putting him in position to compete for the championship later this season under the Big Four format if he can stay there.

“We had probably the best car we’ve had without a big cushion to lean on,” McCreadie said, “so it was really nice.”

McCreadie also rebounded from a disappointing Dream weekend at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, that included a ninth-place preliminary finish and 14th-place run in the 100-lap finale.

“This is great for all the work that (team owner) Mark (Richards) and the guys did in the shop,” said McCreadie, who drove the same machine he ran at Wheatland. “I know when he got home on Sunday (from Eldora) he was in the shop instead of taking it easy. He’s really trying to get this Rocket car a lot better for me.

“I’m cautiously optimistic with this car after changes we tried. But all in all, the balance of this car was phenomenal tonight.”

Checking on Chub

After Boom Briggs of Bear Lake, Pa., finished 19th in Friday’s feature, he climbed out of his Rocket Chassis in the pit area and immediately headed into his trailer to grab his cell phone. He had to talk with his cousin and teammate Chub Frank, whom Briggs learned had just been involved in a post-checkers rollover wreck in the Pete Loretto Memorial Super Late Model event at Freedom Motorsports Park in Delevan, N.Y.

As Mike Knight of Ripley, N.Y., crossed the finish line to win Freedom’s 30-lap feature — a special show sponsored by Briggs Transport, the Briggs family’s business — his car slowed with mechanical trouble and Frank, who finished second, ran into him. Then Greg Oakes and Bump Hedman piled in to Frank, sending the 62-year-old veteran into a barrel roll in turn one.

“He’s OK,” Briggs said of Frank after ending their conversation because Frank had started up his hauler that, Briggs noted, “makes so much noise.”

Briggs pointed out that the car Frank had chosen from the team’s stable to race at Freedom was a vintage Club 29 Chassis that Briggs’s 21-year-old nephew, Logan Jaquay, has been piloting in Super Late Model events this season.

“He takes Logan’s car and he junks it,” Briggs said, shaking his head in dismay.

But Jaquay, who made the trip to Smoky Mountain to help his Uncle Boom as a crewman, didn’t seem too worried about the damage Frank’s wreck inflicted on his machine.

“It’s just a race car,” Jaquay said, and the added of the always-resourceful Frank: “He’ll fix it.”

Odds and ends

The preferred line around the Smoky Mountain oval throughout the heats — the cushion — was choppy and wreaked havoc on race car bodywork. Among the drivers who sported crinkled right-side doors were Tim McCreadie, whose Rocket1 team also had to repair the machine’s right-front nose because it had rolled under, and Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., whose crew removed the door to pound it back straight before he raced to a seventh-place finish in the feature. … Kyle Bronson of Brandon, Fla., spun between turns one and two on the opening lap of the first heat and nosed into the outside wall. He limped back to the pits and didn’t compete in a B-main as he worked with his crew to replace his car’s nosepiece and other front-end parts for Saturday’s finale. … Dale McDowell settled for a third-place finish in the feature after losing the second spot to McCreadie on the lap-26 restart. “I almost chose the top on the restart, but I didn’t know if I could do it,” the 58-year-old McDowell said. “I’m a little too tight to run the top — or a little too old.” … Devin Moran of Dresden, Ohio, who finished fourth in the feature, remarked before the start of the evening’s action that he had no lingering ill will toward Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., following the back-and-forth contact they had in Monday’s XR Super Series event at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway. “Hudson called me to talk about it and we’re all good,” said Moran, who won the Kokomo feature while O’Neal was disqualified for bumping Moran’s car in the pit area. … Twelfth-starter Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., came alive midway through the Smoky Mountain feature and reached sixth on lap 23, but he said the caution flag just three circuits later slowed his momentum and he wasn’t able to climb any higher. … Kaede Loudy of Rogersville, Tenn., won the first B-main to make the feature field in his first-ever Lucas Oil Series appearance. The 19-year-old steered his MasterSbilt car to a 21st-place finish. … World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series points leader Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., didn’t qualify after a broken valve spring knocked him out of the first B-main. He said he found the metal shavings that fell into the engine so it didn’t appear he would have to make a powerplant change for Saturday’s program. … Forrest Trent of Morristown, Tenn., who scratched from the first B-main, ran a car that appeared all-black in daylight because the lettering in its wrap was reflective and only really visible under the track lights. It resembled the difficult-to-see scheme run last year by Mason Zeigler of Chalk Hill, Pa. … On a sweltering day — the high temperature reached the low 90s under sunny skies — Lucas Oil Series director Rick Schwallie said during the drivers’ meeting that all series vehicles would be stocked with bottles of water and Gatorade that drivers could request at any time to ward off dehydration. … Lucas Oil Series officials debuted a pair of Makita 18-watt quad-impact train horns to use for the 10-minute call to stage for the A-main. … The feature was checkered at 10:42 p.m.