2024 Lucas Oil Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway

Firecracker 100 Poses Question: How To Catch Ricky Thornton Jr.?

Firecracker 100 Poses Question: How To Catch Ricky Thornton Jr.?

Firecracker 100 a reminder that Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series foes are still trying to figure out how to keep up with points-leading Ricky Thornton Jr.

Jun 24, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

SARVER, Pa. — Taking Ricky Thornton Jr. out of the equation, there'd be a lot more victories to go around these days.

That sentiment, of course, is entirely theoretical and not the reality of Saturday’s Firecracker 100 finish at Lernerville Speedway, where a dominating Thornton carried his SSI Motorsports team to an 11th victory over a 17-race span and 50th overall Super Late Model victory since the beginning of the 2023 season.

It’s also the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points-leading Thornton’s seventh victories over the last 16 Lucas Oil events paying more than $30,000-to-win. His second straight Firecracker triumph makes him the first back-to-back winner of the event, too. And Thornton, 33, accentuated that success with a 12.335-second margin of victory, leaving some of his nearest competitors concerned on how they’re missing the mark that drastically.

“He has the fastest car on the track every night pretty much,” said the 46-year-old Mike Marlar, who finished third after leading laps four through 44 before Thornton pounced. “He’s not, like, 12 seconds better. It’s just that race there, 89 laps to the finish for 12 seconds, that’s a very slight advantage.

“But a slight advantage is all it takes at this level. I drive my car as fast it goes. Same for Jonathan (Davenport) and Devin (Moran) and everyone else. Ricky, too. Everybody’s getting all they can out of their cars night in and night out. It’s just he’s been the fastest every time. That’s just facts.”

Other than Moran, who charged from the 16th-starting spot to finish second, no driver inside the top-12 advanced more than two positions throughout Saturday’s 100-lap feature.

“I don’t know how exciting it was for the fans, but it wasn’t from where I was at, like at all,” said Davenport, who finished fourth. “I don’t know. Devin did good. He came up through there pretty good. … At least the fans got to see a little bit of passing.”

That’s not a knock on the 4/10-mile oval that entertained for much of the three-day event. “A tight rules package,” as Marlar stresses, has that kind of influence. But in that same vein, if drivers claim rule packages are tighter than ever, how’s Thornton separated himself?


HIGHLIGHTS: Watch highlights from Saturday's Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway. 

Marlar has answers, he likes to think.

“I love that the series has all these rules, but the rules are so tight, the cars are all the same,” Marlar started. “That means it comes down to the fine details, like shocks and spring curves and all those kinds of things. Now the technology … I feel like I have to find the right guy or I’m going to get left behind. I have to have somebody in my corner.

“Josh (Davis) and Jerry (Sprouse) are some of the best mechanics. My car always finishes. We have the best maintenance program. But what we lack is we don’t have anyone that makes it go fast. I’m out there driving a car that handles like s--- half the time and I have to deal with it. 

“I’m not trying to whine. It’s just facts. If you want to know how Ricky got 12 seconds ahead, that’s how. Make sure you put that in your article.”

The wealth of knowledge crew chief Anthony Burroughs supplies Thornton is what Marlar speaks of. And Thornton praising that “the car can do whatever we need it to do” supports that. But Burroughs himself claims that Saturday’s 12-second victory shines more of a light on Thornton’s increasingly-impressive ability rather than the race car.

“That’s been our deal the last couple of years. That’s really more him than it is the car,” Burroughs said. “It’s not that we’re picking up anything. It’s that other guys fall off a little bit. And he kind of maintains so he has something left in the tank if he needs it.”

Marlar’s rundown of Saturday’s backslide, where he went from the lead to 13.774 seconds behind Thornton at the finish in a 56-lap span, aligns with Burroughs’s assessment. He “led for a while based off experience” alone and aided an ill-handling race car by “running through the dirty stuff in the middle.”

“I’ve had a lot of trouble the last little bit here … pushing problems. Can’t really figure out why I’m doing that,” Marlar said. “I got the lead on the restart. And then used the dirty part of the track for probably the first 40 laps; using the racetrack to help my car. By lap 50, that was pretty much all gone. And then the last 25 laps was a real struggle for me.”

Thornton’s prowess to steer all over the racetrack and carry momentum through the corners, especially turn three, caught the attention of Davenport’s Double L Motorsports team. Davenport said “my guys were already talking about things his car does and what my car just doesn’t do” right after the checkered flag.

Davenport and his team will rewatch Saturday’s 100-lapper to try and better decipher Thornton’s maneuverability.

“I’m not going to hire people to put cameras underneath his car and s--- like people have done to me,” Davenport said. “But like every NFL team studies the tape from their opponent, we do the same thing. We’ll go back and watch when we can.

“They’ve hit on a little something and have given to themselves the past couple of years. Like I said, times will change. The tide will go a different way. It just takes time to get there.”

Davenport’s turned some of that tide by winning four Lucas Oil Series races and June 8’s $100,030 Dream XXX at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. But after Saturday, Davenport can’t say he’s found his stride just yet.

“I’m not sure. Maybe I just suck here,” Davenport said. “I don’t know. I haven’t found what fits me here yet. There’s a thousand different ways to drive every racetrack, and I’ve not found how I need to drive it and the way I need to set my car up. It’s a balance between myself and the car. And this place.”

Not overhyping, nor overanalyzing, one race is what Davenport keeps in mind, too. That goes for positive results just as much as negative. Davenport didn’t have overinflated views of his race program after his six-second Dream and Show-Me 100 wins over the last month. So he’s not going to overreact and say something beyond Saturday is handicapping his race team for finishing 14.370 seconds behind Thornton — nearly a full-track margin.

“It’s just one race. If we would’ve went 89 laps straight at Eldora or the Show-Me, I might’ve lapped the field. Who really knows,” Davenport said. “That’s just here. Everything’s gonna change once we go to another one. They’re on their game. They’re doing a really good job. (Ricky’s) doing a really good job as a driver. We just have to get better.

“I’ve been in this sport long enough that s--- can change overnight. They had the best car by far tonight. And they had a really long green flag run to even showcase that even more. Congrats to them. We’re going to keep working and try to be better than them next time.”

Marlar, on the other hand, appears more concerned than Davenport. He loves his homespun team with all his heart and takes pride spearheading his setups and packages. But Saturday was another stark reminder for the Lucas Oil Series traveler of just how much he’s falling behind to Thornton and even Moran.

“Some of these guys have engineer-type help, and then it’s me and my two buddies from my hometown trying to make it work,” Marlar said. “We know that. We know there’s no quit in us. But we know that’s the thing we’re missing.

“I don’t have a Burroughs or a Vinny (Guliani) or anybody to figure stuff out for me. Vinny is great and Devin is fortunate to have him. But I’m on my own. I wish I had someone that could outsource some help to better my program, but it’s just me and my buddies. We’ve been racing for years. This stuff is getting very technical.

“If we don’t find a way or find some key people to help us, we’re going to get left in the dust, which is pretty much the reality of it.”