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Our weekly roundtable considers action from the final weekend in May as the drumbeat intensifies for the upcoming $50,000-to-win Stream Invitational at Eldora Speedway (edited for clarity and length):
Wax poetic about a weekend driver, race or moment.
Kevin Kovac, DirtonDirt.com senior writer: During a weekend that had several neat stories develop, let’s not forget David Payne’s victory in Saturday’s Toyota Knoxville 50 at Tazewell (Tenn.) Speedway. The Murphy, N.C., veteran is an unheralded racer who makes his living as a schoolteacher — always an interesting storyline, because who wouldn’t find it cool to have a race car driver as a teacher? — and Saturday was the first $10,000 win of his career. It didn’t come easy, either, because he had Jimmy Owens and Brandon Overton — the two hottest drivers in the country — chasing him throughout the distance. Nice to see a new face join the five-figure winner’s club.
Todd Turner, DirtonDirt.com managing editor: Friday's tight Davenport finish was relatively unsatisfying because to DIRTVision viewers (the only "fans" with no spectators allowed), it wasn't at all clear where the finish line was precisely as Ricky Thornton Jr. and Brandon Sheppard came to the checkers. I guess it's good enough to trust transponder scoring, but when that's different from what appears to the eye — as it did here — it's not the best. Literal finish lines on dirt tracks obviously don't work, but my track would have a visible wire strung from the infield to the outside of the track to mark where the race ends.
Robert Holman, DirtonDirt.com weekend editor: I also have to address Ricky Thornton Jr.’s near miss at Davenport, where Brandon Sheppard won by the narrowest of margins. To many it appeared as though Thornton beat Sheppy to the line, and he very well may have. But apparently, Thornton didn’t have his scoring transponder mounted in the right location. From what I’ve heard, it was mounted on the mid-plate rather that further forward out on the frame rail. Had it been on the frame rail ahead of the engine, we could very well be talking about a driver shocking the World of Outlaws regulars in back-to-back events.
Dustin Jarrett, DirtonDirt.com staffer: It has to be Logan Roberson's emotional win first career Dirt Late Model win Thursday at Tyler County. I spoke with him at length before the race and he was telling me about how, at one time, his parents weren't even going to allow him to go (since neither dad Greg nor mom Wendy would be able to go). They eventually agreed, but only if he could find someone to at least travel with him. Logan eventually rounded up crew member Austin Stover and they made the six-hour journey worthwhile. Roberson, normally a jovial, light-hearted driver, was overcome with emotion — tears running down his face — while talking to me in victory lane. Those are the moments we live for in this sport, and that's an interview I won't soon forget.
Kyle Symons, DirtonDirt.com contributor: I'll give a nod to my local racetracks. Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway and Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa., ran races this past Saturday with social distancing guidelines and both shows went off flawlessly. I was at Lincoln and I had friends at Hagerstown and both track instituted measures where fans were sitting every other row and both the pits and stands were packed with people excited to see racing with fans adhering to guidelines. It was amazing to see everyone working together to race during these times.
How does an invitational field change a big-money race at Eldora?
Turner: While there will still be some underdogs, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots isn't quite so wide, which might take a little fun from rooting for an unlikely contender. The tighter field will also mean tighter programs, which is nice as the preliminary nights at Eldora crown jewels have had a tendency to drag by the time you reach the consolation races. (As an aside, I must say that as a journalist, one benefit of the coronavirus era has been these locked-in entry lists that provide some certainty about who's coming in preparing coverage. That, of course, offsets the fun you have with non-invitationals when a driver unexpectedly shows up and performs well.)
Symons: In my opinion it doesn't change much. The guys with the best chance to win have all been invited and, even with only 48 cars the field, it should be nothing short of incredible. With fewer cars, the programs will fly off without a hitch for the entire three days and I always enjoy a quick, efficiently run program. And let's face facts: for competitors, $50,000 is $50,000 whether there are 48 cars in attendance or 148.
Jarrett: I'll be the first to admit that I'm fan of the underdog, so I always enjoy seeing those unheralded drivers make strong runs at Eldora ... often rallying the fans behind them as the weekend goes on. With fewer underdogs in attendance, that will be once big difference. I also believe the programs themselves will be much quicker, not just because there's fewer entrants, but because there will be far fewer cautions. I mean, it's still Eldora. And that victory stage is still the most coveted place to stand in all of Dirt Late Model racing, so obviously all 48 drivers are going to be racing has hard as they would in a typical Eldora crown jewel. But I think we'll see fewer cautions and possibly less lapped traffic to contend with.
Kovac: I imagine that if there’s any type of heat-race inversion, it could play an even bigger factor than in a normal crown jewel event at Eldora. With just 48 cars in action — and no slouches in that bunch — the difference in speed from 1-48 figures to be very narrow. The bottom eight qualifiers won’t be far off the top eight, and that’s going to make track positioning, especially in the heats, very important. The quality of the field means there will be fewer instances of drivers making mistakes, so the pressure to hit the setup right on the button will increase. I see the the competition being even tougher than with 100 entries because the margin for error will shrink.
Holman: With a limitation of 48 drivers, you know from the get go that every heat is gonna be stacked. There’s no getting around it. I think it also changes the event in a couple of other ways. For drivers who were fortunate enough to be invited, I think it cements their status in the sport, at least during this brief timespan. We’re gonna look back and say, hey, these were the guys who got the invites. They must have been at the top of the game at that time, kinda like how we look back at the starting lineup for the Million. It also changes it slightly in that this makes it an elite event, even more than other Eldora races. That’s one reason, from my low-buck point of view, I don’t like invitationals. It eliminates the real underdogs, the dreamers who likely wouldn’t make the race anyway, but not for lack of trying.
Reflect on ways an Eldora biggie with no fans, but tons of online viewers, will be digested.
Holman: I think it lends itself to some really, really cool watch parties. I know we’ll likely have more regional events on tap during the event than we normally would, but even so, I say with a week’s notice like we had, folks can really plan a neat get together — minding social distancing regulations of course — filling garages, mancaves and living rooms with tons of people eager to see the nation’s best drivers tackle the Big E.
Symons: It's definitely different than anything we've ever experienced in our sport. Never has a crown jewel event went off with no fans, and they will be missed, but I think the dirt track racing community will rally around FloRacing's live streaming and you will see tremendous social media interaction all three nights with fans posting their viewing setups and sharing them via #tweetyourseat tweets. While it will be very much different, it will also be something that I feel like our community will show just how strong it is.
Kovac: Considering the 15,000-or-so fans who would normally be at the track but now won’t be, it’s pretty much a given that this will draw the largest online audience ever for a Dirt Late Model event when all the multiple-viewer watch parties are added up. In that vein, I see these races also creating the most social-media activity the division has ever seen. Eldora always triggers an avalanche of tweets and Facebook posts, but the flurry slows down among those at the track as the races are underway. That won’t be the case this time; with everyone sitting on their couches, the hot takes will be flying nonstop on social media. And just imagine how what will happen if Scott Bloomquist is in the middle of another epic Eldora moment.
Turner: I envision a social media frenzy as an outlet for fans who would otherwise be hooting and hollering for their favorite drivers — or least favorites — from turn four. I'll admit that sometimes I can be relatively unaware of the crowd if I'm laser-focused on covering the races, so it'll be interesting to see how obvious it feels that the grandstands are empty.
Jarrett: As one of the event announcers for more than 10 years, I've been trying to digest this since the announcement and I really don't have a good answer. If I'm being totally honest, James and I feed off the fan reactions and the roar of the crowd. On my end, it changes the way I handle a broadcast. With no fans, we have to be the eyes and ears for the people watching at home. We go from announcers to artists who paint a specific picture of exactly what is happening and where. There will be times when we see something the cameras don't catch right away. There will be times the cameras are locked on a battle while our eyes are somewhere else. It is what it is. It's not what I want ... it's not what anyone wants. But we will do everything we can to do the best damn job we have ever done.
Air your quibbles (or plaudits) of the drivers who were invited.
Jarrett: Let's just lay it out here ... with the track limited to 48 open spots, there is zero chance of having a perfect formula to make everyone happy. From drivers who have traditionally run well to past champions to those who tirelessly support the track, there was simply no way for the track to find a "perfect" group of 48 invites. At first glance, Hudson O'Neal likely stands out as the biggest "snub" not on the initial group of 44. I've seen a few folks make a case for Rick Eckert (who I love), but let's not forget that he hasn't been to the Dream or the World 100 in six years. Regional drivers such as Chamberlain or maybe Gilpin come to mind, although Gilpin didn't enter either Eldora biggie in 2019. In all, much like the NCAA basketball tournament, there were a group of drivers you knew would make it, and there were a group you knew would be on the outside looking in.
Turner: To a degree it was similar to the NCAA Tournament selections with "bubble teams," which is kind of fun. Overall I think invitees were a pretty good representation and I appreciated the addition of fans voting in the final four spots. One way that would've reduced any perceived injustices would've been to have criteria set for entry based on certain groups of drivers (national tourers, Eldora loyalty, Ohio drivers, previous track champs, recent crown jewel success at Eldora, etc.) with certain number of spots per group. That would've provided a black-and-white reason why a driver was invited — or was left out.
Symons: When the list of 44 invitees appeared, it was almost like the selection show for the NCAA basketball tournament. It was interesting to see drivers who got in and who got snubbed, but my fellow panelists are right on this one. If you can only invite 48 drivers to and event at Eldora that's paying $50,000 to the winner, there's no perfect way to choose. No matter how it shakes out there is no way drivers won't be snubbed who arguably deserve an invite. I do believe, though, that they have every driver that is capable of winning the event on that list. The drivers who perform well every time they unload at Eldora will all be there.
Kovac: There’s no perfect formula to determine an invitational field for a major event at Eldora. No matter what, there were going to be hurt feelings among drivers who didn’t make the cut. I guess I was most surprised with Hudson O’Neal’s absence from the list; yes, he’s struggled so far this year in the MasterSbilt house car, but he just last September he won a World 100 preliminary feature. One driver I was glad to see on the roster: Ricky Thornton Jr. He won a 2018 World 100 prelim, but he’s still more of a modified driver than a Dirt Late Model guy, so even he would admit that he had to be on the bubble. It’s clear his first-ever, $20,000 World of Outlaws victory over Memorial Day weekend in Jackson, Minn., helped him clinch a spot.
Holman: We agree it had a NCAA selection show feel about it. I’m sure the diehard hoops fans can appreciate that. I saw a few guys who I kind of expected would get in, but it’s really hard to argue against the drivers who were selected. Just like with the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s definitely an inexact science. I thought Cade Dillard might make it in based on his World of Outlaws points. And I think it’s odd to see guys like Matt Miller, Jonathan Henry and Duane Chamberlain — Eldora stalwarts — not in the lineup.
Guarantee one of three weekend winners ($10,000 prelims or $50,000 finale).
Symons: I'll take Brandon Sheppard to come away with at least one victory this weekend. The Rocket house car team finally broke through with an Eldora biggie victory in last year's Dirt Late Model Dream, and Sheppard and the Rocket crew are without a doubt the top team in the country right now night in, night out. I look for Sheppard to visit victory lane at Eldora this coming weekend, and quite possibly be on top of the stage after Saturday's finale.
Jarrett: Jimmy Owens. Eldora has always been a Jimmy Owens kind of track and, while his track record at the Dream maybe isn't quite as strong as it at the World, it doesn't deter from the fact that he's really good there. And the Newport, Tenn. veteran will enter the Dirt Late Model Stream as one of the hottest drivers in the country. Combine those ingredients, and I think you'll see the 20 car on the Eldora victory stage at least once.
Holman: I’ll put the target on the back of Canadian Ricky Weiss. He’s been so dang consistent with a win, two podiums and an eighth-place finish in World of Outlaws action over the last 10 days. He was seventh and 11th in his two Dream starts with a prelim feature win last year and he finished third in last year’s World 100, so he’s primed to take the next step. I go a bit further and say Ricky Thornton Jr. is my darkhorse pick and Dale McDowell is my no-brainer. I think I covered all my bases there.
Kovac: Brandon Overton. The Wells Motorsports driver has won an Eldora crown jewel prelim before and he’s on one big roll right now. He legitimately had a chance to win all six Lucas Oil Series Reopening Tour events over the past two weeks, and I think he carries that momentum right into this weekend’s action. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Overton will win Saturday’s 50-grand prize.
Turner: Guarantees make me nervous. Most would agree that Brandon Sheppard, Jimmy Owens and Brandon Overton are the three hottest drivers coming into the event, so should we automatically pick one of those three? Or what about Darrell Lanigan, who seems to be the master of preliminary victories at Eldora crown jewels. I'll go off the board and pick Josh Richards as a guaranteed winner ... my guess is one of the prelims.