McDowell muses of 'better days' as Eldora streak ends

Dale McDowell (17m)

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With eight laps remaining in Saturday’s Intercontinental Classic feature at Eldora Speedway, Dale McDowell found himself in a familiar position as he raced among the top five in the $50,000-to-win World 100 replacement event. But just as McDowell of Chickamauga, Ga., moved into second and prepared to make a late run at leader Kyle Stickler, his car failed to fire on a restart, forcing McDowell to retire from the 67-lap race.

The untimely misfortune, later determined to be a fuel pickup problem, cost McDowell, a former winner of both the World 100 and the Dream, the opportunity to challenge for another big win at Eldora. Instead he watched from the infield as Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., took advantage of Strickler’s flat tire on the final lap to claim the win.

“I was trying to take care of my tires and we had that caution with eight to go there,” said McDowell, who started fourth in Saturday’s feature and never ran worse than fifth before dropping out. “When we had that caution I was kind of excited because I thought I’d have a chance to get a good clean air run around the outside and see what I had. Then he ended up having a flat tire at the end of it. That just makes it even all that much worse knowing we could’ve been in position there. But I guess when it’s not your day, it’s not your day.”

Standing by as the race played out in the final laps was an unfamiliar position for McDowell, who has been a consistent contender in Eldora’s major events over the past 15 years. In fact, the rare early exit ended McDowell’s remarkable run of 13 consecutive top-10 finishes in crown jewel features at Eldora, a streak that McDowell takes pride in not only because of what it says about him as a driver but also his brother Shane McDowell as a crew chief.

“I didn’t pay much attention to (the streak), but it is pretty neat when you do that and you’re in the top five or the top 10 consistently against this caliber of cars,” said McDowell, whose run of top-10s began with his Dream victory in 2014. “It’s the best of the best up here. That’s gratifying for me as a driver and to Shane as far as preparation. We don’t brake. You have to be able to finish races and have a good program to have a streak like that, and that’s all to Shane.

“That’s how I know it was something beyond his control (that broke on Saturday). It’s got to be something internal there that’s gone wrong. Shane just went through everything on the car before we came up here. New fuel filter, fuel pump, all of that. It’s either a problem with one of those or it’s something in the fuel cell.”

With his streak coming to an end, the 54-year-old McDowell took time to reflect on his career at Eldora and how far he’s come at the historic track. While things have certainly gone well for him at Eldora over the past seven seasons, it hasn’t always been that way. Since he first started attending Eldora’s major events in the mid-90s, McDowell and has had to work to improve at the track and still does today.

“I’ve been coming here a long time and I’ve always watched guys,” McDowell said. “When I struggled I’d get out and watch the guys that were running good and watch for where they were gaining speed and what their techniques were. That’s helped me over the years. I think Shane’s done the same thing working on race cars and setup stuff. He’ll watch other guy’s cars.

“For a while, we came up here and struggled and went the wrong way a lot. As I started watching and paying attention several years ago, we’ve been better here, especially on long runs. I struggle a little bit on short runs, but we’ve been getting a little better at that too.”

McDowell doesn’t see the end of his streak as the end of an era. While he’s doubtful he’ll ever match that feat, he’s confident he still has a few more strong Eldora runs and perhaps a win or two left in him before he calls it quits.

“I don’t know about doing that again, but surely I can come up here a few more years before I retire. And who knows, maybe we can put another win or two under our belt,” McDowell said before adding jokingly, “I’m younger than (fellow Eldora stalwart) Scott (Bloomquist), so as long as he keeps coming, I should keep coming.”

All joking aside, McDowell has considered that his career at Eldora may be slowly drawing to a close. But he’s not rushing his way into retirement, and he certainly won’t step away until he feels it’s time.

“I feel like as long as I can keep up and stay competitive and stay right there with those guys, I’m going to keep doing it,” McDowell said. “And when I get to where I can’t, I’ll be there first one to say it’s time for me to get out and plug somebody else in there. But I still really enjoy coming here. This place has been good to me, and it’ll give you your share of heartbreaks, too. You just take them and hope there’s better days ahead. There will be better days ahead.”

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QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. (Jan. 13) — Brian Shirley saw the situation one way. Ricky Thornton Jr. viewed it another.In the first controversial moment of the 15th annual Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway, there was simply no middle ground reached between the two drivers who saw their hopes for victory in Wednesday night’s 30-lap Super Late Model feature dashed by an early-race tangle.The pair of top contenders — Thornton logged finishes of first and second in the miniseries’s opening-weekend events while Shirley was just a bit behind with runs of third and fourth — were battling for third place on lap seven of the A-main when their evenings went awry. Shirley dived low entering turn one and slid up the track in front of Thornton, but Thornton clipped the left side of Shirley’s car and both drivers’ machines collected fifth-place Stormy Scott of Las Cruces, N.M.After Thornton retired for a 22nd-place finish and Shirley soldiered on to place 17th in a race captured by Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., they stood in the pit area — separated by just a few stalls, in fact — looking back on the incident with differing opinions.“He saw his opportunity and took it,” Thornton said of Shirley, “and it pretty much didn’t work out.”“He could’ve hit the brakes, you know?” countered Shirley, pointedly questioning Thornton. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’m not saying it was all his fault because I did get in there hot, but it was because I wasn’t gonna hit him.”Shirley, 39, of Chatham, Ill., felt that he had cut his rival for position a break on the frontstretch and should have received the same treatment in return between turns one and two. The two drivers were charging hard in pursuit of second-place Jason Papich of Nipomo, Calif., with Shirley running high through turns three and four and Chandler, Ariz.’s Thornton sucked low until Thornton drifted toward the outside guardrail approaching the starter’s stand, prompting Shirley to abruptly cross over Thornton under the flagman and attempt a slider into the first and second corners.“Just coming off of four there, he was on the bottom and went straight to the wall, and I braked for him,” Shirley detailed. “Then I come down, cleared him like a mile, and he just come in there and doored us. They can watch the video. I never touched him.“I can hit the brakes, he can hit the brakes. I’m more disappointed because I braked for him and he couldn’t brake for me. It’s a two-way street.”From Shirley’s standpoint, his aggressive bid on Thornton was merely him reacting to the opening he was presented.“I made a move because when we were coming out of four, he pushed up,” Shirley said. “I was running the high side and he was running the bottom. He would’ve hit me if I wouldn’t have hit the brakes, so I moved down because I had the momentum to slide him. Instead of him turning back down to try and cross me back over he just ran into the left side of the door.“I don’t know what to say,” he continued. “I don’t know what I would’ve done any different. We wouldn’t have even been in the situation if he wouldn’t have pushed up out of four where I was already there. If he would’ve stayed on the bottom I would’ve went right by him without an issue, but he pushed out so then I had to figure out an exit plan.”Thornton, 30, certainly didn’t agree with the tactics Shirley decided to employ.“So I ran the bottom in three and four,” Thornton began. “I didn’t have all my speed down the front straightaway, and I kind of figured someone was gonna slide me. But then we entered and I thought we were good, and then he slid me, like, kind of late in the corner almost.“Watching the in-car (camera footage from his car), it looked like (Shirley) spun out, but, I think because he carried so much speed in the corner, he knew he was gonna destroy the wall so he tried to turn it sideways. When he did, he pretty much parked it (on the cushion), so then I had nowhere to go. At that point I was already back on the throttle. At that point there was no turning down or anything.”When Thornton contacted Shirley’s car, the right-rear deck and quarter-panel of Thornton’s SSI Motorsports Longhorn mount was pulled astray, leading him to limp into the infield with the sheet metal flopping along the track. Shirley’s Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket was shoved into the outside wall before Scott slid into the back of both cars, eliminating him as well. Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., also slapped Shirley’s car as he passed by but was able to continue racing to a fifth-place finish.Thornton felt fortunate that his 3-race-old car escaped the crash with mostly cosmetic damage, but he was well aware that he lost an opportunity to move a step closer to the Keyser Manufacturing bonus dollars posted for winning three or more races.“It just ripped the whole right side off,” said Thornton, who, with three races remaining in the miniseries, remains alive for the bonuses of $10,000 (three wins) and $25,000 (four victories). “It got the body, left-rear shock, couple left-rear parts just from Stormy getting in the left rear.“It kind of sucks for that to happen, especially on lap six of the race or whatever it was,” he added. “I had a really good car. I took off and I was running hard, but not so hard that I was gonna kill my stuff.”While there was no love lost between the two drivers after the incident — a Thornton team member even expressed his displeasure by tossing a signal stick at Shirley’s passing car in the infield (the stick bounced off Shirley’s car and nearly struck a photographer standing nearby) — they were ready to move on to the concluding weekend of WWS action.“It is what it is,” Thornton said, “and we’ll get it fixed up and try again on Friday.”“Luckily it just looks like a lot of bodywork, but it still ruins your night,” Shirley commented. “We started 11th and was passing him for third so it wasn’t like we sucked. We’ve been trying different things, little bitty things every race we’re in. In the heat race I felt like we were horrible, and then, I hate to say, we just put the thing back to where it was when I won them races last year (three WWS features) and that’s how I went.“We’ll put it back together and hopefully next time circumstances might come out a little different.”

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