Following an off-season filled with anticipation and excitement, the 2019 dirt modified season is slated to kick off with the annual trek to Volusia Speedway Park for the DIRTcar Nationals.
With a new season comes a bevy of new storylines to follow through the 5-day racing extravaganza following some very busy winter months for dirt modified teams.
The off-season ‘hot stove’ stayed sizzling throughout the winter months with an unprecedented amount of ride swapping going on throughout the winter months.
Mat Williamson will make his debut aboard the Buzz Chew Racing 88 which had been piloted by Mike Mahaney over the past three seasons. While the Chew team and Mahaney struggled to co-exist, they showed flashes of brilliance, including at Volusia. If Williamson and crew chief Ron Ste-Marie have chemistry right out of the box they could be a sleeper threat to take home the big gator at the end of the week.
Speaking of chemisty, Billy Decker and reunited crew chief Scott Jeffery have plenty of it. Following a dominating run of nearly 20 years through the Randy Ross and Gypsum Racing teams, Jeffery and Decker were split up following Decker’s departure from Gypsum Racing at the conclusion of the 2015 racing season. After a year that saw Decker fail to win a race (albeit he did claim the Short Track Super Series North Region Championship) he reunited with Gypsum Racing. Jeffery, following a successful 3-year run at Larry Wight’s crew chief–culminating in a Super DIRT Week victory, will return to call the shots on the 91. Despite all of Decker’s success, he’s only been able to find victory lane twice in his Hall of Fame career at Volusia. As for Wight, even though he’ll technically have a new crew chief this season, Jeffery will remain near the 99L team. Wight will also have an added advantage of eliminating the off-season rust a week early, as he’ll have his sprint car on track in Florida as well.
Anthony Perrego burst onto the scene a few years ago at Volusia aboard the Gary Mann Racing 55, challenging for wins in his first trip to the fast 1/2 mile despite only being a teenager. Now, coming off a season that saw him notch 17 victories (including the nationally televised Beach Blast at Georgetown Speedway) and a pair of track championships, Perrego has beem signed to replace Peter Britten as Danny Johnson’s teammate with the Graham Racing team. The team also switched from Troyer to Teo chassis the same chassis Perrego has had all his success in.
The Perrego/Graham announcement left defending Gander Outdoors 150 winner Peter Britten searching for a ride for 2019. Britten, coming off a down season that saw him battle back injuries for a majority of the season, will return to his own operation with the support of Billy Colton and Troyer Race Cars. Britten, despite having more backing while in the Graham Racing machine, didn’t have nearly the success on the DIRTcar Series as he did in 2017 while running his own equipment.
Marc Johnson will make his first trip to Volusia aboard his new ride, the Scott Hamlin Racing machine previously driven by Chad Jeseo. “The White Knight” has shown repeatedly that he can beat the best in the business and will have some of the best equipment he’s ever had. Johnson has adapted well to every track he’s competed at and should be a threat by the end of the week.
A veteran and consistent threat at Volusia is Mario Clair. Clair sold his big-block equipment a few years ago, but has picked up a ride for Volusia aboard the second Francois Bellemare entry. The Quebec pairing may end up doing more racing together depending how Volusia turns out. Clair has a pair of second place finishes at Volusia, but is still looking for the first victory.
Plenty of Talent
While the overall car count may be down compared to the 2018 edition of the DIRTcar Nationals that boasts car counts in the mid-40s throughout the week, the talent will be far from lacking. The drivers making up this year’s field will have accounted for 171 feature victories, 10 track championships, and 3 series champions in 2018, alone.
Headlining that list is Matt Sheppard, the defending Super DIRTcar Series champion who notched 26-total feature wins in 2019 highlighted by the Race for a Cure 150 at Cornwall Motor Speedway. Sheppard looks to kick off what he hopes to be a historic 2019 season with his first DIRTcar Nationals title since 2016. If Sheppard can claim his 8th Super DIRTcar Series title, he’ll tie Brett Hearn for the most in Series history.
Speaking of Hearn, “The Jet” comes off a season in which he captured 8 victories and track titles at both Albany-Saratoga Speedway and Lebanon Valley Speedway. Hearn ended the season on a high note, picking up a win at the World Finals at Charlotte and a $15,000 payday with a victory in the Eastern States 100 at Orange County Fair Speedway. Hearn leads all drivers in wins and championships at Volusia, his most recent in both categories came in 2017.
Erick Rudolph hasn’t had much success at Volusia, but will be heading down in the BBL Racing 25 for the first time since partnering with the team a few seasons ago. Rudolph challenged Sheppard all year on the Super DIRTcar Series en route to picking up a pair of victories on the tour. He also claimed another 8 victories and track championships at Land of Legends Raceway and Ransomville Speedway. Rudolph has shown an ability to adapt to any track as good as anyone, it’s only a matter of time until he figures out Volusia Speedway.
No driver was hotter at the end of the season than 2003 DIRTcar Nationals champion Tim Fuller. Over the last 2 months of the season Fuller picked up a pair of 358 DIRTcar Series victories at Can Am and Mohawk, and claimed Super DIRTcar Series wins at Mohawk, Fonda, and Charlotte. Fuller hopes to roll that momentum into the year last and claim his first Volusia victory since 2016.
Defending DIRTcar Nationals champion Tim McCreadie has announced he will be forgoing bringing the Sweetners Plus big-block modified to Volusia. Instead, the CME team will focus on the efforts of young Kyle Coffey, son of 2-time Super DIRT Week champion Vic Coffey, who will begin his fourth year of modified competition with his first race to Volusia.
Another former DIRTcar Nationals champion, 1999 champion Jimmy Horton, will be missing Volusia for the first time in many years as he deals with a back injury suffered towards the end of 2018. Horton plans to be ready for the northeast racing season.
While the DIRTcar Nationals always attracts some of the top talent in the northeast, “upset” victories are not uncommon. Last year Tyler Siri surprised everyone by picking up his first career victory despite having a lack of success at Volusia up to that point. Rob Bellinger and Neal Williams both came from the back to collect their biggest wins of their young in the 50-lap finale during the week. There are no shortage of threats to “surprise” everyone in a few weeks.
JoJo Watson comes into Volusia coming off his best career year in a big-block. He led all drivers in victories at his home track of Delaware International Speedway and came up just short in claiming the track championship. While not having a ton of experience on Hoosier tires, Watson showed speed and steady improvement in his only two Hoosier appearances last year at the DIRTcar Nationals at Super DIRT Week. The Blue Hen Racing team is no stranger to collecting wins at Volusia, having done so most recently with Jamie Mills in 2009.
Demetrios Drellos has quickly adapted to modified racing. The young driver has collected victories at Lebanon Valley, Fonda, and Devil’s Bowl, and was the 2018 Devil’s Bowl Speedway track champion. Drellos has shown speed everywhere he’s traveled, and the Volusia surface should suit his style.
Jessey Mueller came to Volusia a year ago with a then-mostly unproven new DKM chassis. Mueller struggled to qualify throughout the week and left the DIRTcar Nationals disappointed. He parlayed that disappointment into his best season since going dirt racing, helping put DKM on the map with 5 feature wins. With DKM now creating a buzz and a proven manufacturer, look for Mueller to be at the front of the field throughout the week.
For two drivers that have found success at Volusia, 2018 was a year to forget. Justin Haers and Rick Laubach both weren’t able to find victory lane last season, breaking long annual wining streaks for both drivers.
Haers lost a chassis early in the season after a terrible crash at Land of Legends Raceway and struggled to get his new chassis dialed in throughout the season.
Laubach suffered through personal issues as his parents battled illness and car owner Lori Hermann passed away. Laubach also was suspended from Bridgeport Speedway following an on-track dispute early in the season.
Both Laubach (3) and Haers (2) have won at Volusia, and have the ability to quickly make 2018 a distant memory with another victory in a few short weeks.
Brett Hearn leads all drivers with 24 wins in the Sunshine State, Danny Johnson sits 2nd at 13 career wins. Matt Sheppard (8 wins, tied for 4th all-time), Stewart Friesen (6, tied for 6th all-time), Tim Fuller (6, tied for 6th all-time), and Billy Pauch (5, 10th all-time) all hope to climb up that leader board this season.
Eight former DIRTcar Nationals champions will be in action at Volusia including Hearn (8), Johnson (6), Pauch (3), Sheppard (3), Pat Ward (2), Stewart Friesen (2), with Tim Fuller and Larry Wight each collecting single titles.