The season is on! Let the torch be lit! Georgia and Florida teased us with what we might expect in 2019…and it was over in a flash! Why can’t we race a whole month of February in the sunshine state we’ll never know. Sure it costs a few kidneys and a college fund or two, but the tease kills us when it’s over. Most of us have close to two more months before we can thaw the ground and farm the tracks in preparation for race season in the upper half of the country. If you’re headed to your favorite weekly show in the west or southeast….we’re jealous! However, the gulf between pre season and regular season gives us time to wax. To ponder what is to come in 2019. And to have a few beers and write our thoughts down at the very least.
It was a new team, new car and fresh start for Daryn Pittman in Florida this year and he completely took advantage of the clean slate, sweeping the Outlaw shows and bringing home a pair of podium finishes in the All Star portion. Will Pittman be able to keep that pace going all season? He’s the last Outlaw not named Schatz to win a title in the past seven seasons and even though it’s a modest point lead, it’s an encouraging sign?
Kyle Symons – Pittman will have a good year in the Roth car, but not the year where he competes for a championship. Nobody is competing for a championship that isn’t named Schatz or Sweet.
Aaron Clay – No, Pittman and the Roth Team will not be able to keep that pace throughout the entire WoO Season. Still, a hell of a start for him and the Team! I’m going to default to Donny Schatz and Brad Sweet being the favorites to win the WoO Title in 2019, with Pittman being a top-5 driver throughout the season!
Todd Nunes – Pittman and Roth came out of the gate hot, but it’s extremely hard to maintain that for the next 90 races. Schatz has all but mastered the bread and butter of the schedule so to speak, but Sweet has made gains in the past couple years as well. The wild card in all of this is that they are putting the finishing touches on the new Ford 410 motor and it seems we will be seeing its debut this season. There’s no doubt it will have the power that Schatz and TSR demand, but will there be unforeseen issues once it debuts?
Name us one driver in a new car or new team that had a better than expected showing from your point of view?
Jamie Weaknecht- With the struggles that Shane Stewart had last season, and where the CJB Motorsports team was at the end of the year I honestly didn’t expect a ton out of this pairing. They kicked things off with a few decent nights, got an early victory in All-Star action that hopefully leads them towards a successful year.
Kyle Symons – I have to agree with Jamie and go with Shane Stewart on this one. He picked up a victory at Volusia and it’s hard to run that good in Florida with a new team. Stewart had a solid week and I look for him to have a good season this year with a fresh start with CJB Motorsports.
Aaron Clay – I know David Gravel and the Jason Johnson Racing Team didn’t have the finishes they were looking for, but they sure showed that they have speed! I think it’s only a matter of time before the 41 returns to victory lane and I won’t be surprised if Gravel is a top-5 contender all season.
Todd Nunes – Cory Eliason and Rudeen Racing had a successful speedweeks running top 5 with the ASCOC, top 10 with the WOO, and taking home a feature win at East Bay King of the 360s. Rudeen Racing struggled in 2018, it’s good to see them having success this season.
Give us one driver that will come to the forefront in 2019 as a top echelon driver ala Reutzel and Macedo last season or Sheldon Haudenschild in 2017, and tell us why.
Jamie Weaknecht- Logan Schuchart has shown flashes, but with the new sponsorship deal with Drydene and a new confidence, this is the year he breaks out in a big way. The Shark team finally has the backing they deserve to run with the big guys.
Kyle Symons – I’ll pick Cory Eliason in the Rudeen 26 car to win a lot of races this year. They are running the All Stars schedule and I look for Eliason to have a season much like Reutzel did last year on that tour.
Aaron Clay – I know Jacob Allen has been on the WoO Tour for several seasons, but I feel like 2019 is the best chance for him to compete! The Shark Racing Team has steadily improved and now they have a full-time sponsor in Drydene. I won’t be surprised to see Allen get his first WoO Feature victory this year and prove to be a top-10 driver, all season!
Todd Nunes – I’ll keep talking about Cory Eliason and Rudeen Racing. Like Kyle, I think they will have success on the ASCOC tour.
Gary Heeman- I’m going to do one better and give you one to watch in 2020….Gio Scelzi
On the other side of the coin, who’s a driver who might find the going a little rougher this year and why.
Jamie Weaknecht- Here’s why I didn’t answer the first question, Daryn Pittman. He’s always fast at Volusia, and he’ll pick up his wins along the way, but he’s not going to be the championship contender people are now expecting him to be. The Roth team’s always steady, but it’s been a few years since they chased the whole World of Outlaw schedule. Even with having two wins under his belt, I predict he doesn’t reach the 9 he had a year ago with KKR.
Kyle Symons – I look for David Gravel to have a little rougher year. I think he will win races with the Jason Johnson Racing team, but will struggle to find the consistency it takes to be in the top five every night.
Todd Nunes – Hunter Racing and Chad Kemenah parted ways at the end of the 2018 season. Per a CK press release, Chad ran speedweek as a teammate to John Garvin, and will be running Vegas and Cali WOO races in the Redlined Welding Racing 45. He also will be running several Champ car races on dirt this season. All this fluctuation could quickly lead to an inconsistent season for Kemenah. Interestingly, Hunter Racing seemed to have asked him to come back and run for them via a tweet during speedweek. Could we see the CK in the 10H as well this season?
Who’s performance was more impressive? Brandon Sheppard at Volusia, Jonathan Davenport’s at East Bay, or Tyler Erb’s at Golden Isles and East Bay?
Josh Bayko – Brandon Sheppard for sure. The domination he unleashed on Volusia is unprecedented, and his whole Speedweeks stats are pretty crazy. 12 starts, 10 top fives including 4 wins. I tend to think that team will be piling up the wins again.
Jamie Weaknecht- Brandon Sheppard. We’ve never seen dominance like that during the DIRTcar Nationals in any division before.
Kyle Symons – You have to go with Brandon Sheppard on this one. Sheppard swept all four WoO events at Volusia against very stout fields every night. That’s an impressive feat that has never been pulled off previously.
Aaron Clay – While B-Shepp’s performance at Volusia is nothing short of impressive, I’m not at all surprised by it. Rather, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tyler Erb perform so well in the Best Performance machine! It’s great to see Erb capitalize on this opportunity of getting to drive for one of the top Teams on the Tour.
Todd Nunes – Brandon Sheppard seems to have found that dominating success he displayed in 2017. Look out.
Scott Bloomquist went 0’fer for Arizona, Georgia and Florida. And along the way, had some off the track stuff rear it’s head which I’m sure the fans by now are all aware of. Is this cause for concern for 2019? Is the break between the Lucas Series races coming at a perfect time?
Josh Bayko – Scott’s Speedweeks adventures are inconsistent throughout his whole career. This year was one of the down years. Do I think it’ll hurt him overall on a the Lucas tour? Maybe. He’s dug himself a whole. The odd thing about the whole deal is that his best runs in this year’s Speedweeks came after the whole mess with Cody. Perhaps it’s time to consider making a change with his crew.
Jamie Weaknecht- Unfortunately, I think Bloomer’s career is just starting to wind down. Everyone eventually loses to Father Time, and to me it looks like his career may be coming to an end. The faces of our sport were Bloomquist-Kinser-Hearn for so long, one’s hung it up and the other two aren’t far from it. Here’s hoping I’m totally wrong no this and “The Voodoo Child” has a huge 2019.
Kyle Symons – I think it’s impossible to judge someone’s season based off of Florida performances. Guys start slow and some guys start fast, but there are always other guys who come on later in the season. Bloomquist will win his fair share of races this year.
Aaron Clay – Bloomquist’s start to 2019 is a bit concerning, but let’s be honest; he’s fast. Sure, some mechanical problems gave him challenges, but he’s the type of driver who will park it in the feature rather than run his car to death, to finish 15th. He had multiple top-3 finishes in Arizona and was in position to win the $14,000 finale, before getting caught-up in a lapped car’s mess. The off-track drama? Nothing surprising from Team Zero. I won’t be surprised when Bloomer goes on a run and reels-off several wins on either Late Model National Tour!
Todd Nunes – Bloomer gonna Bloomer. Don’t worry, black sunshine will still shine at some point this season. It does seem however, that there are more cloudy days ahead than sunny ones. With the amount of talent on the Lucas tour, he has his work cut out for him.
Gary Heeman- Predicting here…that the break before the action resumes in March finds Bloomquist taking a look at what to make better, what worked and what didn’t in Florida and he’s shot out of a cannon when he takes the track again. Typically, he doesn’t always do well at East Bay, but in Volusia he normally improves. I’m not sure anybody could have caught Brandon Sheppard if we had to run those four races again on that track with the same field depth. Bottom line- He responds to adversity as well as any driver in Dirt Late Model history, what still makes him dangerous, is the fact that he has memories of turning it around to draw back upon and knows what it takes to find victory lane again with consistency after a time when things are not going as well as he would like. He’ll be right there when the big money is on the line. As far as touring titles go….they’ll be harder for him to win, not that he’s getting worse, but others are getting better and there’s a greater amount of teams getting better. The top echelon of guys who could win any race has gone from about 4-5 guys in a series to 6-10 in the last five years. The pool is deeper and it effects the approach of how to win a series title. But for the big shows…he’ll still be a favorite and probably has several Dream/World 100s, Knoxville LM Nationals, and Dirt Track World Championship wins left in him before he calls it a day. And that day, is not here yet nor is it close.
It’s a rather large contingent of World of Outlaw Late Model Rookie of the Year Candidates in 2019. If you had to make the call today, who’s the clear cut favorite?
Josh Bayko – It has to be Ricky Weiss. He’s got more experience running with the big boys, more wins against those big boys, including the 2018 North/South 10. Sure, he’ll take some lumps at unfamiliar tracks and the grind of full time touring will be new to him, but I can’t really see the other contenders not having the same issues, but they also don’t have the same experience running with the top dogs that Ricky does.
Jamie Weaknecht- Ricky Weiss is definitely the headlining driver of the class for good reason. There’s some talent there, but I mean, hell, if our late model expert (Bayko) picks him who am I to think differently?
Kyle Symons – Ricky Weiss for sure after the season he had last year, but I would love to see Kyle Hardy stay there and battle with him for that honor all season long.
Aaron Clay – I’m going to go off the beaten-path a little bit and pick “Thriller” Cade Dillard. No doubt Weiss has been impressive and it helps to be teamed with one of Late Model’s all-time best drivers, but I think Dillard will surprise many. Don’t be surprised to see Cade contend for wins on the WoO Late Model Tour, especially when the Series visits the upper-midwest!
Todd Nunes – Ricky Weiss has the edge.
Gary Heeman- Weiss might have the upside in terms of proven wins at a big level, but it will take consistency to win this RoY title. Liking Mr. Clay’s thinking….Dillard might be able to keep in the top 10 and avoid a dnf or two that might be Weiss’s.
Name us one driver who the entire Late Model fan base will know very well by the time 2019 is done and what makes them ready to breakout?
Josh Bayko – It’s hard to determine how well a driver is known, but if I had to guess, I’d say Tanner English is probably going to be the breakout driver of 2019. I know, I know, he’s fairly well known as a good regional shoe among the diehards, but I don’t think he’s really a name you’re going to hear when discussing talent with a casual fan. With the move to Dream racing, I know they’ll still run mostly a regional schedule, but there will be more trips to bigger races than he’s done before. And the ride he’ll have at those races is one of the better rides you can have in dirt late model racing. I look for a handful of bigger wins out of him this year. That’ll get his name going with the casuals.
EDIT: This was written before the news came that Weaver is shutting the team down. I’ll stick with Tanner English as my pick, though. He should definitely still be stout in the family ride.
Aaron Clay – One could argue that he already has a huge fan base and is well-known, but I think Hudson O’Neal will have a breakout 2019! Back from injury towards the later part of last year, “The New Deal” should only add to his experience and confidence, as he contends for wins on a nightly basis.
Todd Nunes – Tyler Erb. Terbo is poised to become a headline name. Teaming up with Best Performance is going to be a very good thing for him. Look for them to visit victory lane many times in 2019.
Volusia is a barometer of who came out of the box best often times. As far as the modifieds went, who was the biggest surprise at the DIRTcar Nationals in terms of making a statement early?
Jamie Weaknecht- Billy Pauch, it’s been a few years since he ran that good down at Volusia. He looked like Billy “the Kid” again running aggressive and pounding the cushion. Up until Saturday’s DNF he was in contention for the big gator. He had a bit of a bounce back last season after going winless in 2017, look for that win total to increase this year as the Kevin Bilfulco led-team has hired a new crew chief to assist throughout the week.
Gary Heeman- Gonna have to go with Will Thomas, the veteran pilot of multiple disciplines had a lot to be proud of in Volusia. Yes, by now most diehard fans of the division will have heard of whom he is, where he comes from and how skilled he really is if they were watching at home. He timed well, won heat races and had some challenges here and there come feature time, but bottom line; he was fast and looks completely comfortable and ready to compete for wins with his Big Block Program in Western, PA this year and would be a refreshing top tier competitor in the area.
Who’s got the biggest upside among these guys? Anthony Perrego, Jack Lehner or Demetrius Drellos and why?
Jamie Weaknecht- Anthony Perrego. For the record, all three of them are going to be very good. Even though Perrego is a little older than the other two (he’s 24, Drellos is 22, Lehner is 20) Perrego just has such a head start on them. He was able to find a prominent owner who was willing to take a chance on a young talent in Gary Mann when he was just 19 and made it count. He already has 4 championships and 47 wins over that time frame, and arguably will have the best equipment he’s ever had between 3 different car owners this season. For the record, Lehner and Drellos will both be top tier talent in the next few years, too.
Gary Heeman- We’ve seen Perrego take his game to new levels for a few years now. He appeared on the radar here about six years ago and has flashed the goods at high levels for a while. This season, he may actually be the most intriguing man in Dirt Modified racing though as he’ll be taking his talents to some places he’s never seen before or has very little experience at. That is where it gets really interesting. Be sure to follow him from time trials through the entire night and watch him get quicker each lap when the series hits Canada and places like Merrittville/Ransomville and such. Drellos and Lehner looked like possible stars in the making. It’s one track, it’s a small sample size, but they showed speed at times and got quicker in the features which indicates they learn quick and already have the chops to hang in there with drivers that have a lot more experience and have accomplished big things already.
There were no Super DIRTcar Series points on the line in Florida as it is it’s own mini series. But looking ahead to when the season actually starts in April, name one driver that could potentially and realistically unseat Matt Sheppard as series champion?
Josh Bayko – I gotta go with Billy Decker. Billy’s return to the vaunted Gypsum Racing team already looks like they haven’t missed a beat with strong runs in Florida. He was always a very strong contender in his first go-round with the team, I don’t see this turn going any differently.
Jamie Weaknecht- Decker is probably the best bet, but you could make legitimate arguments for Danny Johnson, Larry Wight, or Tim Fuller as well. To be different, I’m going with Erick Rudolph. He hung with Sheppard last year on the tour despite never having followed the full Series before. With another year of experience at these tracks, look for him to be right there come Charlotte… but Sheppard’s reign will ultimately continue.
Gary Heeman- I could see Fuller or Rudolph doing it. There would need to be some luck involved and not just bad breaks for Sheppard, but good breaks for them. The ones that push a top five into a podium or a podium into a win. I could see a scenario where if one of them kept it close to within 10 points, a slip for Sheppard or good break for them could make the difference when the 150 point shows start. As Jamie alluded to, Rudy hung in there and didn’t blink when he had the opportunity to slice Sheppard’s lead in the second half of the season but fell short at Charlotte. Perhaps the key is, have the upper hand coming in to the World Finals, because you can’t control what Sheppard will do there, and he normally does great things there. It doesn’t pay to be chasing him into the queen city. Fuller is due for good things to happen again, and not just two wins and a 5th/7th place finish in the standings. But rather 4-5 wins and in the mix for the title. They’ve both got the car, the talent and the opportunity. While Danny Johnson can get it done, in my opinion, he would have to finish them all first and that has been hard for him to do recently. I expect he’ll get hot at some point in 2019 and find victory lane three times and amass a podium streak somewhere this summer, but until the consistency improves, it will be difficult for me to put him in the mix at this time.
There are more large purse races in 2019 scheduled between SDS, STSS and unsanctioned events than at any time in Northeast Modified history and a record amount of money up for grabs. Is this a statement of how healthy the form of racing is, or an attempt to bring the modifieds up to scale with national Late Model and Sprint racing on a smaller scale?
Josh Bayko – I think it’s probably more of an attempt to get the purses closer to the national tours. Fans have been clamoring for that for years, and now they’re finally getting it, but it’ll be interesting to see if they’re okay with paying another 5-10 bucks more than they’re used to paying to get in at these higher paying races.
Jamie Weaknecht- Weekly modified racing is struggling, but despite what pessimists will tell you modified racing as a whole is very healthy right now. As someone that travels around to higher paying shows throughout the year, the atmosphere at these shows compared to where they were 5 years ago is much improved. The main reason for the change, though, is because competition is a good thing. There are 11 additional races that are paying at least $10,000 to win this year. Four of those are Super DIRTcar Series races, three of those are affiliated with Brett Deyo (Short Track Super Series events and the Fonda 200). The battle between those two parties only benefits the drivers and fans—at least for now.
Gary Heeman- I look at it like this, 2019 will be a measuring year for how much the sport can support at both backgate and frontgate levels. Do I think it’s good that the powers that be are increasing the payouts? Absolutely, it’s deserved for what they spend and how many times they’ve had to race a week over the years just to support what they do. My argument against large increases? That it would lead to some tracks that would not be able to support the model and would drop the division, providing fewer opportunities. Some tracks were barely able to open this year without folks stepping up at the last minute and I’m glad that racing will go at those places in 2019. So we instantly look at product demand to see if the new pay scale model will work for the promoter at the same time. With regards to SDS and STSS races, they’ve had to turn down some folks who wanted races lately, the demand is there. If they were tentative about coming up with sanction fee and heightened purses, it wasn’t reflected in weekends with no races scheduled. The high purse specials, the ones paying over the $8k to win standard, at least bring the chance for drivers and teams to make out very well and that is a great thing for them. Let’s see how it rolls and if the pie can maintain an up sizing in 2019.
Lastly, but not least, who will bring home the lion’s share of the loot in those big races ($10K and up to win shows) in 2019 and why?
Josh Bayko – I gotta go with Matt Sheppard. He’s the king of the big block modified mountain. Until somebody knocks him off of that peak, he’s got to be the favorite at every race he pulls through the gates at.
Jamie Weaknecht- Sheppard will win a few of them, but Stewart Friesen will end up taking home the most big money wins at the end of the season. One reason why, 6 of those races paying at least $10,000 to win are at Orange County Fair Speedway, one of the few tracks that Sheppard hasn’t been able to find victory lane at, while Friesen has the place figured out (winning 2 big paydays at the track last year and being DQed from a third win on the scales).
Gary Heeman- I’m thinking that Sheppard and Friesen both come close, but slice that pie closer to 1/3’s as I think Larry Wight will win his fair share of standard touring races, but will possibly snag one of the big shows, maybe Fonda or Fulton.