CONCORD, NC - Shane Clanton still has to occasionally pinch himself to make sure his fantastic start to 2015 wasn't all a dream.
Emerging from a nightmarish 2014 World of Outlaws Late Model Series campaign that ranked among his worst seasons statistically, Clanton, 39, of Zebulon, Ga., began the 2015 season in top form in claiming four victories and finishing among the top five in all seven WoO LMS events during the national tour's annual early-season trek through Georgia and Florida.
The stellar start was a complete turnaround from Clanton's winless 2014 season and a performance that even Clanton himself didn't see coming.
"I really can't believe it even now," said Clanton, whose February march through Georgia and Florida included a victory at Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga., two runner-up finishes at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., and an unprecedented sweep of the three WoO LMS events during the 44th annual DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla. "It's still setting in that we were that good, especially at Volusia; I would've never thought we would have such a dominating car.
"We knew we were better just because of what we learned over the past six months. But to be that dominant? No, I didn't see that coming. We thought we could go run top fives every night, but it took us by surprise to be that good."
Clanton's performance was as amazing as it was surprising. After finishing fifth in the WoO LMS season opener at Screven, Clanton snapped his 66-race WoO LMS winless streak the following night in winning Screven's Winter Freeze finale with a final-lap pass of Steve Casebolt. He kept the momentum going with runner-up finishes in both WoO LMS events during Bubba Raceway Park's Bubba Army Winter Nationals.
But Volusia is where Clanton really shined. In a performance for the ages, Clanton claimed four of the five feature races contested during a week's worth of racing to become the first driver in the storied history of the half-mile oval's DIRTcar Nationals to win four Late Model features in the same year.
While hardly anyone would've predicted such a dominating performance, an improvement over Clanton's dismal 2014 record shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Clanton showed signs of improvement during the later stages of 2014 and he and his Capital Race Cars house car team used what they learned from that time to develop a winning formula during the offseason.
"The main thing is we worked on each corner of the race car," said Clanton, who partnered with retired driver Marshall Green of Woodstock, Ga., in 2011 to build and market Capital Race Cars. "Last year, not having the right combination for all four corners, I think is what got us so far off.
"We worked on one corner a night over the past six months, then we'd go to another corner. Over the winter we evaluated what changes we made and came up with a combination that we thought would work good at all places."
Finding that winning combination was no easy task for Clanton and the rest of his Weldbank Energy-sponsored race team. He and his crew pulled long hours in the shop during the offseason working to make his No. 25 machine better.
That determination by his team and the steadfast faith from supporters like his car owner and father-in-law Ron Davies makes the recent success even more meaningful for Clanton.
"If it wasn't for the people I've got behind me, I probably would've quit a long time ago," said Clanton, whose winless run last year marked the first season since the WoO LMS modern era began in 2004 that he failed to win a series event. "The guys that we got, we all have a never quit attitude. When we're down, we just work harder. My dad instilled that in me a long time ago. When things aren't going right you just gotta work harder. That's what we done, and I'm glad for everyone that stood by me that it's paying off now."
With the success of Georgia and Florida behind him, Clanton's attention has now fully turned to the pursuit of his first WoO LMS championship. His early-season hot streak, combined with inconsistent performances by other championship contenders, has built Clanton a massive 90-point lead over three-time and defending series champion Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., in the title chase.
Clanton is optimistic about his chances of finally claiming his first series championship. As well he should be considering that the largest deficit a driver has ever overcome to win the WoO LMS title was the 64-point margin Lanigan erased to win the '08 championship. But even though history and statistics lean in his favor, Clanton won't change his approach the remainder of the season.
"Our main focus first and foremost is to finish every lap just like it always has been," said Clanton, whose seven top-five finishes to start the season already matched the number of top fives he recorded in 37 WoO LMS A-Mains last year. "Finishing every lap is the first step toward more top fives; more top fives will lead to more wins.
"If we can run top five in most every race, we're going to win the points. And if we can run top five every night, the wins are going to keep coming. I'd like to eclipse Darrell's record (of 17 victories in 2014), but we've got to keep getting those top fives before we worry about getting more wins."
For Clanton, a driver who has competed full time on the WoO LMS since joining the tour in 2005, finally winning the championship would be another dream accomplishment. He's been close before, most notably in 2006 when he finished a career-best second the final standings, 16 points behind Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y.
"Winning the championship would be phenomenal," said Clanton, who ranks seventh on the WoO LMS modern-era career wins list with 24 career victories. "I've been close twice, just missed it in the last couple of races. I've been doing this a long time now and (winning the WoO LMS championship) is something I've wanted really bad and dreamed about even longer. It's one of the things I want most on my resume.
"I feel good about our chances. We still have to keep up the pace because if we don't, I know there's two or three others that can maintain this pace all year long like they've proven in the past. We're very fortunate to get a good start to the year. Hopefully we can just keep it going."
Clanton will continue his quest for the WoO LMS championship when the tour contests its first post-Florida events during a March 20-21 doubleheader at Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway in Calvert City, Ky., and I-30 Speedway in Little Rock, Ark. The two $10,000-to-win events precede Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway's Douglas Dodge Ram Trucks Illini 100, which features a $6,000-to-win WoO LMS program on March 27 and a $15,000-to-win event March 28.
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