ROSSBURG, Ohio — Matt Miller of Whitehouse, Ohio, and Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., grabbed flag-to-flag 25-laps victories on the opening night of the 46th annual World 100 weekend, outlasting a three-hour rain delay for $10,000 victories at Eldora Speedway.
Miller had the tougher time of it — repelling a pair of Illinois drivers — while O’Neal stayed ahead of a charging Jonathan Davenport in a caution-free affair after a 108-car field was split into odd and even groups for complete racing programs.
Miller Hangs On
Miller must’ve felt like all of Illinois was chasing him in the closing laps of Friday’s first preliminary feature. It was just two Prairie State drivers — Shannon Babb and Dennis Erb Jr. — in hot pursuit, but they threw everything they had and then some at Miller, who escaped the last-lap jamup.
The Whitehouse, Ohio, driver’s victory was in doubt heading into turn three on the final lap as the lower-running Erb was held up by the slower car of Brian Ruhlman, while Babb tried to thread his way between Miller and Erb for his first victory of 2016.
Miller held on to win by the slimmest of margins, 0.151 seconds over Babb and 0.170 seconds over Erb, as his flag-to-flag victory builds momentum toward Saturday’s $49,000-to-win crown jewel.
“We were a little off in that feature,” Miller said on the winner’s stage of the Tony Stewart-owned oval. “We were tight from the get-go and kind of got comfortable all by ourselves there. But it started to slick off and the tires, they kind of gave up a little bit, so it was a struggle there.
“You get behind all this traffic here, this car’s just so aero-dependent anymore, you start to push. I know they’re closing in, so you don’t want to slide job because those guys are up on the cushion. So you’ve just got to make yourself wide.”
Babb took a mid-race shot at Miller to nearly pull alongside, but Miller edged back away and kept his pursuers in check until the final laps when a slight checkup in turn three on the 24th lap allowed Babb and Erb to make it a three-car battle on the last lap.
“Matt’s really hard to beat here at Eldora,” said the Moweaqua, Ill., driver, who rallied from sixth-to-first in his heat race, outrunning Erb, a fellow former UMP DIRTcar Summernationals champion. “It felt really good to run second. Probably the best we’ve had here in a long time. To be right here to mingle with Dennis and Matt, it feels really good.
“We’ve got a good first night in the bag, so we’ll take it from there,” said Babb, who improved four positions.
Erb, of Carpentersville, Ill., started on the pole and lost touch with the frontrunners through the middle stages before moving back into contention late in the race.
“We started off a little slow and that cushion was pretty fast up there,” said Erb, June’s $100,000 Dream winner at Eldora. “There about halfway, we started moving down the racetrack and the car just started moving forward there. We got into a lapped car there on the last lap, but we were coming, so that was a good thing. We’ll take this and go on to tomorrow.”
The feature was slowed by two cautions, first for Josh Rice’s turn-four spin on the first lap that forced a complete restart, then again on the third lap when Rice, Nick Hoffman and Joey Coulter were part of a turn-two yellow.
O’Neal Dominates Finale
Don’t get Don O’Neal wrong, he was glad to end a winless streak that stretched back to January. But the 52-year-old driver from Martinsville, Ind., hopes Thursday’s preliminary victory wasn’t his last of the 46th annual World 100 weekend.
“Saturday night’s the night we want to be up here,” O’Neal said after running virtually uncontested, holding a three-second margin or more much of the race. “It’s a good start. We came back with the same car that we run here (at June’s $100,000-to-win Dream). The guys worked hard and hopefully we can win this damn race for a change.”
O’Neal built a cushion of three lapped cars after 10 laps, survived a scrape in lapped traffic on lap 19, then stayed out front of 14th-starting Jonathan Davenport’s stirring charge to a runner-up finish that held 1.714 seconds short in the caution-free affair.
Davenport, of Blairsville, Ga., was running seventh with eight laps remaining and reached the second spot by lap 20 to get a runner-up finish while 10th-starting Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., was third. Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., and a surprising Mike Mataragas of DeKalb, Ill. — who held the second spot more than half the race — rounded out the top five at the historic half-mile oval.
O’Neal easily handled the new rules of using ungrooved tires, saying it only affected him early in the feature.
“In traffic it was a little slimy and wide open around there … maybe couldn’t steer quite as good, but other than that, I really didn’t see anything wrong with it whatsoever,” O’Neal said. “We got into a lapped car (Michael Page) on the back straightaway and went out high and come down low and go in the side of us, but that was really the only close call. But the car drove excellent, so hopefully we can just keep digging at it.”
Davenport wasn’t a factor until going from fourth-to-second on the 20th lap — he dispatched of Mataragas and Richards nearly in one fell swoop — as he stormed from the seventh row.
“I had no idea where I was at there. I didn’t have a clue I got to second,” Davenport said. “I knew Josh started just a couple in front of me, but he got going pretty early and I was trying to run the bottom.
“But I’ve just got to thank (crew chief) Kevin Rumley for getting this thing turned back around. Lee Roy (Rumley) just built us a new motor and the thing ran flawless tonight.”
Richards was overshadowed by Davenport, but improved seven positions for a solid run.
“We’ll take it. We had a really good car there,” the Rocket Chassis house car driver said. “We kind of got in the middle and the car got going and I heard someone in the gas and of course it was Jonathan.
“He was giving it all he had up there. Our car was pretty good. We just kind of left it alone all night to see what we had, so I feel like we’ve got a pretty good piece and we’ll try again tomorrow.”
Just Getting Started:
Action continues Friday with another double-feature program preceding Saturday’s $49,000-to-win World 100, Dirt Late Model racing’s most prestigious event.
Tickets for the 46th World 100 Weekend events start at just $24 for Friday’s preliminary night featuring a full racing programs capped by Twin 25-lap Features paying $10,000-to-win. Tickets to the electric atmosphere of Saturday’s World 100 start at $40. Reserved seating is $4 more. Children (12 and younger) are admitted free to General Admission seating for all World 100 Weekend action. Order online at www.EldoraSpeedway.com or by calling the Speedway Box Office at (937) 338-3815.
-Eldora Speedway Press Release. Photo Credit: Eldora Speedway photo