Forty-Two Big-Block Modifieds from the Northeast made the trip south to Volusia Speedway Park (FL) last week for the DIRTcar Nationals. While the drivers were hoping for four days of racing, Mother Nature struck with heavy rain and cut the anticipated schedule down to just two days of racing.
Despite the reduction in the amount of racing, there were still plenty of storylines surrounding the Super DIRTcar Series and its drivers as they kicked off the new season. We take a look at some of those stories in this edition of the Dirt Modified Notebook on Speed51.com.
HEARN SCORES A BIG GATOR AND A LITTLE GATOR
With a replenished team on his side, Brett “The Jet” Hearn made his way to Volusia looking to rebound from a subpar 2016 season. He did just that.
On Saturday night, after starting 13th on the grid, Hearn made his way up through the field and survived a battle of attrition to finish a respectable sixth.
One night later, luck was on Hearn’s side when he qualified for the redraw and drew outside pole for the 40-lap feature. From there, he took the lead on lap 1 and never relinquished it on the way to his second straight DIRTcar Nationals Saturday feature win.
With a win and a sixth-place finish, Hearn edged out sophomore driver Max McLaughlin by one point to win the overall Big-Block Modified championship and a big gator trophy.
Over the offseason, Hearn made some changes in the race shop that he believes attributed to his success at Volusia. He hopes that will continue when they make their way north for the 2017 Super DIRTcar Series regular season.
“We just got to get in a rhythm and get our program really solid,” Hearn commented. “We made some changes in the shop and strengthened the shop, so we should be good.”
Hearn’s win on Saturday was the 25th of his career in the State of Florida.
McLAUGHLIN BREAKS THROUGH
Driving a brand-new race car with a new crew chief (Matt Hearn) calling the shots, sophomore driver Max McLaughlin showed he will be one to keep an eye on in 2017. “Mad Max” recorded his first career Super DIRTcar Series podium finish on Friday when he finished third and followed that up by finishing fourth on Saturday night.
“This series is incredible, loaded with talent and competition. To be on the podium here at Volusia is huge for us,” McLaughlin said Friday night. “I can’t thank everyone that supports me enough. It’s really a dream come true to drive for this team.”
With a year of experience and some momentum on his side, McLaughlin will be a driver to keep an eye on for a breakout season in 2017.
TRACK CONDITIONS A TOPIC OF CONVERSATION
Volusia Speedway Park and the World Racing Group did nearly everything they could to provide quality track conditions for the racers this past weekend. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and attributed to the track conditions being less than ideal at times.
On Friday night, the track was wet, muddy and fast. Some drivers, like former DIRTcar Nationals winner Rick Laubach, were forced to the sidelines during the race because they ran out of tearoffs. Others, like 2016 series champion Matt Sheppard, were able to survive but ended the night with inches of mud on their race cars.
“Very, very muddy; visibility was tough,” Sheppard said after the race. “I think we ran out of tearoffs with 10 laps to go.”
One night later, the track conditions were the complete opposite. After turning laps in the 17.3 second region Friday night, the track slowed down into the 18.7 second region during qualifying on Saturday.
Following the completion of heat races, a few of the drivers in the pit area went as far as to compare the hard, dry racing surface to an asphalt track. Prior to feature racing, track crews spent time working on the track. That was a move that paid off when the green flag waved.
“It was racy there early,” Stewart Friesen said following the race Saturday night. “If you had a good car, you could make some moves.”
“They did a good job making it better than it was because we were burning up tires,” said third-place finisher Danny Johnson. “I haven’t looked at the tires yet, but I’m sure we burned them up in the feature but you expect that for 50 laps. We burned up our tires in 10 laps (during qualifying heats), so nobody can afford to do that.”
“It was rock hard in our qualifying and our heat races,” said Billy Whittaker, driver of the No. 109 Modified. “We tore up a brand new 400 (tire) in eight laps, which was pretty abrasive. As the moisture came in and they cut the track again, they did a really good job of giving us a race track that was three or four lanes wide.”
FULLER EXCITED FOR APRIL AFTER STRONG RUNS
Tim Fuller is excited for April and what lies ahead with the new Ray Graham Racing team.
After recording the fastest overall lap during Tuesday’s optional practice day, Fuller recorded a 12th and second-place finish this past weekend.
“Friday night we should have had a top five; I was out of tearoffs and got mudded up on that last restart,” Fuller said. “We just didn’t get the draws we need, but it will all come.”
HORTON’S CHANCE AT VICTORY GOES UP IN SMOKE
Those in attendance at Volusia on Friday night didn’t need to worry about bringing bug spray.
While leading the 30-lap feature race, Jimmy Horton’s No. 43 went up in smoke when an oil line broke with under five laps to go. Horton continued to pace the field while leaving a heavy trail of smoke behind him, but eventually was forced to pull into the pit area with two laps to go.
“I saw smoke and oil pressure started going down a little bit; it wasn’t acting like it always does,” Horton said. “It’s just not worth blowing up a $40,000 motor for $2,000, so we shut it down and hopefully we didn’t hurt it.
“We just had a little issue with the oil line; nobody’s fault, just something that happens.”
HAERS BUILDS ON MOMENTUM FRIDAY NIGHT
One of the hottest drivers at the end of the 2016 Super DIRTcar Series season was Justin Haers, driver of the No. 3 Big-Block Modified. Haers ended the season with a pair of podium finishes during the World Finals in Charlotte, and he built on that momentum by picking up the victory Friday night at Volusia.
“We started with this car at Oswego and we were really quick. We won our qualifying race before having some misfortune during the race,” Haers stated. “Then we brought it to Charlotte and were really good there both nights. We brought it down here and it really is a great car.”
Haers was forced to qualify through the Last-Chance Showdown on Saturday night before finishing 24th in the A-Main.
DIRT MODIFIED COVERAGE ON SPEED51.COM
Fans of the Big-Block Modifieds should have no lack of coverage from this past weekend’s DIRTcar Nationals. Speed51.com was on hand both nights with live Trackside Now coverage of the Super DIRTcar Series.
Highlights from both nights, as well as video recaps, can also be seen by subscribing to the Speed51 Network presented by JEGS.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/Bruce Nuttleman