LA SALLE, IL — It had been four years since Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., scored his last DIRTcar Summer Nationals victory. But the former series champion made a triumphant return to victory lane on Thursday night, earning a $5,000 payday at La Salle Speedway.
Starting outside the third row, Shirley powered to second in the early running, closing in on race leader Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, IL, on lap 12. With the pair racing side-by-side, Babb fought back Shirley’s challenges through the halfway mark. But Shirley’s charge wouldn’t be slowed.
Pulling ahead of Babb down the backstretch on lap 21 of 41, Shirley led the remaining distance, outrunning Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, IL, for his 16th career Summer Nationals victory and first tour win since July 16, 2014.
“It feels real good,” Shirley said after the race. “It was a little emotional for me tonight because my kid and my wife got to come. That was the first time my kid’s ever seen me race. I’d definitely like to dedicate this to Jason Johnson. I know there’s a lot of hearts hurting in the sprint car world. It’s still a racing community. We’ve got to put our hearts out to them.”
Running in second, Shirley knew he was in the right position to challenge for the lead. When Babb nearly slipped over the cushion in turns one and two on the 12th circuit, Shirley was able to close the gap between himself and the race leader, patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike. Momentum from a mid-race caution worked to his advantage as he shot ahead of Babb.
“I knew we was in the right catbird seat,” Shirley said. “The other night at (Spoon River Speedway), it was just hard racing. Shannon, he races hard. I race hard. It’s all bygones be bygones when we show up here today. That was the last thing on my mind was anything about him. He’s a great race car driver. All in all, just happy for my team.”
Rallying from the 16th starting spot, Erb finished runner-up, with Babb falling back to finish third after leading the first 20 laps. Advancing from the 12th starting position, Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, IL, finished fourth, with eighth-starting Tanner English of Benton, KY, rounding out the top five.
“We had a good car,” Erb said. “After the heat race we dialed it in a little bit better. The racetrack came to us and we was able to advance a lot. The car felt good, rolled out through the middle. I kind of put it all over, where we needed to. We had a good piece tonight.”
Charging around the high side, Babb attempted to reel in Shirley and Erb in the final circuits. But late-race cautions had already slowed his momentum. With his podium finish, Babb maintains the series points lead heading into Friday’s event at Terre Haute (IN) Action Track.
“I needed to be a lot better than what I was,” Babb said. “I didn’t feel good all night, so I just kind of went with what we’ve been going with and it wasn’t no good tonight. Brian was definitely the dominant car. He just drove off from us, really looked good. We need to make a few adjustments but its over now and we’re happy with a third-place finish. We were just holding on.”
Feature Finish: Brian Shirley, Dennis Erb JR, Shannon Babb, Ryan Unzicker, Tanner English, Chris Simpson, Jason Feger, Tyler ERb, Chase Junghans, Gordy Gundaker, Allen Weisser, Frank Heckenast JR, Kolby Vandenbergh, Mike Spatola, Bab Gardner, Bobby Pierce, Brent Larson, Rusty Schlenk, Billy Moyer, Mike Mataragas, Timothy Culp, Michael Kloos
-DIRTcar Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: MARS Tour