*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideDirtRacing.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the dirt racing topics of the day from east Tennessee and beyond.
Richard: Last week it was the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series that opened its season and now it’s time for the World of Outlaws Late Model Series to get things going as they head to Georgia’s Screven Motor Speedway this Friday and Saturday. This national tour, like its counterpart, has questions to be answered that will certainly provide intrigue throughout 2018.
The series has made news over the off season as a number of drivers who did not race on a national tour in 2017 have announced their intentions to either return to the WoO Late Models or join in for the first time. Mike Marlar, Brandon Overton, Chris Ferguson, Rusty Schlenk, Tyler Millwood and Billy Moyer, Jr. are just a few of those who fit into one of those categories.
Further, defending champion Brandon Sheppard will return along with former champs Rick Eckert and Shane Clanton to give the series a degree of familiarity. Also, Chris Madden, Devin Moran and Brian Shirley are among those expected to race throughout 2018.
While Sheppard will no doubt enter the campaign as the heavy favorite, there are a number of potential winners among the names who plan to follow the WoO Late Model Series. Is the central question of this tour that of who, if anyone, will step up to challenge Sheppard?
Michael: I believe so. Every now and then we see a driver get hot early, build a sizable points lead, and maintain it through the season. Shane Clanton and Darrell Lanigan come to mind in recent years. The question is can someone like Chris Madden, Brandon Overton, or someone else start the year off the same way and carry it through the season.
Sheppard was such as force on last year’s tour and I don’t see another team derailing his quest for another title. Keep in mind, this same team with Josh Richards did the same thing in 2016. Unless a string of bad luck comes their way, I don’t see anyone challenging Sheppard in number of wins or for the title.
Richard: I agree that Madden and Overton are two guys who could step up. I would also add Marlar to that list if he is able to get off to a good start and his team decides to stay on the tour. I would also say the same about Moran as he did have a stretch last season in which he kept pace with Sheppard.
Anoher thing I’m very interested in watching this year is all the drivers who hope to compete for Rookie of the Year in 2018. Ferguson, Schlenk, Millwood and Timothy Culp are guys who have shown flashes of brilliance in their careers but can they maintain that high level over the course of a full season?
With the additional incentive money the WoO Late Models is offering this year, there has been no shortage of drivers who say they plan to run the series. The real question is how many will stay, isn’t it?
Michael: That is a good question. I don’t want to speculate as to who could possibly drop off. Some have a history of doing just that. But it’s also the nature of the beast for both series. If a driver or two feels like it’s doing them no good to be on the road all of the time, then they’ll race closer to home. There’s no shame in that despite what the keyboard racers say about it.
I will say the mix of drivers planning to run the series in 2018 is one of the most interesting mixes of drivers I have seen to run any series. I think they should make for some interesting racing in the early part of the season.
Richard: Your point about the mix of drivers is a good one. There are the proven guys like Sheppard, Clanton and Eckert while there are also some young guys with seemingly worlds of potential. Watching to see which ones actually live up to that potential will be the fun part for us.
This series, throughout much of its recent history, has been dominated by one chassis brand. Rocket has collected quite a few series titles and feature wins. Unlike the Lucas Oil tour where there seems to be more of a mix in chassis brands, Rocket seems to rule the roost here with a couple of notable exceptions in Capital Race Cars, Barry Wright Race Cars and a Longhorn Chassis here and there.
With Sheppard winning last year’s series title and former WoO Late Model Series champion Josh Richards claiming last year’s Lucas Oil crown, it looks like Rocket is only getting stronger. And with the addition of drivers such as Marlar and Ferguson in Rockets, it looks like that brand will be tough to displace.
Michael: Everything with chassis goes in cycles but Rocket is certainly on top of their game right now. One has to wonder if the Davenport/Rumley reunion will put Longhorn back where they were a couple of years ago.
Many fans referred to the WoO tour as the Rocket tour because most drivers were running a Rocket a number of years ago. That is not the case now. It will be worth watching to see if anyone can equally compete with the Rocket cars in 2018.
One other thing to watch for is Madden switching to a Barry Wright chassis. Jonathan Davenport and Jimmy Owens struggled in that chassis while others, like Ross Bailes, ran good in it. I’m curious to see how Madden fares in it for 2018 after so many years running a Bloomquist car, then a Longhorn.
Richard: As we did for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, it’s time for us to make some predictions. This tour seems, at least on paper, to be more cut and dried than Lucas. I am going to have to see someone knock off Brandon Sheppard and the Rocket Chassis house car team before I will believe it can happen. I am picking him to win the most races and the title.
I believe Mike Marlar, Chris Madden, Brandon Overton and Shane Clanton will be multiple time feature winners in 2018. I am not sure which of the rookie/newcomers I think will perform the best so I will reserve prediction.
Michael: I am with you on those choices. I feel like there are too many variables in play for some of the other contenders to pick one of those over Sheppard. But that’s why they run the races.