For those who have followed the Dirt Late Model ‘silly season’, there has been a lot to keep track of. And those moves made since late in 2022 were not limited to mid-level teams. As a matter of fact, many of the sport’s top teams will go into the 2023 season with a certain amount of readjustment needed as drivers and crew members seek to learn each other’s strong suits and weaknesses.
There are a lot of talented people both in drivers seats of and crewing on these sophisticated racing machines. With that widespread talent, the smallest of edges can make major differences. Developing the right relationships in the shop, in the pit area, and in the hauler is vital to any team’s success. And it’s not just the people who are skilled but the equipment being used that is of the best quality.
With that in mind, note that many of the competitors in this sport are basically using the same stuff. By referring to the ‘Team Chart‘ compiled by this website, the similarity of equipment can be seen. Most everyone who might be expected to contend for the biggest race wins and top national and regional championships are all driving the same two or three types of chassis and have power provided by a relatively few engine builders.
So again, the relationships built between drivers and crews can provide that slight edge that will put one team ahead of the pack when the feature race takes the checkered flag.
Four drivers who made big news across the Dirt Late Model world by announcing changes for the upcoming season were Brandon Sheppard, Hudson O’Neal, Devin Moran and Jimmy Owens. No one will be shocked if any or all of these racing stars finds immediate success in their new rides. On the flip side of that, there could be a few bumps in the road as the drivers and teams work together to build those vital relationships during the upcoming season.
Brandon Sheppard: It was the move by Sheppard from the Rocket Chassis house car to his family’s team that really set the silly season ball in motion. Whenever any prominent driver makes a move away from such a high profile team as Rocket 1 Racing a ripple effect is certain to ensue and it absolutely did with other dominos then falling into place as will be discussed within this piece.
Shortly after Sheppard announced his move, it was then made known that the Sheppard operation would be merged with Riggs Motorsports to form Sheppard Riggs Racing. And more than that, in what many may have considered a surprising change, this driver who has piloted Rockets throughout virtually his entire career will now steer a Longhorn Chassis.
Sheppard is one of the most talented drivers in the sport and there will be good people surrounding him. The key factor will be whether or not his driving style will mesh with the Longhorn Chassis. We have seen examples of drivers switching chassis brands and immediately finding success while there are other examples of such a move bringing about struggles.
It would seem more reasonable to assume that Sheppard will do fine in his new ride but there are certainly no guarantees in this sport.
Prediction: Sheppard is one of the most talented drivers in all of Dirt Late Model racing. The fact that he is racing in the Wild West Shootout leading into the start of the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series season will go a long way toward building a notebook with the new Longhorn and his team. This is a driver that has sometimes gotten off to relatively slow starts only to pick up steam as the season rolls along. He will win races and will contend for the series championship although I predicted in an earlier piece that Chris Madden will ultimately take the WoO title. Only time will tell.
Hudson O’Neal: Sheppard’s departure from Rocket 1 Racing opened the seat up in the famed No. 1 car which was quickly filled by O’Neal. This young and very talented driver has already shown that he can win big races on the always tough Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, particularly during his time with Double Down Motorsports.
The Rocket Chassis house car organization is just too strong not to succeed. While there might be some time needed to learn each other’s characteristics, feature wins will come for O’Neal. But will they give other teams an opportunity to get out ahead of them in the standings during that learning process?
Even if that does prove to be true, remember that the ‘Chase‘ format being employed by the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, where this team plans to compete in 2023, will even things up during the second half of the campaign so early season wrinkles may be of less concern this year than in previous times.
O’Neal finished in the top-5 of the series standings in each of the past two seasons with Double Down including a runner-up result in 2021. He has shown that he can win and compete for a title at this level. Furthermore, no team can match the national touring championship experience and success of Rocket 1 Racing having earned a total of eight World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series championships with drivers Josh Richards and Brandon Sheppard.
That said, there is a certain degree of pressure involved in driving for this Mark Richards-led organization. Whoever sits in that seat will be expected to not only win, but to win in bunches. O’Neal has the talent to do that.
Prediction: This is probably the deepest team in all of Dirt Late Model racing in terms of having knowledgeable and talented crew members. Yes, there will be a period of adjustment as they learn about the likes and dislikes of their new driver and as he learns the same about their ways of doing things. It no doubt helped that O’Neal had a few starts with the team at the end of last season. I am not sure this new pairing will be ready to win the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series title in 2023(although the Chase format opens doors not previously opened) but I would not be surprised to see them go on title runs similar to what they had with Richards and Sheppard in the coming years. O’Neal will win races this season, maybe even a couple of the big ones, but this could end up being an historically good union in the years to come.
Devin Moran: When O’Neal left Double Down Motorsports for the Rocket 1 Racing ride, the Roger Sellers-owned organization turned to Moran to take the wheel. Both the driver’s and the team’s previous records would indicate that this should prove to be an excellent pairing.
After employing Rocket Chassis with O’Neal, the Double Down team will move back to Longhorns for 2023. During his time as the driver for Tye Twarog Racing, Moran drove Longhorns so the move should make for a comfortable fit and an easier time of adjustment for all involved.
Moran does not have as much national touring series experience as most of the other drivers on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series but he has had some success on the national scene having won on numerous occasions by dropping into national shows and having been named World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series Rookie of the Year back in 2017.
One thing working in Moran’s favor is that the resources available to him with this team will be without question as good as or better than much of his competition. Also consider that he has traditionally been very good during the early season races in Florida which could definitely help to get this partnership off to a good start.
Prediction: It’s not that Moran didn’t have good equipment with the Tye Twarog team but this is probably the best situation this driver has been in during the course of his career in terms of the resources available to him. A talented driver with plentiful resources will contend for race wins and that will be the case here. However, it has been a while since Moran has raced for a series championship and the depth within the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series makes it tough for even the best in the business. There will be feature wins this season but, like O’Neal with his new team, championships may be more into the future.
Jimmy Owens: A late arrival to the driver change party has been four-time Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champion Jimmy Owens. Car owner Leon Ramirez passed away last season which ultimately left Owens searching for a ride for the 2023 campaign. A deal with North Carolina’s Bobby Koehler filled that void for this driver who has won just about every big event there is to win in the sport of Dirt Late Model racing but that partnership announcement cam only within the past few days.
This will be a team playing a bit of catch-up in the early going but they will have very good equipment by employing Longhorn by Wells Motorsports chassis along with Vic Hill Racing Engines power plants. Owens also brought a number of his key sponsors with him to the union.
As of now, the Koehler team does not have a set schedule in place other than running all of the events to be held during Georgia-Florida SpeedWeeks. Getting off to a good start in the races of one or the other series might precipitate a run for a championship. If not, a pick-and-choose type of schedule such as Owens ran with success last year is more likely.
Prediction: Jimmy Owens is one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport and he showed last year that he is still capable of winning races. While he has some experience behind the wheel of a Longhorn, most of his triumphs have come in other types of cars so even he will have to get used to his new environment. There are a lot of unknowns here and this team did come together very late in the going. But the experience level of this driver will make a difference on the track. Owens will win multiple features this season and may even pick off a big one or two.
Other new pairings: There are several other new driver/team matches that will bear watching as the 2023 season plays out. Some of these will be on the national level while other are more likely to race regionally.
Ashton Winger will continue piloting Rocket Chassis cars for Florida’s Jeff Mathews. This union began late last season and show promise in the events they ran together. Following Georgia-Florida SpeedWeeks, the most likely scenario for this team is a pick-and-choose type of schedule.
Highly successful Modified racer Nick Hoffman will take over the Tye Twarog Racing ride vacated by Devin Moran when he moved to Double Down Motorsports. The team plans to run the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series schedule in 2023 with Longhorn Chassis in hopes of earning Rookie of the Year honors if not even more.
Another young and promising driver with a new team that will tackle the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series tour will be Payton Freeman with G.R. Smith’s Team 22 Racing operation. Freeman is a former XR Southern All-Stars Dirt Racing Series champion who will be looking to make a splash nationally in Smith’s Longhorn Chassis.
Also, Max Blair will move to the Briggs Transport team in 2023 following a year in which he finished third in the final World of Outlaws Late Model Series standings in his rookie season. He and fellow Pennsylvanian Boom Briggs will employ Rocket Chassis as they each chase the WoO crown.
Poll Results: Here are the results of a poll in which I asked which new driver and team combination would fare best in 2023.
Which #DirtLM driver will have the best season with his new team?
— Richard Allen/InsideDirtRacing.com (@RichardAllenIDR) January 6, 2023
Please consider also reading:
Rusty Ballenger set for run in Warrior house car … and much more
Respond to this post on Twitter by following @RichardAllenIDR and @MichaelRMoats or by liking the InsideDirtRacing.com Facebook page.
Also, NASCAR and pavement racing fans can check out InsideCircleTrack.