Unless you do not follow dirt racing at all, you probably already know that the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series is using a ‘Chase for the Championship’ format to decide its 2023 champion. Under the guidelines of that system, the top-4 in the point standings going into the final race of the season – the Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway – will be on equal footing with the highest finisher being crowned and awarded the $200,000 first prize.
Ever since he began winning scores of races earlier this season and building a big lead in the standings, I have thought about the possibility of Ricky Thornton Jr. losing out in the finale and what the backlash of that scenario might be. Employing the old system of piling up points over the course of the full season, the SSI Motorsports driver leads by 320 markers over Hudson O’Neal. That advantage would be virtually insurmountable under the old way of doing things with just a handful of points-paying feature race remaining.
But as stated above, four drivers will enter the season finale on equal footing so simply being in the top-4 is all that really matters.
In all likelihood, two of those drivers who will join Thornton in the quest for the LOLMDS title will be Hudson O’Neal and Jonathan Davenport with either Brandon Overton or Tim McCreadie filling the remaining spot. Not that we needed such confirmation but this past weekend’s World 100 and that event’s preliminaries showed us that Hudson O’Neal and Jonathan Davenport are very good at Eldora. Furthermore, Overton and McCreadie have both won at Dirt Late Model racing’s most well known venue.
Unfortunately for Thornton in the DIRTcar Late Models officiated event, things did not go as well for him as his championship rivals. O’Neal won by beating out Davenport while Thornton finished 12th after having to use a provisional to get into the feature. That said, however, the No. 20RT did register podium finishes in his two preliminary feature efforts.
Still, O’Neal and Davenport, along with World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series points leader Bobby Pierce, appeared to be well ahead of the pack over the course of the three-day weekend. Thornton will face a difficult task when back at Eldora in October without the points cushion he would have had under the previous system. Otherwise, the last race of the year would have almost certainly have served as a coronation.
After all, though, the system was designed for that very reason- to make certain that the championship battle would not be decided until the final lap of the racing season rather than have it be out of reach even before the final race. The ‘Chase’ is doing exactly what it is supposed to do and that is to leave doubt in play.
This is not to say that the 32-year-old driver can’t win or at least finish ahead of the other three eligible pilots in the Dirt Track World Championship. After all, Thornton and his Anthony Burroughs-led team have clearly shown that they can win big races this season. At the same time, the fact that Eldora Speedway is serving as the deciding track sets up very well for other drivers.
One somewhat odd possibility in that race could come with a non-contender for the championship winning the $100-to-win race. After all, there will be 20+ other drivers on the track. And, of course, that also opens the door for one of those other drivers, intentional or not, to interfere in the championship in some way. Causing a crash, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and blocking one of the contenders, or even with some mechanical issue that lays oil or debris on the track or some other circumstance.
While the system just instituted by the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series is not exactly like that used by NASCAR, there are some similarities. That said, there have been instances in which drivers had dominating seasons, as Thornton has this year, but did not win the title.
For example, Kevin Harvick led the series with nine wins in 2020 but was knocked out of contention even before the final race. Even in 2021 when Kyle Larson completed dominated throughout the season, it took a great final pitstop in Phoenix for him to collect the championship trophy.
Ricky Thornton Jr. has won 17 Lucas Oil features this season and has built a huge points lead. Still, the system calls for a showdown race in the finale at Eldora which opens the door for the possibility that one of the most dominant campaigns in recent memory might not result in a championship. Some may call that unfair, but those are the guidelines which everyone knew about going into the process.
Still, watching the reaction, should there even be need for a reaction, will make for an interesting off-season.
After taking the week off for the World 100, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series will return to action this weekend in the Knoxville Nationals at the Knoxville(IA) Raceway.
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