National notebook 2003-06-30

TULSA, Okla. (June 30, 2003) - At the cusp of the season's midway point, it seems that the points race for the O'Reilly ASCS National Tour presented by Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores and United Trailers becomes more intriguing with each ...

TULSA, Okla. (June 30, 2003) - At the cusp of the season's midway point, it seems that the points race for the O'Reilly ASCS National Tour presented by Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores and United Trailers becomes more intriguing with each passing event.

Darren Stewart of Bixby, OK, entered this past weekend with a 32 point advantage over Travis Rilat. But when the series left Oklahoma City's State Fair Speedway on Friday night, Rilat had jumped to a slim four point lead when Stewart spun and was nailed by his brother Shane. The collision rendered both Stewart mounts suitable for the nearest junkyard.

Not concerned with his points, Shane Stewart was more concerned with the impact the incident would have on Darren's title hopes. While Shane's team readied for Ohio Speedweek, Darren and crew worked in Shane's Oklahoma City-based shop overnight, finishing up a new ride by 9:00 a.m., just in time to get on the road for Saturday's race at Amarillo's Route 66 Motor Speedway.

Burning the midnight oil proved beneficial for Darren and the Bobby Sparks team, as Stewart dove underneath Derek Drown in the final corner to snare the runner-up position at Amarillo. With Rilat finishing fourth, a night after running third in Oklahoma City, the duo head to the Land of Enchantment tied for the series point lead.

While Stewart and Rilat have battled for the top spot, 2001 ASCS National champion Zach Chappell has closed to within a meager 14 points in relatively quiet fashion. After a rough ASCS Speedweek (that went awry before it started when trailer woes put the Chappell team behind schedule from the outset) and Knoxville 360 Nationals, Chappell has regained form over the past couple of weeks.

Chappell chased down Tim Crawley in a Yellville Thriller (credit must go to Jeff Nunn of whowon.com fame who coined that classic headline in the wee hours of the morning one night last year), and one opportunistic move in lapped traffic with a few laps remaining netted Chappell his second triumph of the year. Chappell has been in contention in the last three races as well, leading for a bit Friday night on a constantly changing Oklahoma City track.

Speaking of the Oklahoma City track, was the preferred line the high groove, the low line or somewhere in between? In short, the answer would be "Yes". Every line around the glazed-over track was the preferred line at some given point in the 25-lap classic. The result was a track full of heavy hitters constantly moving around, trying to find the best patch of track that would propel them to the front. The top five cars of Chappell, Rilat, Gary Wright, Kevin Ramey and Derek Drown all had an equal shot of winning the race until a caution appeared with five laps to go.

Wright found the right groove on the restart, raced past Chappell a lap and a half later and held on for the win. There was no holding on for a win Saturday night at Amarillo though, as Wright throttled the competition quite spectacularly. Wright reached lapped traffic after five laps and proceeded to lap his way through the field at a dizzying pace. So much so, that when a caution finally came out after 19 laps, Wright was setting up to lap fourth through sixth runners Tony Bruce, Jr., Chappell and Rilat, with second and third running Drown and Stewart not far ahead.

With an unheard of seven lapped machines between himself and second place Drown, Wright cruised to his third win in a row. Seems that it wasn't that long ago that Wright fell to 164 points behind the leader when he missed a race at Oklahoma City in May. Wright has been on a mission since, racking up seven wins in fifteen events and closing to within 48 points of Stewart and Rilat.

Drown had a strong weekend. After being in the mix for the lead at Oklahoma City and ultimately settling for fifth, Drown ran second much of the way in front of his hometown Amarillo crowd before Stewart's last corner charge relegated Drown to third. It was still Drown's best career run in ASCS National Tour action besting a pair of fifth place finishes.

Drown's strong weekend performance may prove to be a bit costly for defending ASCS Sooner Region champion Danny Jennings. "Showtime" and crew attributed the strong finishes to a "lucky" right front shock borrowed from Jennings. They vowed that Jennings would either be shock-less or have to buy another one, as they're not prepared to part with the lucky piece.

After a turbulent start to the season, which included a broken rear end while leading the ASCS Sooner Region opener at Creek County Speedway and then a pair of wing crunchers in the next two events, Jennings has climbed back up to second in Sooner Region points after racing from 18th to seventh in Oklahoma City.

Jennings still trails the always-strong Kevin Ramey by 70 markers in Sooner Region points and may be in need of some serious racing luck to catch the fleet Texan. Ramey looked as if he was set for a return trip to Oklahoma City's victory lane, having won an ASCS National race there last year, when he led for a while. In the constant trading of positions over the last half of the race, Ramey ultimately landed in fourth, still tops among the Sooner Region ranks.

Robert Sellers entered Friday's event tied for third in Sooner Region points with Jennings. The evening got off to a bad start for Sellers when a broken crankshaft prior to hot laps parked the Jim Bailey-owned Lightning Wings machine for the night.

After jokingly offering his ride to a spectating Wayne Johnson earlier in the evening, Rodger Eckhardt then loaned his mount to Sellers. Sellers was racy aboard Eckhardt's machine all night and finished 13th in the main event, good enough to keep him a close third in Sooner Region points.

Seventeen year-old Sam Hafertepe, Jr., one who is likely to show up anywhere at anytime, nearly didn't show up in Oklahoma City when traffic from his Dallas-area residence proved to be a nightmare. Hafertepe made it in time to tag the rear of a heat race, raced his way into the feature then finished a solid ninth. Another promising finish for the youngster who is just ten points out of the ASCS Gulf South Region lead.

Another youngster, Cody Branchcomb of Sapulpa, OK, was on the move early in Oklahoma City, racing up to sixth then mysteriously sliding back to 12th over the last half of the race. Branchcomb was a rocket in the opening heat at Amarillo, posting an impressive win. Branchcomb then pulled a page from Gary Wright's book. Unfortunately, it was the one that sent him directly to his trailer with brake woes instead of the mandatory trip to the scales, resulting in a disqualification.

Branchcomb bounced back, racing from the tail of the B Main to finish third, then picked up Hard Charger honors by coming from 17th to finish ninth in the fast-paced feature. Branchcomb has a top-ten rate of greater than 50% thus far in 2003, a tangible sign of improvement for last year's ASCS Brodix Rookie of the Year.

While on the topic of young drivers, Matt Clevenger was forced to utilize a provisional starting position to take the green in Friday's main after missing the transfer by one spot in the first B Main. Clevenger's father and car owner went out on a limb and promised the team could go on to Amarillo the next night if Matt could score a top ten finish. As if on cue, Clevenger picked up Friday's Hard Charger award by racing from 22nd to, you guessed it, tenth.

The trip to Amarillo proved worthwhile for Clevenger and crew, as he posted his best finish of the season in ASCS National competition by taking the checkered flag in seventh.

Not sure what award it would be, but Oklahoma City's Jimmy Taylor ought to be in the running for something. After making all six Speedweek events, Taylor and crew made the long, winding trek to Arkansas last weekend with all of $180 among them. "Living dangerously," as Jimmy summed it up.

Brake problems, or more accurately stated, a complete lack thereof, sent Taylor pitside early at Yellville, then a suspected blown head gasket forced the team to load up after heat race action at Little Rock. Undeterred, Taylor then struggled with the car jumping out of gear all night in Oklahoma City. With that solved, it was only logical that Taylor make the four-hour journey to Amarillo. Taylor looked strong in the B Feature, fending off the legendary Rickey Hood and the aforementioned Branchcomb much of the way before settling for fourth and earning a transfer to the main event.

Taylor's persistence with a relatively under-funded program has paid off, as he has climbed to 13th in National points and 12th in Sooner Region points, gaining valuable seat time along the way.

Hood, driving the New Mexico-based Joe Herrera machine, suffered driveline problems while running second in his heat. The former USAC champion who has made a nice living in recent years rewriting the SCOA record books, made it up to second in the B Feature, then went from 14th to eleventh in the feature.

Several other New Mexico drivers were among the Amarillo combatants, including Bud Goodwin, Josh Grady and Zeke Ziska.

After earning a second row starting position for the main event, Goodwin made an early exit with an ill-working machine. Grady, in just his sixth start, slid over the turn three and four banking on the opening round of the B Feature and spotted the field a half lap. Grady reeled in the battling sixth and seventh place cars of Ryan Dalrymple and David Smith but needed another lap or two to snare a transfer spot. Ziska struggled with mechanical gremlins all night, and was never able to get his machine up to speed.

The Liberal, KS, trio of Jason Martin, Dennis Park and Tony Bruce, Jr. were on hand for both the Oklahoma City and Amarillo races. After magneto problems sidelined Martin in Friday's feature, Jason rebounded with an eighth place run at Amarillo. Jason's brother Kyle continues to watch, waiting for another engine to be readied for the team.

After a strong finish in the first visit to Amarillo, Park couldn't get too excited about his 12th place run Saturday night. Meanwhile, Bruce, who was put behind the eight ball from the outset with mechanical problems Friday night, enjoyed his Saturday run much more by winning his heat then posting an ASCS career-best sixth place finish at Amarillo.

Not long before the feature, the Liberal trio was on the receiving end of news regarding window-shattering baseball-size hail in their hometown. This just weeks after a tornado destroyed the Martins' trailer and tossed a rather sizable tree onto Park's house.

With just six top ten finishes through the first 19 events entering the weekend, sixth-ranked Toby Brown was racy all weekend, reeling off a pair of top-ten runs.

Houston's Rick Behr went through some parts Friday night, breaking a front end trying to exit the track in a B Feature, then being collected in a main event tangle and getting upside down after taking a provisional. Behr hovered around tenth on Saturday night until his car spun to a halt in turn four after 19 laps. Behr, who has worked his way up to seventh in ASCS National points, will miss this week's pair of New Mexico events to take a sea cruise with family. Behr will rejoin the tour on July 12 in Little Rock.

After breaking an engine in Little Rock heat race action on June 21, Oklahoma City's James Shoun and crew purchased a new powerplant from fellow Sooner Region racer Steve Ochs just in time to make Friday night's event. With the new bullet not yet up to full-song, Shoun opted to skip the Amarillo show in favor of fine-tuning for this Saturday night's Sooner Region outing at Lawton Speedway.

Larry Neighbors was fast both nights, but mechanical woes sidelined him with five to go Friday night, then the car wouldn't fire for Saturday's A Main.

Ryan Dalrymple, a regular competitor in Amarillo's weekly program, may have been the most excited person at the track when he earned the sixth and final transfer from the B Feature aboard his four-barrel Sprinter, beating several injected machines to the line.

The ASCS Sooner Region points have a definite Texas flavor, with four of the top six hailing from the Lone Star state. While Ft. Worth's Ramey leads, Amarillo's Drown is fourth, Irving's Brian Harvill is fifth and Ft. Worth's Marvin Lough is sixth.

After losing an engine in his first trip to Knoxville, Tulsa's Sean McClelland fell from second to eighth in points when he was unable to compete in Friday's State Fair Speedway event.

The ASCS Rocky Mountain Region took on the NCRA 360 Sprints at Denver's Rocky Mountain National Speedway this past weekend. Randi Miller led early on Friday, began smoking his tire two laps in, with the tire exploding half way through. Eric Miller, of no relation to Randi, took over and won the prelim.

Randi took command half way into Saturday night's finale and in tire-conserving mode, allowed defending ASCS Rocky Mountain Region champ Mike Dreiling to slip by on the white flag lap and steal the victory. Eric Miller took the show position, giving the ASCS Rocky Mountain shoes a sweep of the top three positions. Sources claim that Randi Miller swears to "Never conserve tires again, no matter what." We'll have to see about that.

A rather strange trend among the racing Rilat's this season, although not necessarily a bad one. While Travis is tied for the ASCS National point lead, his father Greg is also tied for the ASCS Gulf South Region point lead with defending Gulf South kingpin Kelly Angelette.

Veteran Sprint Car driver Edd French of Keller, TX, who announced his retirement after a bone-jarring crash in Sooner Region action at Ada's Oklahoma Sports Park on April 26, was among the nearly 40 competitors in the ASCS vs. NCRA Sprint Challenge in Denver. French qualified for the feature both nights, being credited with 21st and 22nd place finishes. No word on when his next retirement may begin.

Word is that a Taliban-style deck of cards with a Sprint Car motif may be in the works. Consider yourself warned.

Halfway through the season, 209 different drivers have competed in at least one O'Reilly ASCS National Tour event.

Next Up: The Land of Enchantment beckons the O'Reilly ASCS National Tour presented by Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores and United Trailers. The National shoes join forces with the ASCS Rocky Mountain Region for events at Aztec Speedway on Thursday night and Duke City Raceway on Saturday night. A week later, the National series makes its second appearance at Little Rock's I-30 Speedway on July 12. The ASCS Gulf South Region has a pair of Louisiana events in Chatham and Union Hill on Friday and Saturday, with the ASCS Sooner Region in Lawton on Saturday night. The Sooner and Gulf South Regions then have a showdown at Devil's Bowl Speedway on July 12.

-ascs-

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Series Sprint
Drivers Darren Stewart , David Smith , Larry Neighbors , Cody Branchcomb , Shane Stewart , Travis Rilat , Danny Jennings , Wayne Johnson , Kevin Ramey , Tim Crawley