Race Preview: Lucas Oil 150 @ Riverside Speedway
Well folks, we are down to two races in the 2014 schedule.
It’s hard to believe our season has gone by so far. It seems like yesterday we were standing at Scotia Speedworld and freezing our rears off for the Lucas Oil 100. Fast forward a few months and now we look at our final Lucas Oil presented event this season, this time at Riverside International Speedway.
This race happens at a key time and can play a key role in the championship. I always think back to 2010 when writing about this final race of the year at Riverside. If you can remember back, that is the year Wayne Smith, leading the championship heading into the event, finished dead last on the 18 car field after a wreck with ten laps to go. Shawn Tucker finished second in that race and would ultimately take the point lead and the championship three races later.
Sure, we have only one race to go after this, instead of the three we had in 2010, but the tune is still the same.
We saw both Tucker and our point leader John Flemming struggle here in August. Flemming had an electrical problem that kept his car from performing while Tucker was involved in a wreck triggered by George Koszkulics and Darren MacKinnon in the Ron MacGillivray 150. The gap between the two is 28 points, which is an average of seven positions without either leading a lap in the next two races, for Tucker to catch Flemming.
If you look at our most recent race, Flemming finished one position ahead of Tucker at the Atlantic Dodge Dealers 150 at Petty Raceway. For the #52 Dobbelsteyn Service and Maintenance team, that’s not enough to get it done.
In essence, Tucker needs to perform this week in order to keep this a championship battle heading into the Dartmouth Dodge 200. A hiccup by Flemming would help, sure, but Tucker needs to hold up his end of the deal.
It is worth noting that, while not a Tour race anymore, the Re/Max 250 at Speedway 660 ran last weekend and while Tucker came home with a top ten finish, Flemming struggled mightily. The #97 team needed a provisional to get in the show and found himself in the Turn Two beach before calling it a day. It’s a night uncharacteristic of Flemming, but it does happen. Lucky for him, it wasn’t in a point race.
A driver that could make this thing interesting with two races to go is Atlantic Dodge Dealers 150 winner Jonathan Hicken. While Hicken hasn’t won at Riverside in his career, he has had top five cars there in both events we have run in 2014 at Riverside. While the IWK 250 didn’t go his way, he was fourth the last time we were on the high banks and made up lots of ground on Flemming and Tucker. He sits 40 points back coming into Saturday and is well in contention for his first championship if he can make up some points this weekend.
Nothing against everyone that is outside the top three, but I firmly believe this is a three horse race for the championship. While he ran so strong here in August, Dylan Blenkhorn’s misfortune at our last race at Petty has put him 71 points behind Flemming. That is more than what you can make up in one race, and while still mathematically involved in this title chase, the reality of it is that it is a long shot to win the championship.
When it comes to the race itself, there are two drivers that have top five finishes at both Riverside races this season but do not have a win - Donald Chisholm and Cole Butcher.
Let’s be honest, Nova Racing has been very tough to beat when we’ve gone to Riverside. At one point during the Ron MacGillivray 150, all three cars, including Chisholm, George Koszkulics and JR Fitzpatrick, ran within the top three. Chisholm dominated the IWK 250 before finishing second and would wind up third in the RonMac150. The #89 hasn’t been to victory lane since the Ron MacGillivray 150 last year and will look to snap the winless streak this weekend.
Butcher, on the other hand, is looking for the first win of his career. The #53 car comes off a strong second place run at Petty Raceway, a career best for the driver who turned 18 last weekend. He has three podium finishes this season, including one here in July at the IWK 250. The strength of those podiums has put him fifth in the standings, a single point behind his sophomore classmate in Blenkhorn. While Chisholm has shown pure speed at Riverside this season, Butcher’s consistency and continuing learning of the high banked ovals could finally get an answer to his knocking on the door to victory lane Saturday night.
If he and Blenkhorn want to finish in the top five in the standings though, which is where they currently sit, they need to be on their game with two hungry drivers on their tail trying to upend the youngsters. Two-time champion Shawn Turple is just 12 points out of fourth place in the standings, with Greg Proude only 17 points off Blenkhorn. Proude’s car came to life last time out at Petty and could show us something this weekend if the team hits on all the right marks again. Like Proude, Turple owns wins at each of the next two race tracks we visit and could be dangerous when it comes to being a threat for at least fourth in the standings.
It should be noted as well that there are only 31 points between Hicken and Blenkhorn, and 43 between Blenkhorn and Tucker for second. Again, not impossible for Blenkhorn and those guys back to seventh to catch Flemming, but it could happen that they could run up on Tucker or Hicken a lot easier if either stumble in the final two weeks.
Using the 60 point swing rule (the most amount a points a driver can gain from first to last in a 26 car field on the Tour is 60 points), everyone outside of the top seven, given they start the last two races, are eliminated from championship contention. There is still some things to settle out within the top ten though.
Darren Mackinnon should be good at Riverside, depending how quick they can get a handle on their ride. Two weeks ago, they showed up to Petty Raceway with a borrowed ride from Robbie MacLean, and while it took them a while to find speed, it looked like Mackinnon was beginning to get a handle on it by the end of the 150. It is expected that the same arrangement will happen at Riverside, a track where Darren was looking at a top three finish in August before an accident took him out of contention. He comes in with only a two point cushion on Craig Slaunwhite for eighth in the standings. Slaunwhite is a former winner at the track and will look to turn his season around in these final two races.
Tenth in the standings is Kent Vincent. Vincent’s year has been plagued with struggles, whether it is mechanical, handling or circumstance within our races, the #8 team just hasn’t seemed to been able to turn the corner. Last time out at Riverside though was a top ten finish with an eighth place run in the Ron MacGillivray Chevrolet 150, so if they can back that up, they can come closer to solidifying a top ten run in the standings.
Twenty points back from Vincent is our Exide Batteries Rookie of the Year contender in Sarah McKay. McKay won her first heat race last time out at Petty Raceway but adjustments on the car saw her slide backward as the feature went on. Last week at the Re/Max 250, McKay turned some heads by qualifying eighth and running within the top ten all race, including many late laps within the top five before finishing seventh to eventual winner (and former Atlantic Cat 250 champion) Travis Benjamin of Morrill, Maine. Runs like that in the final two races of the season, and she could have something for Vincent and the top ten as she looks to close out her season on the Tour strong.
Terry Dougay is 36 points behind McKay and only 22 points up on Shawn Pierce and with the way Dougay has been consistency running better over the last few races, he could go either way in the standings in the remaining two races. Dougay has been improving on the high banked ovals and has shown speed at Scotia Speedworld and could be a factor for a point gain in these last two races.
Pierce has had two top tens in the last two races, including tenth at Riverside in August. He finished on the lead lap at Petty two weeks ago with a 17th place finish and could easily make a climb up one more spot in the standings before this thing is done.
We’ll also have a whole host of part-timers looking to take some Riverside glory on Saturday, including Roger Miller, Steve Ross and Daryl Mahar. You never know who else may pop in, maybe a Vance Hanes or a Leonard Boutilier, who ran strong at Petty I might add, will bring their best bullet to the track. Either way, it will be a good show.
Weather is starting to look great for Saturday, so make plans to be at Riverside Speedway in James River for the final race on the high banks for 2014. You’ll want to be there if, and when, the tides turn one way or another in the great battles we have throughout the top 15 in the standings.
Until then, keep the hammer down and we’ll see you at the track!
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