Story By: NICK GRAZIANO / DIRTCAR – BARBERVILLE, FL – The winter blues will melt away in less than a month when the Beast of the Northeast fire their engines for the first time in 2022 during the DIRTcar Nationals, Feb. 14-19.
Volusia Speedway Park will again host the season-opening week of racing for the Super DIRTcar Series, featuring the best Big Block Modified drivers battling for the iconic golden gator trophy each night with the goal of also claiming the Big Gator Championship at the end of the week.
Forty-two Super DIRTcar Series DIRTcar Nationals champions have been crowned since 1978; the most recent being 21-year-old Max McLaughlin in 2021.
“Not only have I wanted to win at this race track for a long time, but to get a DIRTcar Nationals championship is really special,” McLaughlin said last year. “I almost got one in 2017 when I tied with Brett Hearn. He ended up winning the final night which gave the championship to him. It’s been bothering me for a few years that we didn’t win it. Now, this makes up for it.”
His Big Gator championship was the second in two years for the Coffey-McCreadie Enterprises team (2021 with McLaughlin and 2018 with Tim McCreadie). However, in 2022, McLaughlin is rejoining Heinke-Baldwin Racing to chase the Super DIRTcar Series championship. The team gave him his first start in the Series, and he nearly won the Big Gator title with them in 2017.
He’ll have to compete against the likes of eight-time Super DIRTcar Series champion and three-time Big Gator champion Matt Sheppard, two-time NAPA Super DIRT Week champion Mat Williamson, NASCAR star Stewart Friesen, three-time Big Gator champion Larry Wight and three-time Super DIRTcar Series champion Billy Decker.
Sheppard claimed the throne as the winningest Super DIRTcar Series champion last year. And he’ll try to use that momentum to find success again at Volusia. While he’s a three-time Big Gator champion, his last title came in 2016 and his last win at the half-mile track came in 2019.
“You know, [Volusia] is just a strange place,” Sheppard said. “It’s hard to get your car to steer there. If you can get your car to steer and have traction, you’re going to have a good weekend. I think we see it a lot; a guy will roll in there and for whatever reason, he just gets rolling all week.
“I think we saw Stewie (Friesen) have a good week there last year. You roll in there with a game plan and some guys hit on something and it seems they’re good all week. Other guys, if you’re off a little bit, it seems like you’re chasing all week. It’s certainly a unique place.”
However, for this year, he stated his team has put together a good program he’s confident in. And with no Series points on the line, they can go in and throw everything they have at it.
“So, you can go down there and run five nights in a row and see where your program is,” he added. “Make some adjustments and try to get better. We keep hoping one of these years we’ll roll in there with the magic set up and we’ll have a killer week. I feel like we’re due. But, man, I never rule anything out at that place.”
In the last few years, Wight has been one of the most dominant drivers at Volusia, picking up three Big Gator championships (2015, 2019, 2020) and four victories – including three consecutive wins in 2020. He missed DIRTcar Nationals last year, but a return in 2022 would see a full-focused effort on his Gypsum #99L machine. Wight is now the sole driver for LJL Racing, as it reduced to a one-car team for 2022. Decker, who drove the team’s other car, will drive for Jeremy Smith Racing this year.
Friesen started DIRTcar Nationals as the dominant driver last year, winning the two opening nights before having to leave for his NASCAR duties. While those duties will take him out of contention for another Big Gator title, he’ll still return to add another golden gator trophy to his mantel – currently at nine.
When he left, that opened the door for McLaughlin to claim his first DIRTcar Nationals victory and second career Super DIRTcar Series victory. Then, on the final night of racing, a special moment. A first-time winner. Michael Maresca held off Sheppard and Decker to pick up his first Super DIRTcar Series win. Several drivers have the potential to be another surprise first-time winner this year like 2021 Rookie of the Year Chris Hile and Jack Lehner, who had a career season last year.
Veteran Brett Hearn made it loud and clear at the 2021 Super DIRTcar Series finale to never count him out. The 63-year-old won his 450th DIRTcar sanctioned event and his 920th Feature overall at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. His DIRTcar Nationals stats supersede all with nine Big Gator championships and 20 Feature wins.
A plethora of storylines will again be present throughout the week. Monday (Feb. 14) will be a practice night for the Super DIRTcar Series, then from Tuesday to Saturday (Feb. 15-19) the Big Blocks will have a Feature every night. They’ll be joined by the Xtreme Outlaw Sprint Cars and DIRTcar Late Models on Monday and Tuesday. Then, the World of Outlaws Late Models will accompany the Super DIRTcar Series Wednesday to Saturday.