Column By: NICK GRAZIANO / DIRTCAR – BARBERSVILLE, FL – While Jimmy Phelps was able to manage tire wear Saturday night at Volusia Speedway Park, his closest competitors weren’t privy to the same fortune in their attempts to run him down.
Both Matt Sheppard and Mat Williamson suffered blown right rears in the closing laps, allowing Larry Wight and Stewart Friesen to sneak their way into podium spots before the checkered flag.
“I was sitting in a pretty good spot,” Wight said. “I could see all three of their tires. I saw Sheppard showing a patch of canvas there with about eight or nine to go, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about him. Then Williamson’s tire wasn’t much better… I just sat back and watched them and took advantage of the situation.”
All of Phelps’s Big Gator competitors suffered an issue in the final stages of the race with Williamson finishing seventh, Peter Britten 10th and McLaughlin 17th. However, all four, along with Friesen made history this week as the Super DIRTcar Series saw five straight different winners during DIRTcar Nationals for the first time in the 51 years of the event.
With a pair of new trophies and wealth of confidence going into the 2022 championship season – starting at Atomic Speedway, March 25-26 – this is a DIRTcar Nationals Phelps will cherish.
“It means a ton,” he said. “It’s something you come down here every year praying to get. This year we finally had the race team, the race car, a bunch of guys that work really hard and they gave us a car where it got me the confidence to stay upfront and do it all week. It’s tough. A lot of luck. You have to draw good and qualify well. We’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t know how many years we got left coming down here, so I’m glad we finally did it.”
“The Baldwinsville Bandit” Helped Make DIRTcar Nationals History
In 26 years with the Super DIRTcar Series, Phelps has seen and experienced it all. But an occurrence Saturday night left him shocked and speechless.
He earned his first DIRTcar Nationals win – worth $6,000 – and claimed the 2022 Big Gator Championship after leading green to checkered in the 50-lap finale at Volusia Speedway Park.
Phelps, of Baldwinsville, NY, was the most consistent driver throughout the five-day speed week at Volusia, finishing fourth, second, sixth, second and then the win.
Entering the night, he trailed his teammate McLaughlin – who won Friday night’s Feature – by five points in the Big Gator championship battle. But with the benefit of collecting points for his second Billy Whittaker Cars Fast Time Award of the week and Heat Race win, Phelps held a one-point lead over “Mad Max” before the Feature.
Another benefit, Phelps drew the pole in the Albany-Saratoga Speedway Redraw. He claimed it was what won him the race, but his precision and supersonic launches every restart didn’t hurt.
He gapped second-place Adam Pierson by more than two car lengths at the start of the 50-lap Feature, leaving the 2022 Rookie of the Year contender to fight off challenges from eight-time Series champion Sheppard. He held off the veteran for several laps, but the low lane eventually prevailed for Sheppard.
By the time the reigning champion got to second, Phelps already had a straightaway lead on the field. Both ran low as rubber started to lay down. Sheppard cut a tenth into Phelps’s lead each lap but stalled out when he got about two car lengths behind the Heinke-Baldwin Racing #98H. Behind them, Williamson and Wight also got by Pierson to take over third and fourth, respectively.
Like drafting partners, the top-five stayed in line, sometimes closing, and sometimes losing ground on the driver in front of them. Phelps’s biggest optical through the halfway point was lap traffic. Maneuvering through the slower cars allowed Sheppard to close, at times enough where thoughts of attempting a pass could creep in mind.
A couple of cautions throughout the Feature allowed Phelps to avoid the slower cars for several laps after each restart, but the caution on Lap 10 changed the complexity of the race. Tire wear became a concern with Kyle Coffey being the first in a group of cars to blow a right rear. While some teams knew it was a possibility and gambled with softer compounds anyway, Phelps said concern set in due to the situation occurring sooner than he expected.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was comfortable going out on a hard tire because if it was wrong and I backed up I’d really pay the price,” Phelps said. “We figured we could get out front and if it did (rubber up) we’d be in the right spot to control the pace. I was really nervous when I started seeing tires blowing.”
By the end of the 50 laps, his right rear was bare of tread, looking more like an asphalt tire.
The Super DIRTcar Series starts its championship season during its debut at Atomic Speedway on March 25-26.
DIRTcar Nationals Feature #5 (50 Laps): 1. 98H-Jimmy Phelps; 2. 99L-Larry Wight; 3. 44-Stewart Friesen; 4. 35M-Mike Mahaney; 5. 8S-Rich Scagliotta; 6. 54-Steve Bernard; 7. 88-Mat Williamson; 8. 25P-Michael Parent; 9. 16X-Dan Creeden; 10. 21A-Peter Britten; 11. 3J-Marc Johnson; 12. 19-Tim Fuller; 13. 35LJ-LJ Lombardo; 14. 111-Demetrios Drellos; 15. 1K-Rick Laubach; 16. 3H-Justin Haers; 17. 8H-Max McLaughlin; 18. 118-Jim Britt; 19. 14-CG Morey; 20. (DNF) 88D-Olden Dwyer; 21. (DNF) 215P-Adam Pierson; 22. (DNF) 2L-Jack Lehner; 23. (DNF) 30W-Joseph Watson; 24. (DNF) 23C-Kyle Coffey; 25. (DNF) 9S-Matt Sheppard; 26. (DNF) 12S-Darren Smith; 27. (DNF) JS98-Rocky Warner; 28. (DNF) 83-Brian Swartzlander