Story By: MIKE WARREN / DIRTCAR – BARBERVILLE, FL – Less than a month after failing to Qualify for a Feature at Volusia Speedway Park, Hudson O’Neal got reassurance that Rocket1 Racing is heading in the right direction.
The Martinsville, IN driver, stormed from his sixth starting spot, taking the lead from Bobby Pierce on Lap 16 to score his first Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals win Monday night at “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”
It’s also O’Neal’s third straight Feature win, something he stated is due to the team’s hard work and how the car fits his driving style.
“It’s just reassurance that this team’s heading in the right direction,” O’Neal said. I’m heading in the right direction. The car is coming around to fit my kind of style. And it’s just cool.
“I’m with a team that’s unbelievable. They’re second to none, and they work their tail off every single day. They give me a great race car, and I was just the one lucky enough to drive it.”
Four different drivers traded the lead throughout the 25-lap Feature, as Bobby Pierce led the first two laps before Nick Hoffman and Tim McCreadie took turns leading the pack.
However, once Pierce re-took the lead from McCreadie on Lap 14, O’Neal made his move to the front.
While running in third, the Hoosier State competitor got a thunderous run off Turn 2, quickly passing McCreadie before hooking his Rocket Chassis on the bottom of Turns 3 and 4 to steal the lead away from Pierce on Lap 16.
From there, O’Neal cruised to the $7,000 Victory and took the first step toward the Big Gator trophy.
“I noticed they couldn’t get away from me,” O’Neal said. “We were all just pretty good, just keeping our speed up, tied to a chain like one car-length behind each other. We started to catch lap traffic, and I knew my car was maneuverable, so I just started kind of feeling it out.
“They caught lap traffic and were both fighting for the bottom, and I just railed the top and got lucky down that backstretch the way it all kind of worked out. I just caught them at the right place and at the right time for me.”
McCreadie finished second—his third consecutive runner-up finish at Volusia.
He said his lane choice affected where he finished.
“I just needed to get into a better groove,” McCreadie said. “I was just kind of losing the right front, losing the right front, and that’s kind of what we had the first night we were here in January.
“Hudson did a good job, and I guess it’s better to be running third. Bobby was worried about what I was doing, I think, and must not have even known he was coming. When [O’Neal] went by me, I was like, Bobby, you better do something, or he’s going to drive by both of us no problem.”
Pierce faded to seventh and said the handling on the Longhorn Chassis wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted in traffic.
“We were too tight at the beginning,” Pierce said. “Here, your front tires just kind of skate across the slick. So, once we kind of caught the traffic, I wasn’t able to drive that same line, and once I had to maneuver, it was kind of game over from there.”
Chris Madden, the 2018 Big Gator Champion, rounded out the podium.
The Gray Court, SC driver said he got pinned on the bottom during a Lap 6 restart which impeded his progress toward the front.
“That one restart, Bobby chose the bottom there, and we just got hung up,” Madden said. “I fell back a little bit and couldn’t get going. We just had to work our way back through there.”
Early race leader Nick Hoffman finished fourth, his second consecutive top-five at Volusia.
He said once McCreadie slid across his nose to take the lead on Lap 6, it took away the clean air in front of his car.
“That really just ruins your air getting through (Turns) 1 and 2 when he slides across your nose, and they kind of swarmed me off of 2,” McCreadie said. “Then you’re back to third or fourth pretty quick, and it kind of screws up the run you had, and you just have to regroup and make sure you get into a lane without dirty air.”
Ricky Thornton Jr. rounded out the top five after transferring into the Feature from the Last Chance Showdown.
While he hoped to transfer from the Heat Race, he said those extra laps helped him learn what to do for the Feature.
“I just put myself behind early in that Heat Race and screwed up and cost myself,” Thornton said. “It was almost like one of those it sucks to be in the [Last Chance Showdown], but we learned a lot that helped us in the Feature.
“Where I was better than those guys was in Turn 2. They’d all kind of slide out and I’d stay on the infield wall. That’s probably where I made all my passes.”
Here are the top five drivers in the chase for the Big Gator after one night of racing at DIRTcar Nationals:
DIRTcar Nationals Points Standings
1. Hudson O’Neal 80
2. Tim McCreadie 75
3. Chris Madden 70
4. Nick Hoffman 65
5. Ricky Thornton Jr. 60
UP NEXT: The DIRTcar Late Models return to Volusia Speedway Park for Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals. Drivers will battle for $7,000 in a 25-lap Feature for the second straight night.