Story By: MIKE WARREN / WORLD OF OUTLAWS – FAIRBURY, IL – Ricky Thornton Jr. has found his way to Victory Lane in almost every way this year. But the 33rd Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury Speedway presented a new challenge.
After a broken crank trigger almost ended his night on Lap 81, he stormed from sixth to first in six laps, passing Bobby Pierce with 13 laps to go en route to the $50,000 World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Models Feature win – plus $12,000 in lap money ($62,000 overall on Saturday).
Outside pole-sitter Ryan Gustin took the early lead in the 100-lap crown jewel, sliding in front of Pierce as they reached Turn 2. The Marshalltown, IA driver’s lead wouldn’t last long, though, as Pierce thundered past him in Turn 4 to grab the lead on Lap 5.
Thornton was behind the two drivers in third when the first caution came out on Lap 8 for debris in Turn 2. On the next restart, Thornton used the outside lane to get around Gustin and take over second.
Several cautions allowed Pierce, from Oakwood, IL, to stay in clean air for the first 50 laps. But as the race hit its halfway point, the “Smooth Operator” found himself in lap traffic, allowing Thornton and Gustin to close in.
“RTJ” and Gustin traded second again in traffic until the #20RT pulled away on Lap 53 with his sights set on Pierce. That’s when Thornton, who was running the middle lane, switched to the top.
Thornton rode the cushion, quickly closing on Pierce as the leader tried to find a line to stay ahead. He made his first challenge for the lead on Lap 62, sliding him in Turns 1 and 2. But Pierce’s momentum was too strong as he kept his Longhorn Chassis ahead.
Eventually, Thornton’s perseverance paid off, crossing Pierce over in Turn 4 and taking the lead for the first time on Lap 72. However, eight laps later, the race almost slipped away.
As he entered Turn 3 on Lap 81, Thornton said he broke a crank trigger. That led to him slowing on the front stretch with cars going by and bringing out the caution. However, powered returned as the caution came out, allowing him to continue but found himself restarting sixth.
With 19 laps to go, his quest for $50,000 appeared to be over. But Thornton had other ideas.
He quickly returned to the cushion, needing one lap to return to the top five. Then on Lap 87, he dove to the middle, splitting Gustin and Hudson O’Neal in Turns 1 and 2. By the time they hit the backstretch, Thornton had cleared them both, sliding in front of O’Neal in Turn 4 and readying himself for another shot at Pierce.
On Lap 88, like his pass for the lead earlier in the race, Thornton nosed ahead of Pierce in Turn 4 to retake the lead. But a bobble on the cushion by Thornton in Turns 1 and 2 allowed Pierce to retake the lead on the backstretch.
With another crossover in Turns 3 and 4, Thornton powered past the #32 for good, leading the final 13 laps to score the win, and earned his total of $62,000 by leading 24 laps.
Thornton said he used his adversity as motivation in the final 20 laps.
“We broke a crank trigger there in Turn 3, and I’m freaking flipping switches and everything else, and finally, it came back to me,” Thornton said. “I didn’t think I was that far back, but I used it as motivation. After that, I said screw it. I was either going to win or tip it over.”
While Thornton has scored multiple wins paying $50,000 or more in 2023, it’s his first crown jewel victory with the World of Outlaws CASE Late Models. He thanked his crew in Victory Lane and said they make it easy for him to drive every night.
“We’ve got a good enough car where I don’t have to ride hard the whole time,” Thornton said. “Bobby was really good there, but once we got to traffic, I felt like I was better. I just knew once we got to traffic and had a really long run, I’d have a shot, and it worked out for us.”
Pierce finished second, falling one spot short for the second time in three years. Despite his runner-up finish, he knew what it meant for the chase for the World of Outlaws title.
“We’re happy with it,” Pierce said. “We couldn’t get through the corners like [Thornton] did. I wasn’t going to cowboy up and do that with points on the line. I’m leading these points, so I have to focus on that.
“He was getting down those straightaways better than I did too. So if I would’ve pushed the issue, I don’t think I would’ve had anything for him. He was getting down the straightaways really good. He’s a heck of a wheelman, so congratulations to him on the win.”
Despite a second-place finish, Pierce earned $57,000 after leading 74 laps. He also extended his points lead over to 68 over Gustin, who finished third.
It’s Gustin’s second straight top-five in the event after finishing fifth in 2022.
“It’s definitely not what we wanted, but we’ll take it,” Gustin said. “I felt like I got going on the bottom and they kept knocking the tires back out on the yellows. That definitely didn’t help us. I kind of wanted to go up top there, but I went up there one lap and bounced real bad, and I knew we needed to finish for this point deal.”
Sheppard also snuck by O’Neal on the final lap to finish fourth, while O’Neal rounded out the top five.
The World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Models head to Iowa for the next stop Summer of Money stop, the $15,000-to-win Hawkeye 50 at Boone Speedway.
CASE Construction Equipment Late Model Feature (100 Laps): 1. 20RT-Ricky Thornton Jr; 2. 32-Bobby Pierce; 3. 19R-Ryan Gustin; 4. B5-Brandon Sheppard; 5. 1-Hudson O’Neal; 6. 3S-Brian Shirley; 7. 28-Dennis Erb Jr; 8. 9-Nick Hoffman; 9. 40B-Kyle Bronson; 10. 96V-Tanner English; 11. 11R-Josh Rice; 12. 44-Chris Madden; 13. 18D-Daulton Wilson; 14. 97-Cade Dillard; 15. 22-Chris Ferguson; 16. 99JR-Frank Heckenast Jr; 17. 25-Shane Clanton; 18. 25F-Jason Feger; 19. 89-Mike Spatola; 20. 11-Gordy Gundaker; 21. 18B-Shannon Babb; 22. 1T-Tyler Erb; 23. 1M-Mike Mataragas; 24. 26H-Kyle Hammer; 25. 32S-Chris Simpson; 26. B12-Kevin Weaver; 27. 19M-Wil Herrington; 28. 33-Mike Harrison FOX FACTORY HARD CHARGER: Kyle Bronson [+14]
Prairie Dirt Shootout (25 Laps): 1. 25F-Jason Feger; 2. 24-Ryan Unzicker; 3. 99-Jeff Larson; 4. 84-Myles Moos; 5. 58-Garrett Alberson; 6. 89-Mike Spatola; 7. 15-Justin Duty; 8. 1ST-Johnny Scott; 9. 31-Kye Blight; 10. 5-Brandon Overton; 11. 33H-Bill Hough; 12. 81-Jason Riggs; 13. 11-Gordy Gundaker; 14. 27-Michael Lake; 15. 18-Chase Junghans; 16. B1-Brent Larson; 17. 12-Doug Drown; 18. (DNS) 25-Shane Clanton; 19. (DNS) 14G-Trevor Gundaker; 20. (DNS) 157-Mike Marlar; 21. (DNS) 42-Mckay Wenger