TAMPA, FL - Defending and two-time Xtreme DirtCar Series Champion Rick Eckert of York, PA changed to the right tires at the right time to win the 100-lap finale of the East Bay Winternationals Saturday night for the Xtreme DirtCar Series at East Bay Raceway Park.
It was Eckert's second win in the first three XDCS events of the season driving the Raye Vest Rocket/Cornett Taurus. Eckert earned $21,500 during the three-race EBRP swing.
"Early in the race I was running with a big pack of cars and running both the high and low grooves," Eckert said. "I'd run up high and gain a few spots, and then I'd try the bottom and loose a few spots. I knew early in the race that I needed a caution flag to pit for harder tires."
Eckert got that opportunity, and it worked to his advantage. Eckert took the lead on lap 66 and led the rest of the way. Every car that finished the race pitted for tires at least once in an event that had more tire changes than lead changes, and both were many.
Steve Francis of Ashland, KY had a rough night and failed to transfer to the main event through heat and consolation race action. Francis had to take a provisional and start 25th, but came on strong in the main event to finish second in the Valvoline/Mopar Parts Rocket/Stanton Intrepid. Francis was the Advance Auto Parts Hard Charger of the Race.
Randle Chupp of Mooresville, NC was another of the many drivers that came from deep in the starting field to post a high finish. Chupp started his Biscotti's Restaurant and Winery/Park Ohio Rocket/Race Tech Grand Prix in the 21st spot, led the race for 20 laps, and finished third.
Brian Birkhofer of Muscatine, IA was fourth in the Seubert Calf Ranches Mastersbilt/Pro Power Grand Prix, and 1999 XDCS Champion Dale McDowell of Rossville, GA came from the 24th starting spot to finish fifth in the J&J Steel Rocket by Shaw/Custom Grand Prix. Jimmy Mars of Elk Mound, WI started 20th in his unsponsored Mastersbilt/Pro Power Monte Carlo and finished sixth.
Earl Pearson Jr. of Jacksonville, FL led the first five laps of the race and finished seventh in the Lucas Oil/Dunn-Benson Ford Rocket/Eatmon Taurus. Another race leader, Don O'Neal of Martinsville, IN led for 15 laps and brought the Petroff Towing Rayburn/Pro Power Monte Carlo home in the eighth spot.
Terry English finished ninth in the C.J. Rayburn Race Cars Rayburn/Runyon Monte Carlo, and Dan Schlieper of Pewaukee, WI debuted a new Miller Brothers Coal Warrior/Pro Power Monte Carlo to round out the top ten after leading the race for 25 laps.
At the start of the race, polesitter Donnie Moran of Dresden, OH raced the outside front row starter Pearson side-by-side for the first two laps, with Pearson grabbing the point outright on lap three. O'Neal drove around the outside of Moran's QPI Tools Dirt Ripper Mastersbilt/Malcuit Monte Carlo for the second spot on lap four, and then passed Pearson for the lead on lap six.
O'Neal was in lapped traffic by lap 15, and Schlieper moved up to second on lap 16 to pressure O'Neal for the lead on the outside. Pearson dove under Schlieper to retake the second spot on lap 17, and then challenged O'Neal for the front spot. Pearson passed O'Neal for the lead on lap 19, but a caution flag negated the pass.
Rod Conley of Wheelersburg, OH spun his Conley Trucking Rocket/Draime Monte Carlo in turn two to bring out the caution flag, which put O'Neal back in front of Pearson for the double-file restart in front of the SPEED Channel cameras. During the caution flag, Chupp was the first driver to pit for tires, as the track started to take rubber on the inside groove.
Behind O'Neal and Pearson on the restart was Schlieper, Moran, Rob Blair in the Bossard-Crawford Rocket/Draime Monte Carlo, Ray Cook of Brasstown, NC in the Goodson Farms Mastersbilt/Cornett Taurus, Mike Balzano of Parkersburg, WV in the Eddie's Auto Parts Rocket/Russell Baker Monte Carlo, English, Birkhofer, and McDowell.
On the restart, Schlieper utilized his outside restart position to his advantage, as he sailed up alongside O'Neal in the first turn. The two raced side-by-side for two laps before Schlieper took the lead on lap 20. That lead change was also negated when Kelly Boen of Denver, CO hit the front straightaway wall and hit the flagstand.
That brought out the red flag, but neither Boen, nor EBRP flagman Julian Mullis were injured. The same couldn't be said for Boen's Road Runner Fabrication Larry Shaw/Dickens Grand Prix or the flagstand. Boen's car left on the wrecker, and the track welder had to come out during the red flag to repair the flagstand.
It was during the red flag period with the car stopped on the backstretch that Eckert and several other drivers plotted their strategy.
"We were all sitting there on the backstretch during the red flag talking to each other when I heard that Chupp took on harder tires during the last caution," Eckert said. "I told Francis and Korte if Chupp drove by us on his new tires when we back to green, and I was in front of them, I told them to spin me out to bring out the caution flag so we could pit for harder tires."
On the restart, Pearson raced along side O'Neal to battle for the lead, but it was Schlieper who dove under both of them in turn four to take the lead on lap 20. Schlieper was then able to pull away while Pearson and O'Neal swapped the second spot back and forth for several laps. Behind the lead trio, Moran held fourth and Cook was fifth.
Behind the top five, positions sixth through 14th were being exchanged like gifts the day after Christmas. This went on for 15 laps, and Chupp was the big mover in this pack, bolting up to the sixth spot. Just as was outlined in the red flag summit meeting, Korte was the one that spun out in turn two on lap 45 to bring out the caution flag.
McDowell, Eckert, Francis, and Birkhofer all pitted for the harder compound tires during the caution period. Schlieper led Pearson, O'Neal, Moran, Chupp, Mars, Balzano, and Cook back to the green flag. Chupp stepped to the outside on the restart and went around the four cars in front of him to challenge for the lead.
Chupp took the lead from Schlieper on lap 46, while Balzano moved up to the third spot. O'Neal faded on the restart, and spun in turn two to bring out the caution flag on lap 49. This time it was Mars, Pearson, Cook, Moran, and O'Neal coming to the pits for harder compound tires. Chupp led Schlieper, Balzano, Francis, and Eckert down for the restart.
In one lap, Eckert bolted from fifth to second, and Francis moved up to the third spot on lap 52. Both Schlieper and Balzano were fading. Balzano spun in turn four on lap 56 to bring out a caution. This time, it was Schlieper, Balzano, and the top ten car of Jackie Boggs of Grayson, KY in the McDonalds Swartz/T&H Monte Carlo that pitted for tires.
By this point in the race, the outside groove was gone, and everyone pretty much committed to run in the rubber in the faster bottom groove of the track. For the safety of the drivers, XDCS officials exercised their option to forego the double-file restarts. Chupp led Eckert, Francis, Birkhofer, McDowell, Mars, Cook, O'Neal, Pearson and English down for the restart.
Everyone ran single file for the next ten laps, but Eckert began to look inside Chupp on lap 65, and then found enough room to drive under him on the next lap to take the lead. Eckert was not challenged the rest of the way, and Chupp was passed by Francis for the second spot on lap 99.
The win gives Eckert a four-point lead over Mars in the XDCS point standings going into the next XDCS event, a 75-lap $15,000-to-win event on March 15 at Thunder Valley Speedway in Glenmora, LA.
The surprise Ringers Gloves Fast Qualifier among the 69 entrants was Jason Montgomery of Jackson, OH who broke Francis' three-year-old track record of 14.198 seconds. Montgomery drove his Montgomery Fabrication Rocket/Cropper Grand Prix around the 1/3-mile clay oval in 14.151 seconds for an average speed of 84.800 miles per hour. Montgomery failed to transfer to the main event.
The 12-lap heat races were won by Balzano, O'Neal, Blair, Pearson, Schlieper and Moran. The 6-lap Action Performance Dash for the heat race winners was won by Moran followed by Pearson, O'Neal, Blair, Schlieper and Balzano. Boggs, Mars and Chupp won the three 15-lap Consolation Races.
Saturday night's XDCS event at EBRP can bee seen on SPEED Channel on March 6 at 11 p.m. ET.
OFFICIAL RESULTS OF ROUND 3 AT EAST BAY RACEWAY PARK IN TAMPA, FL ON 2/8/03:
POS STRT CAR # DRIVER HOMETOWN CAR LAPS $ WON 1. 10 24 Rick Eckert York, PA Ford 100 $15,850 2. 25 m15 Steve Francis Ashland, KY Dodge 100 $8,250 3. 21 114 Randle Chupp Mooresville, NC Pont. 100 $4,000 4. 9 15b Brian Birkhofer Muscatine, IA Pont. 100 $3,000 5. 24 17m Dale McDowell Rossville, GA Pont. 100 $2,600 6. 20 28m Jimmy Mars Elk Mound, WI Chev. 100 $2,400 7. 2 1 Earl Pearson Jr. Jacksonville, FL Ford 100 $2,200 8. 3 71o Don O'Neal Martinsville, IN Chev. 100 $1,400 9. 11 96 Terry English Benton, KY Chev. 100 $1,200 10. 5 s9 Dan Schlieper Pewaukee, WI Chev. 100 $1,100 11. 7 53 Ray Cook Brasstown, NC Ford 100 $1,675 12. 1 99 Donnie Moran Dresden, OH Chev. 100 $1,050 13. 6 E1 Mike Balzano Parkersburg, WV Chev. 99 $1,025 14. 12 0 Scott Bloomquist Mooresburg, TN Ford 99 $1,000 15. 18 88 Wendell Wallace Batesville, AR Ford 99 $1,000 16. 17 55 Jeep Van Wormer Picconning, MI Chev. 99 $1,000 17. 15 71r Rod Conley Wheelersburg, OH Chev. 97 $1,000 18. 16 7 Matt Miller (R) Waterville, OH Pont. 97 $1,000 19. 4 w11 Rob Blair Titusville, PA Chev. 97 $1,000 20. 8 0s Steve Shaver Parkersburg, WV Chev. 96 $1,000 21. 26 201 Billy Ogle Jr. Knoxville, TN Chev. 81 $1,750 22. 14 71 Delmas Conley Wheelersburg, OH Chev. 80 $1,000 23. 19 4b Jackie Boggs Grayson, KY Chev. 67 $1,000 24. 23 00k Randy Korte Highland, IL Pont. 67 $1,600 25. 13 07 Kelly Boen Denver, CO Pont. 19 $1,000 26. 22 19 Davey Johnson Greensburg, PA Pont. 18 $1,000
1. Rick Eckert - 489 2. Jimmy Mars - 485 3. Earl Pearson Jr. - 479 4. Donnie Moran - 451 4. Steve Francis - 451 6. Brian Birkhofer - 447 7. Don O'Neal - 385 8. Randle Chupp - 382 9. Terry English - 380 10. Rob Blair - 378 11. Dale McDowell - 375 12. Randy Korte - 362 13. Matt Miller (R) - 350 14. Rick Aukland - 348 15. Dan Schlieper - 343 16. Scott Bloomquist - 335 16. Mike Balzano - 335 18. Ray Cook - 334 19. Davey Johnson - 332 20. Chub Frank - 316
R - Denotes Lucas Oil Rookie of the Year Candidate