Larry Wight

THE BIG GATOR: Jimmy Phelps conquers DIRTcar Nationals for first title, win

In 26 years with the Super DIRTcar Series, Jimmy 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.

“I got to be honest it’s kind of shocking,” Phelps said while throwing his arm in the air as if still unsure how he accomplished the massive feat. “We typically come down here to just run respectfully. We never really felt like we had a handle on this place. We unloaded really good and kept tweaking and getting better and better and better from there. It was fun.”

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 Max 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 Matt 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, Mat Williamson and Larry 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.

“We were able to back the field up, slow the pace down, try to take it easy on the tires. Try to avoid the lap cars. Just got really lucky with the redraw (starting upfront).”

By the end of the 50 laps, his right rear was bare of tread, looking more like an asphalt tire.

While Phelps was able to manage the wear, his closest competitors weren’t privy to the same fortune in their attempts to run him down. Both Sheppard and Williamson suffered blown right rears in the closing laps, allowing 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.”

UP NEXT
The Super DIRTcar Series starts its championship season during its debut at Atomic Speedway on March 25-26.

If you can’t make it to the track, the race will be live on DIRTVision – watch either online on with the DIRTVision App.

RESULTS
DIRTcar Nationals Feature #5 (50 Laps): 1. 98H-Jimmy Phelps[1]; 2. 99L-Larry Wight[16]; 3. 44-Stewart Friesen[17]; 4. 35M-Mike Mahaney[5]; 5. 8S-Rich Scagliotta[14]; 6. 54-Steve Bernard[28]; 7. 88-Mat Williamson[4]; 8. 25P-Michael Parent[24]; 9. 16X-Dan Creeden[21]; 10. 21A-Peter Britten[7]; 11. 3J-Marc Johnson[9]; 12. 19-Tim Fuller[19]; 13. 35LJ-LJ Lombardo[23]; 14. 111-Demetrios Drellos[8]; 15. 1K-Rick Laubach[10]; 16. 3H-Justin Haers[11]; 17. 8H-Max McLaughlin[6]; 18. 118-Jim Britt[25]; 19. 14-CG Morey[26]; 20. (DNF) 88D-Olden Dwyer[20]; 21. (DNF) 215P-Adam Pierson[2]; 22. (DNF) 2L-Jack Lehner[18]; 23. (DNF) 30W-Joseph Watson[15]; 24. (DNF) 23C-Kyle Coffey[12]; 25. (DNF) 9S-Matt Sheppard[3]; 26. (DNF) 12S-Darren Smith[22]; 27. (DNF) JS98-Rocky Warner[13]; 28. (DNF) 83-Brian Swartzlander[27]

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Big Blocks head south to chase DIRTcar Nationals Big Gator title

The Beasts of the Northeast have awakened from their hibernation with an appetite for gators.

Before the championship season kicks off in March, the Super DIRTcar Series will have some fun in the sun for a week’s worth of racing at Volusia Speedway Park for the 51st DIRTcar Nationals, Feb. 14-19.

Monday will be a day of practice for the nearly 40-car field of prospective entries before they battle wheel to wheel for the next five straight days. Each night will award the iconic golden gator trophy to the winner and points toward the overall Big Gator Championship. Tuesday through Friday will pay $4,000-to-win and Saturday will pay $5,000-to-win, meaning if fortunate enough, one driver could leave the week with more than $20,000 in their pocket.

The last driver to come closest to that feat was Larry Wight in 2020 when he won three straight nights – becoming only the second driver in the history of the Series to do so (first since 1978).

Wight will be joined by a plethora of talent from across the country including eight-time and defending Series champion Matt Sheppard, 2021 Big Gator champion Max McLaughlin, 2019 Series champion Mat Williamson, 2005 Series champion Tim Fuller, NASCAR star Stewart Friesen, rising stars Jack Lehner, Adam Pierson, Erick Rudolph, Mike Mahaney and more.

DIRTcar Nationals Tickets, CLICK HERE

The Super DIRTcar Series will be accompanied by the DIRTcar Late Models and Xtreme Outlaw Sprint Cars on Monday and Tuesday. Then, the World of Outlaws CASE Late Models will join the Series for the remainder of the week.

If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch all the action live on DIRTVision – either online or with the DIRTVision App.

Jacy Norgaard Photo

Here are the top stories to follow for the week:

BIG CHAMP AFTER BIG GATOR: Matt Sheppard said he feels like he’s due for another win at Volusia Speedway Park. The eight-time and defending Super DIRTcar Series champion, of Waterloo, NY, has three DIRTcar Nationals titles and eight wins, but his last title was in 2016 and his last win was in 2019. He acknowledged his trips to the Florida track can be hit or miss, demonstrated last year by his finishes of 6th, 9th, 5th and 2nd, respectively.

However, this year, he enters the season with the momentum of having set a history-making title in 2021. He surpassed dirt Modified legend Brett Hearn for the most Super DIRTcar Series championships of all time. With that confidence propelling him into the new season, “Super Matt” may find himself making history again at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.

MAX ON REPEAT: Max McLaughlin accomplished a feat last year at 20 years old that some veterans are still struggling to achieve. He first won a golden gator – his second career Super DIRTcar Series win – and then ended the week as the 2021 Big Gator Champion. Now, at 21 years old, with a new team and head full of confidence, the young Mooresville, NC driver has sights on a repeat.

McLaughlin rejoined Heinke-Baldwin Racing – the team that gave him his first shot in the Super DIRTcar Series – this season with the goal of earning the Series title. Feeling back at home, he spent most of his off-season in Weedsport, NY at the team’s shop preparing for the new season. Preparing to collect more trophies.

STARTING OFF RIGHT: While the five nights of racing during DIRTcar Nationals may not be points events for the Super DIRTcar Series, they’re crucial to many teams who use it as a chance to knock off the rust of the off-season and get back into a racing mentality. For drivers like Mat Williamson, Peter Britten and Jimmy Phelps, who got off to a slow start last year, it’s a chance to change that and start 2022 off on the right foot.

Of the three, Williamson is the only one with a couple of wins at Volusia – both coming in 2020. However, last year, he had an average finish of seventh at DIRTcar Nationals and didn’t get into a rhythm for the season until about the end of summer, picking up his second consecutive NAPA Super DIRT Week title and ending the year second in points.

Jacy Norgaard Photo

Britten and Phelps have come close to snagging a gator trophy but have had to settle for second at best. The Aussie had the better 2021 season of the two, having captured his second career Super DIRTcar Series win, while Phelps went winless for the first time in three years. Starting off the season strong in Florida could give them the momentum needed to challenge for their first championship when the points season starts at Atomic Speedway Park, March 25-26.

FLORIDA FRIESEN: Florida speed weeks is always a busy time for Stewart Friesen, jumping between his Halmar International #44 Big Block Modified and #52 NASCAR Truck throughout the week, but he wouldn’t miss the chance to chase more golden gator trophies.

The Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario driver is a two-time Big Gator champion (2011, 2014) and a nine-time DIRTcar Nationals Feature winner – most recently picking up two more wins last year. His NASCAR duties Friday night will take him out of contention for the Big Gator title this year, but Friesen plans on being at Volusia every other day throughout the week.

He also enters the week with a slight advantage over the other drivers. New clay was put down on Volusia and Friesen got to make a few laps on it with a Late Model during the World of Outlaws Late Model Series’ season-opener in January.

WIGHT RETURNS: After missing DIRTcar Nationals last year, Larry Wight returns to re-stake his claim as the top gator hunter. Prior to his absence in 2021, he claimed the 2019 and 2020 Big Gator titles – adding to his 2015 title. He also won three straight races in 2020 – becoming only the second driver in Series history to accomplish that feat and the first since 1978.

The Phoenix, NY driver will have sole focus from the LJL Racing team this year as it sized down to a one-car team. With the new focus, Wight will look to put his #99L Big Block back in Victory Lane with the Series for the first time in more than a year.

Jacy Norgaard Photo

POTENTIAL SURPRISES: Five straight days of racing at the same track provides the potential for new and surprise winners. Last year, Max McLaughlin prevailed on the third night, claiming his second career Series win. Then, on the final night, Michael Maresca brought fans to their feet by outrunning Matt Sheppard and Billy Decker to earn his first career Super DIRTcar Series win.

A long list of drivers entered for the 2022 edition of DIRTcar Nationals has the potential to be the next new or surprise winner. Jack Lehner had a career year with the Super DIRTcar Series in 2021 and picked up his first DIRTcar Big Block win. Adam Pierson, a former Sportsman star, is in the same boat as Lehner, having earned his first Big Block win last year, too. The Vermont driver is planning a trip south as he also eyes a potential full tour with the Series. The possibilities are endless. See the full list of entries below.

PROSPECTIVE DIRTcar NATIONALS ENTRY LIST
Francois Bellemere
Steve Bernard
Jimmy Britt
Peter Britten
Danny Creeden
Marcus Dinkins
Olden Dwyer
Stewart Friesen
Tim Fuller
Justin Haers
Ryan Krachun
Jeffrey Lapalme
Rich Laubauch
Jack Lehner
Mike Mahaney
Max McLaughlin
Corbin Millar
Russell Moresman
CG Morey
Michael Parent
Jimmy Phelps
Adam Pierson
Rich Regalski
Erick Rudolph
Rich Scagliotta
Matt Sheppard
Jeremiah Shingledecker
Andrew Smith
Darren Smith
Matt Stangle
Brian Swartzlander
Jeff Taylor
Rocky Warner
Joseph “Jo Jo” Watson
Mat Williamson
Larry Wight
Jimmy Zacharias

PAST DIRTcar NATIONALS CHAMPIONS
2021 – Max McLaughlin
2020 – Larry Wight
2019 – Larry Wight
2018 – Tim McCreadie
2017 – Brett Hearn
2016 – Matt Sheppard
2015 – Larry Wight
2014 – Stewart Friesen
2013 – Danny Johnson
2012 – Matt Sheppard
2011 – Stewart Friesen
2010 – Matt Sheppard
2009 – Pat Ward
2008 – Brett Hearn/Billy Pauch
2007 – Danny Johnson
2006 – Brett Hearn
2005 – Brett Hearn/Andy Bachetti
2004 – Pat Ward
2003 – Tim Fuller
2002 – Brett Hearn
2001 – Brett Hearn
2000 – Brett Hearn
1999 – Jimmy Horton
1998 – Brett Hearn
1997 – Jimmy Horton
1996 – Brett Hearn
1995 – Doug Hoffman
1990-1994 – No champion
1989 – Alan Johnson
1988 – Danny Johnson
1987 – Danny Johnson
1986 – Jimmy Horton
1985 – Billy Pauch
1984 – Kenny Brightbill/Jack Johnson
1983 – Alan Johnson
1982 – Jeff Kappesser/Billy Pauch
1981 – Jack Johnson
1980 – Kenny Brightbill
1979 – No champion
1978 – Walt Breeding

TRACK FACTS
Volusia Speedway Park
Configuration: Semi-banked, Half-mile
Big Block Track Record: 16.754 sec. set by Jamie Mills in 2015
# of Big Block Features: 135
First Big Block Feature: Feb. 10, 1978
Website: VolusiaSpeedwayPark.com

AROUND THE TURN:  The Super DIRTcar Series will kick off its championship season at Atomic Speedway, March 25-26, for the Super DIRTcar Series Showdown doubleheader. Friday night will pay $10,000-to-win and Saturday night will pay $12,000-to-win. Both nights will also award a 50th NAPA Super DIRT Week guaranteed starting spot.

DIRTcar Nationals set to bring big names for Super DIRTcar Series Big Block action

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.

For DIRTcar Nationals tickets, CLICK HERE.

If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch all the action live on DIRTVision – either online or with the DIRTVision App.

Super DIRTcar Series DIRTcar Nationals Championships
2021 – Max McLaughlin
2020 – Larry Wight
2019 – Larry Wight
2018 – Tim McCreadie
2017 – Brett Hearn
2016 – Matt Sheppard
2015 – Larry Wight
2014 – Stewart Friesen
2013 – Danny Johnson
2012 – Matt Sheppard
2011 – Stewart Friesen
2010 – Matt Sheppard
2009 – Pat Ward
2008 – Brett Hearn/Billy Pauch
2007 – Danny Johnson
2006 – Brett Hearn
2005 – Brett Hearn/Andy Bachetti
2004 – Pat Ward
2003 – Tim Fuller
2002 – Brett Hearn
2001 – Brett Hearn
2000 – Brett Hearn
1999 – Jimmy Horton
1998 – Brett Hearn
1997 – Jimmy Horton
1996 – Brett Hearn
1995 – Doug Hoffman
1990-1994 – No champion
1989 – Alan Johnson
1988 – Danny Johnson
1987 – Danny Johnson
1986 – Jimmy Horton
1985 – Billy Pauch
1984 – Kenny Brightbill/Jack Johnson
1983 – Alan Johnson
1982 – Jeff Kappesser/Billy Pauch
1981 – Jack Johnson
1980 – Kenny Brightbill
1979 – No champion
1978 – Walt Breeding