Five things to think about with the dirt-track season now less than six weeks away:
1. The drive for five: Four different late model drivers have been track champions this decade. That’s one more than any other decade in track history. Champs since 2000 have been Mark Burgtorf, the late Brent Slocum, Lonnie Bailey and Jason Frankel. Can there be a fifth different champ? If there is, my guess is it will be Justin Reed.
2. Breakout driver(s) of ’09: It all depends on how you define “breakout.” That’s why I have two picks here. Reed is the breakout threat when it comes to winning the title, and Matt Bailey is the driver when it comes to joining the elite class of drivers at the track.
Reed has been knocking on the door the past two years, and if defending champ Frankel or 14-time king Burgtorf allow him an opening, that orange No. 1st is talented enough to take it.
Bailey looks poised to elevate his game from sometimes-contender to weekly threat. Bailey, an engineering student, has grown up around the track and knows all the intricacies of the machine he drives. Another consideration — Bailey led all late model drivers in heat points. If he carries that consistency over to the features, he will be joining his dad, Lonnie, running up front on a weekly basis.
3. Select club: Since the track adopted the IMCA style of scoring in 1998, only two drivers have reached 5,000 career points — Mark Burgtorf (6,451) and Denny Woodworth (5,430). Two more could join that group this summer.
Lonnie Bailey (4,933) is just 67 points shy and should gain membership the second week of points racing. Terry Gallaher, who has raced at Quincy since the track opened in 1975, needs 171. Terry’s future is uncertain for this year, but my gut feeling is we’ll see him enough for him to reach that milestone.
4. Wild card: The real question mark for this season: How will this economic mess affect the product on the track and the fans in the stands? The thing that worries me most is not the threat of gas rising to $4 again (I don’t see that happening), it’s the layoffs and changing face of the workforce. How many fans will the track lose because dad or mom — or both — have lost their job(s) since the end of last season? How many drivers? Crew members? Until those first few weeks of the season, this is the true wild card for ’09.
5. All-time rankings: There won’t be much movement in The Herald-Whig all-time rankings this year. The only possibility for change finds Woodworth with an opportunity to move from No. 9 to No. 8 and Frankel maybe cracking the top 10.
If Woodworth finishes sixth or higher in the final track points, he will move past Slocum in to No. 8. If D.W. would wind up second or higher, he could also pass Sonny Findling for No. 7.
If Frankel can finish fourth or higher, he will bump Tom Long out of the No. 10 ranking.
Drivers earn points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis for their annual position in the final track standings.
Here’s the all-time rankings going into the season:
1. Mark Burgtorf, 267 points: 14 track championships and 20 top-five points finishes cement his best-ever ranking.
2. Terry Gallaher, 232 points: Four titles and a record 28 top-10 finishes.
3. Steve Fraise, 178 points: Nine championships between 1976-90.
4. Lonnie Bailey, 123 points: Only three drivers have more top five (13) finishes than No. 25.
5. Dick Crane, 104.5 points: Won title in 1986.
6. Jim Swank, 73.5 points: 1978 track champ.
7. Sonny Findling, 70.5 points: Highest-ranked driver who never won a championship.
8. Brent Slocum, 64 points: How many more titles could he have won if he were still with us?
9. Denny Woodworth, 61 points: D.W. will likely be spending a lot of time on the MLRA circuit this summer.
10. Tom Long, 49 points: Jason Frankel is right on his rear bumper in these rankings.
Other active drivers of note: Jason Frankel (43), Ron Elbe (38), Jerry Weisenberger (28), Joey Gower (23), Justin Reed (22).