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Off-road title duels going down to the wire
Off-road title duels going down to the wire
Richard S. James
October 09 2009
It's the sort of tight points battle that promoters of late-season races dream of. The drivers battling for the championship are separated by only a few points with two double-race weekends left.
But it's not in only one class in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series that the title race is neck and neck going into the penultimate weekend at Speedworld Off Road Park near Phoenix, Ariz. In Unlimited 4, Unlimited 2, Unlimited Lite, Super Lite and even Unlimited Buggy, first and second are separated by less than 10 points. With each race earning a maximum of 52 points – 50 for a race win plus one point for the fastest qualifier and one for the driver who leads at half-distance – or 104 for a perfect weekend, there are a lot of opportunities to erase any gaps that exist at this point.
One of the things that keeps it so close is the points system. First pays 50, second is worth 48 and each subsequent position is two points less. That means if the second-place finisher qualifies first and gets the halfway point, the winner gains nothing.
“You really can't gain any ground on anybody if you win a race; but if you lose a race, if you DNF, you lose a bunch of points,” notes Carl Renezeder, who leads U2 over Jeff Ward and U4 over Alan Pflueger by a total of eight points after three U2 and five U4 wins. “Even though I have a four-point advantage, if I have a DNF, I'm out.”
That's the situation that Unlimited Lite leader Rob “Fig” Naughton finds himself in. He's won six out of eight races and finished third in another. He ought to be running away with the points, but a blown engine in the last round at Lake Elsinore made it all for just a bit more than naught – a measly two points over Chris Brandt.
“We had a 24-point lead or so going into the last round and we blew up a motor, which resulted in a 12th-place finish,” explains Naughton. “Finishing every race strong is going to make a difference in the end. You can usually count on everybody having at least one DNF ever year, it's just that Chris Brandt, the guy right behind me, has finished every race. Definitely it's tight.”
Close battles are the norm in the other classes as well. John Harrah leads Chad Leising in Super Lite by eight points, 375 to 367. Six points separate Chuck Cheek and Mike Halliday in Unlimited Buggy. Chad George has a nine-point lead in Unlimited UTV. Even the kart championship battles are close. Only Limited Buggy could be considered a runaway thanks to Bruce Fraley's 78-point lead over Kyle Quinn.
With four races left, it's time for the drivers and teams to consider the points battles and how best to maintain or erase a points lead. Complicating things is the grid inversion – a certain number of top qualifiers are inverted for the start according to random draw. Qualify fastest and you might be starting eighth.
“Strategy is a double-edged sword,” says Naughton. “Do you try to qualify first and get that point but start back in the pack, or do you play games and sandbag and try to start up front? I typically just try to qualify first and we start where we start. My strategy hasn't changed. We go out to win every race. Six wins out of eight, I think, is proof that we're capable of doing that. You really can't try to save the equipment. You only race for 15, 18 minutes, and it's either going to hold together or it isn't.”
In other words, the strategy is the same whether it's early or late in the season, whether a driver has a lead or a deficit.
Says Renezeder: “I race for the win every time I go out. I won't take any silly chances but, in the past, when I've tried to be cautious and points race, it's always turned out to be an issue for me. So I always try to keep my destiny in my own hands. If I go out there and back off and try to run middle of the pack, most times I get smashed, or get a flat. So I'm more offensive and try to run the race where I'm comfortable and used to racing, and rely on the fact that my team preps an awesome truck and I won't have any problems.”
Although at this point in the season both Renezeder and Naughton would probably prefer to have nice, boring leads in the points, they recognize the appeal for fans.
“It's a great thing for the series,” says Renezeder. “You don't want to have runaways. I think it's more exciting coming into the end of the season to where everything's on the line. That's part of the challenge, part of the attraction to the competition.”