Ricky Thornton Jr. has had an unforgettable year – one he made sure he and the SSI Motorsports team will never forget, going back-to-back to cap the 2023 World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Model Series season Saturday night at The Dirt Track at Charlotte.
Thornton’s 33rd overall Feature win on the national dirt Late Model scene this year was one of his most impressive, wheeling the Dyno One, Longhorn/Clements No. 20RT from 10th on the starting grid up to the lead in 27 laps to bank the $25,000 grand prize in the World of Outlaws World Finals finale.
Race after race, track after track, big payday after big payday, Thornton and the SSI Motorsports team have dominated 2023. But as they closed out the season with Thornton’s fourth career World of Outlaws victory and third this year, surely, they’ve had a moment to let all their accomplishments soak in, right?
“Definitely not,” Thornton said. “My guys bust their butts. You figure every down day is a day you’re not getting better.”
One thing Thornton got much better at over the four-day race weekend – far more than any other driver – was getting around on the high side. Early on in the 50-lap main event, Thornton began ripping the top line around the 4/10-mile, red clay oval and worked his way up to third by Lap 17.
“I started losing track of the guys on the bottom,” Thornton said. “I’m like, ‘You know what, the top looks pretty good.’ I could see [Brandon] Sheppard running up there and figured if I was gonna have a shot to win it, I just gotta go now.”
Soon, Thornton had closed in on the rear bumper of Chris Madden and dove underneath him in a bid for second going into Turn 3 on Lap 24. He slid up in front of Madden out of Turn 4 to seal the pass and immediately set his sights on leader Cade Dillard, who was less than a second ahead.
In only three laps, Thornton reeled Dillard in and put the same move on him as he did for Madden with a deep dive down low going into Turn 3, then sliding back up in front of him out of Turn 4 to take the lead.
Now with the lead, it seemed like nothing could slow Thornton’s pace – not even the race’s only caution flag with 33 laps complete. He and Madden broke away from the field on the ensuing restart and battled side-by-side for the top spot briefly, but Thornton was too quick.
By this time, Mike Marlar had climbed back up into the top three, getting by Dale McDowell for third on Lap 37. After catching his rear bumper, Marlar as well dove underneath Madden in Turn 3 to grab second out of Turn 4.
He closed slightly in the final laps, but Marlar came up one spot short of his third career win at Charlotte. Madden hung on for third while McDowell and Garrett Smith completed the top five.
Crossing the line behind Smith in sixth was Bobby Pierce, who had drove up from 11th on the starting grid and was later crowned with his first dirt Late Model national championship in his first season aboard the World of Outlaws tour.
Pierce, the second-generation racer from Oakwood, IL, had mathematically clinched the points title Wednesday after taking the green flag in Qualifying, which put him more at ease racing against 74 other cars throughout the weekend.
“This has been a great weekend for us, just learning this track,” Pierce said. “But I definitely wouldn’t have liked to head into this deal with a tight point battle. We were very relaxed.”
At 26 years old, Pierce already solidified himself as an undeniable talent several years ago with his abundance of DIRTcar Late Model national points titles, DIRTcar Summer Nationals titles and several marquee event wins at the national level – most notably his win in the 2016 World 100 at Eldora Speedway at the age of 18.
Now, he’s a national Late Model series champion. But even with all of those accomplishments as such a young age, he said he’s nowhere close to being done.
“It’s definitely an uplifting thing to know,” Pierce said. “I’ve got a lot more years to go – just a lot more years to learn. Heck, a lot of times, you don’t figure things out ‘til late in your life. I feel like, especially this weekend, taught me there’s lot I have to learn still.
“We’re gonna come back next year, try to get another one. See how many of these we can get.”
While the points championship stayed locked-up over the weekend, the battle for fourth and several thousands of dollars in points fund checks was settled.
Kyle Bronson came into the weekend holding the fourth spot and retained it with a 10th-place finish in Saturday’s Feature. 2023 Germfree Rookie of the Year Nick Hoffman finished seventh Saturday and advanced two spots in points up to fifth.
While Brian Shirley’s ran 22nd Saturday, he did retain sixth place in points after jumping up one spot earlier in the week, and Ryan Gustin fell two points positions after taking a DNF Saturday. Dennis Erb Jr. jumped up one spot in points to eighth, while Tanner English rolled back to ninth after a trying weekend of no finishes better than 20th.
ABBREVIATED RESULTS (view full results)
CASE Construction Equipment Feature (50 Laps): 1. 20RT-Ricky Thornton Jr; 2. 157-Mike Marlar; 3. 44-Chris Madden; 4. 17M-Dale McDowell; 5. 10-Garrett Smith; 6. 32-Bobby Pierce; 7. 9-Nick Hoffman; 8. 97-Cade Dillard; 9. 20-Jimmy Owens; 10. 40B-Kyle Bronson; 11. 49-Jonathan Davenport; 12. 18D-Daulton Wilson; 13. B5-Brandon Sheppard; 14. 16-Ben Watkins; 15. 0-Scott Bloomquist; 16. 79-Donald McIntosh; 17. 39-Tim McCreadie; 18. 28-Dennis Erb Jr; 19. 1T-Tyler Erb; 20. 96V-Tanner English; 21. 25-Shane Clanton; 22. 8-Brian Shirley; 23. 93-Carson Ferguson; 24. 76-Brandon Overton; 25. 19R-Ryan Gustin; 26. 57-Zack Mitchell; 27. 22-Chris Ferguson; 28. B1-Brent Larson