EAST LEROY, Mich.
Dennis Erb, Jr. dragged his foot through a layer of gravel in the pit area of a Midwestern dirt track. He wasn’t smiling.
“It’s like driving on this stuff,” Erb said, describing the condition of the race track the UMP DIRTcar Summer Nationals tour was scheduled to compete on that night.
“It’s gonna be a one-lane freight train.”
The Carpentersville, Ill., driver was right in his assessment. Out of the seven times the dirt-late-models were on the track that night, there was barely any competitive passing.
It can make an already grueling Summer Nationals even tougher.
Nights like that were far from the norm on this year’s tour, though. In fact, the 2010 version likely will be remembered as one of the best in history.
During more than the 32 nights of racing, perhaps no one drove harder than 2010 champion Jason Feger, especially during the tour’s final week. Feger took the points lead July 10 and never looked back, winning once and scoring four other top-four finishes in the last six races.
The popular Bloomington, Ill., driver finished with two wins and seven second-place finishes. The defining moment in his title run might’ve been a mid-tour switch to a backup car that was fast everywhere it was unloaded.
Feger said he won the title his way, the only way he knew how — by driving as hard as he could.
“But we’re (also) trying to race smarter,” he added.
Amazingly there were nine drivers who competed at all 28 events, and four others who raced at more than 20 events. The average car count was 40. Eleven different drivers won features. Most nights, the competition was outstanding and downright fierce.
“They could’ve paid $1,000 to win against that group of cars and I’d be happy,” said Jackson, Mich., wheelman Rusty Schlenk after winning an extremely hard-fought race at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway in the tour’s final week.
“I held off (Shannon) Babb and (Dennis) Erb the last eight laps. Usually, a race like that, I plan on a top five.”
Kokomo was Schlenk’s first Summer Nationals win. He captured his second in the $10,000 finale at Oakshade (Ohio) Raceway July 17.
Arkansas’s Jack Sullivan and Illinois’s Ryan Unzicker also captured their first Summer Nationals victories this year.
Feger bested Erb by 64 points. Erb, the three-time and defending tour champion, was frustrated with the performance of his race car.
He didn’t decide to compete this year until just before the tour started, saying he was more interested in winning races than his fourth-consecutive title.
But by the midpoint, Erb found himself in familiar territory, leading the points race.
He led it until the Fairbury (Ill.) American Legion Speedway event when Feger’s fourth-place run put him on top. Erb fought handling problems for much of his month on the road.
“I’m gonna call my car builder,” he said.
Two-time Summer Nationals champion Shannon Babb won three races and led the points on two different occasions, but never found a consistent balance.
It’s the nature of the tour with its group time trials and straight-up heat-race starts, Babb said.
“There’s nights the guys with the best race cars are in the back and can’t show it,” said the Moweaqua, Ill., driver. “Out of 30 nights, you’re gonna get yourself in that position.
“You gotta take advantage of the nights when you are up front.”
Babb finished third in points, 53 behind Erb.
Fourth-place man Jeep VanWormer was one of four drivers who had a very realistic shot at the title over the final six races. But the Pinconning, Mich., driver was plagued with bad luck and broken parts almost every night. It left him dejected.
“It just wasn’t our year,” he said.
If 2010 champion Feger left this year’s Summer Nationals with any regrets, the biggest would likely be getting beat in the annual Herald & Review 100 at the tough Macon (Ill.) Speedway.
“Losing that was probably the worst thing that happened to me,” Feger said. “That’s one I really want to win.”
But Feger can take solace in the fact that he won what likely will be remembered as one of the best Summer Nationals in history.
And he did it his way.