Courtesy Kevin Kovac
The 32-year-old driver from Williamson, W.Va., reached the mountaintop of dirt Late Model racing on Saturday night, racing forward from the 12th starting spot to capture the 43rd annual DIRTcar UMP-sanctioned World 100 at Eldora Speedway.
Blankenship passed Terry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., for the lead on lap 53 and never looked back. He secured the biggest win of his decade-long racing career – a star-making triumph worth $46,000 – by reaching the checkered flag 1.757 seconds ahead of Union, Ky.’s Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., whose late bid to finally put the World 100 on his resume fell short.
A low-key racer who has come of age as a championship contender this season on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, Blankenship kept an even keel during his Victory Lane celebration with his father/car owner Don and crew. He had a hard time grasping the significance of what he had accomplished in front of a massive crowd that ranked as one of the largest in the history of the historic high-banked, half-mile oval.
“It’s unbelievable,” Blankenship said with reverence after becoming the 27th driver – and first from the state of West Virginia – to win dirt Late Model racing’s most prestigious event. “I can’t describe being up here (on the winner’s stage).
“I’m not a real emotional type of guy. I’ve been let down so many times by expectations being so high (at Eldora), when it finally happens it’s almost just surreal. It’ll soak in about Wednesday and then I’ll be really elated and probably go party some.”
As Blankenship cruised out front and Lanigan vainly attempted to run him down, the most compelling late-race battle was for third place. Three-time World 100 winner Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., came out on top of the three-car tussle, grabbing third from Phillips on lap 94 and then turning back a furious outside assault from 16-year-old Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., to registerhis 16th top-five finish in 24 career World 100 starts.
Pierce, who started from the outside pole and led laps 8-13, settled for a fourth-place finish in his spectacular first-ever World 100 appearance. The rising young star drew some of the loudest cheers from the crowd as he went toe-to-toe with veteran driversthroughout the race.
World of Outlaws Late Model Series points leader Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., completed the top five, reaching fifth with two laps remaining to conclude a steady march forward from the 20th starting spot.
No one broke through traffic in the 100-lapper quicker that Blankenship. He was only ninth when the race’s first caution flag flew on lap 21 for a flat right-rear tire on the car driven by Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., but he reached fifth on lap 36, took third from Pierce on lap 44, passed Lanigan for second on lap 48 and sailed into the lead with a smooth slide underneath Phillips on lap 53.
“We’ve had a good car here all week and hit on a little something last night,” Blankenship said of his Rocket machine. “I felt real good about a long (green-flag) run, so I was real surprised I took the lead as early as I did.”
With the race running without interruption following a second and final caution flag on lap 56 for the slowing car of Chatham, Ill.’s Brian Shirley, Blankenship set a torrid pace. He built a near straightaway advantage by lap 70, giving him more than enough cushion to absorb Lanigan’s late-race charge.
Lanigan, 43, wrestled second place from Phillips on lap 77 and managed to cut Blankenship’s nearly two-second lead in half within 10 circuits. But Blankenship found the rhythm he needed to keep Lanigan from drawing any closer.
“I was really nervous about the whole race,” said Blankenship, whose three previous World 100 A-Main starts resulted in progressively better finishes of 21st (2009), 11th (’10) and fifth (’11). “I thought they were breathing down my neck the whole time, so I was driving pretty hard and didn’t know how long my stuff was gonna stay under me.
“Evey time I tried to be a little more patient I would get a push and I couldn’t even run down the lapped cars. I decided to just start driving it in like I was when I was trying to catch the leader and actually the car handled a lot better.”
(For more information on Blankenship check out his website at http://www.johnblankenship23.com/)