By Kevin Kovac
Wes Steidinger’s almost season-long run atop the UMP weekly point standings is over. The question is: does the 24-year-old rising star from Fairbury, Ill., have enough time left to get the lead back?
Steidinger heads into this weekend’s action without the points lead for the first time in months. Two rough nights last weekend caused him to lose the top spot to 2007 UMP Summernationals champion Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., who has been chipping away at Steidinger’s once-healthy edge for the past two months.
Erb, 34, now holds a four-point advantage over Steidinger, who suddenly finds himself wondering if he has enough left to pull out the $20,000 national title.
“Our hopes have been high ever since we got the (points) lead early in the season,” said Steidinger, who is chasing his first-ever UMP DIRTcar Racing national points crown. “We thought we could hold them all off, but it’s not looking good because of the bad luck we’ve been having.”
Steidinger has not yet lost the war by any means — not with two weekends of UMP weekly points collecting remaining, plus the season-finale UMP Fall Nationals on Oct. 5-6 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. The title is determined using a driver’s best 50 points finishes of the season, so he still has several opportunities to replace his worst points nights with higher numbers.
But Steidinger’s hopes certainly took a very big hit last weekend, draining some of his morale.
After recording his 19th overall feature win of 2007 on Sept. 14 at Kankakee (Ill.) Motor Speedway, Steidinger experienced his worst night of the season 24 hours later at Kamp Motor Speedway in Boswell, Ind. He tangled with Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., while battling for position during the Kamp 50, and then Dan Walden of Crawfordsville, Ind., slammed into both Steidinger and Feger at high speed.
No one was injured in the fierce wreck, but it left Steidinger with a 19th-place finish and a badly damaged Rayburn car.
“It wiped the front (end) clean off my car,” said Steidinger, whose machinery is owned by his father Mark. “We have to get the front reclipped, and that’s a big blow to us. We raced every night this year but three with that car, and we won all our races with it.”
Steidinger had to run his older Rayburn mount — a car he just doesn’t feel as comfortable driving — in the Sept. 16 World of Outlaws Late Model Series event at La Salle (Ill.) Speedway. He started from the pole position in the 40-lap A-Main, which offered UMP points, but he faded once the green flag was thrown and ultimately retired from the race, finishing 20th.
Pouring salt in Steidinger’s wound, Erb won the Kamp 50 and finished sixth at La Salle, giving him quality points nights that vaulted him into the national points lead.
Somehow, some way, Steidinger must put the disastrous weekend behind him and move on. His remaining schedule includes Kankakee (Sept. 21 and 28), Kamp (Sept. 22), Peoria (Ill.) Speedway (Sept. 29), Quad City Speedway in East Moline, Ill. (Sept. 30) and Eldora’s Fall Nationals.
Erb has the same six events listed on his schedule, setting up a head-to-head showdown with Steidinger for the title. UMP officials said Steidinger will need to finish seventh or better to replace his worst finishes, while Erb must finish ninth or better to replace his low points nights.
“It’s gut-check time right now,” said Steidinger, who finished a career-high fifth in the 2006’s UMP points. “I have a good team that helps keep my head up for me when I get down like we are now. They’re gonna push me, and hopefully we can just stick together as a team and pull it out.”
It will be little consolation to Steidinger if he falls short of the title, but the fact is, win or lose, he has taken a giant leap forward in his career this season. In his sixth year of dirt Late Model racing, Steidinger has won at eight different tracks (Kankakee, Peoria, Fairbury American Legion Speedway, Farmer City Raceway, Morgan County Speedway, Macon Speedway and Vermilion County Speedway in Illinois, and Indiana’s Bloomington Speedway); finished third in the Summernationals points; and captured his first Summernationals victory (Macon’s Herald & Review 100).
He’s done it all after starting the year with no real plan to chase the Summernationals or the national title.
“Actually, we were gonna take it easy this year,” said Steidinger. “We weren’t gonna race as much and focus on my son (Blaine), who lost his mother (Jenny Sue Maurer was killed in a highway accident earlier this year).
“But we took off at the start and started winning. All of a sudden we’re leading the points, so we’re like, ‘Man, we gotta try to do it if we’re running this good.’
“We felt that if you’re gonna try to win the national title, you gotta do the Summernationals as well, so we jumped into that too.”
Steidinger has made 70 starts this season — a lofty total for a kid who makes his living as the owner of a trim carpentry business.
“What’s hard for us is that we’re not full-time racers, and Dennis (Erb) is,” said Steidinger. “Everyone involved with the team works, so we’ve really extended ourselves this year.”
UMP DirtCar weekly points
(Through Sept. 17)
1. Dennis Erb Jr. – 3,330
2. Wes Steidinger – 3,326
3. Randy Korte – 3,179
4. Steve Sheppard Jr. – 3,160
5. Jason Feger – 2,953
6. Kevin Cole – 2,855
7. Mike Hammerle – 2,632
8. Ryan Dauber – 2,599
9. Mike Schulte – 2,503
10. Kevin Weaver – 2,478
11. Scott Bull – 2,422
12. Jeep Van Wormer – 2,405
13. Rusty Schlenk – 2,342
14. Rusty Griffaw – 2,337
15. Richie Hedrick – 2,322
16. Brian Ruhlman – 2,272
17. Rodney Melvin – 2,132
18. Ed Dixon – 2,123
19. Don O’Neal – 2,084
20. Shannon Babb – 2,025