The 2018 TUNDRA Super Late Model Series Powered by Wisconsin Potatoes season had the most heart-stopping Championship battle in series history. This season appears to be in line for similar dramatics as the top title contenders have committed to return for 2019.
Casey Johnson emerged with his second TUNDRA Championship out of a pack of nine drivers separated by just 55 points entering the final event of 2018 at Dells Raceway Park. Johnson scored an overall win in the double-feature format, but needed a late race surge to Second in order to edge teammate John Beale for the title. Behind that duo was a hungry pack of racers who feel as though this season could belong to them.
Here is a breakdown of the returning racers and why their title hopes look promising this season.
To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Johnson has now won the last two TUNDRA titles for which he competed. (He did not compete in 2017 due to acting as Crew Chief for John Beale).
After teaming with Beale for the last pair of seasons, Johnson is going back to his operation. That will include teaming with Dennis Chase for select events away from their Thursday night commitments at Wisconsin International Raceway. Don’t expect that to slow Johnson down at all.
The now-two-time Champ proved fast at every TUNDRA event last season. Despite this, he did not score an official feature win (although he did capture the overall bonus in the final event at DRP). Johnson was close, however. He led at Marshfield before a mechanical issue sidelined him. He was darting through the field at Jefferson before the rains came. He pressured Carson Kvapil in the second feature at the Dells in the final laps.
Should Johnson’s luck change – or in some cases improve – he could be tough to topple.
Beale has enjoyed two successful seasons as a TUNDRA title contender. He secured the best finish by a rookie two years ago by ending the season Third in the Championship hunt. Last year he finished Second after leading the standings heading into the final event.
This year Beale welcomes three-time TUNDRA Champion Dalton Zehr as his Crew Chief. Zehr has put his stamp all over the TUNDRA history books and could help Beale do the same. Beale has proven to be a quick learner, seeing vast improvement last season.
The biggest notch in Beale’s belt was scoring his first series win at Jefferson. He also found himself in the Top Five in four out of the five other features this season. His lone blemish was a 13th Place finish in the season opener at WIR. Should he improve upon that finish and remain consistent, there is no reason Beale shouldn’t be back in contention once again.
Early in the 2018 season Reffner looked like the man to beat. A Fifth Place finish at WIR and a quick time and feature win at Marshfield put him at the top of the standings. Unfortunately, Reffner hit two stumbling blocks that he could not overcome.
After setting fast time in the third event at State Park Speedway in Wausau, Reffner was collected in an incident and forced to end his day early. He then had to turn over the reins to teammate Adam Peschek at Jefferson. Peschek made the dash, but was marred in traffic during the rain-shortened race, finishing 12th.
Despite the hurdles, Reffner closed the gap with feature finishes of Second and Sixth in the double feature event at DRP. He also would have enjoyed a chance at one of his home tracks – Golden Sands Speedway – to make up some ground. Unfortunately, that event was a wash out.
With a fresh start ahead and some history to back it up, Reffner no longer should be considered a dark horse candidate for Champion.
The Cuatro Cuatro made a late push into title contention with a win in the first feature at Dells Raceway Park on Championship Sunday. Much like Reffner, two setbacks were too much to overcome in a tight title chase.
Lichtfeld scored his best ever finish at WIR – typically his weakest track – by placing himself Third. It looked as though the rest of the season might line up well. However, a stuck throttle ended Lichtfeld’s day at Marshfield with a 17th Place finish. A 12th Place finish at Jefferson also helped seal his fate.
Although it resulted in two features at his home track, Lichtfeld most likely would have enjoyed a chance to add Golden Sands to the mix last season. He won the previous TUNDRA event as well as events on Memorial Day and Labor Day. This season Golden Sands will host the Championship race on Labor Day. If Litchfeld is in the hunt by then, he may be in perfect position to seal the deal.
Yet another driver who would have enjoyed at opportunity at Golden Sands is Justin Mondeik. This past year’s Most Improved Driver was never far outside of the scope of the Championship race.
Mondeik received a good boost from Bobby Kendall in Round One, then made his mark by storming to a Third Place finish at Marshfield in Round Two. Two more Sixth Place finishes had Mondeik well within striking distance heading into the final features at DRP.
However, DRP was unkind to Mondeik with finishes of Ninth and 11th. Improvement there, and a chance to show his prowess at his home facility, should very well put Mondeik in the hunt throughout 2019.
Dennis Prunty/Neil Knoblock
TUNDRA teams are always intriguing. Apparently the partnership worked well in 2018 as 2012 TUNDRA Champion Dennis Prunty and Neil Knoblock will act as a tag team again in 2019. The pair will split the six-race schedule evenly.
Prunty gave the duo a strong start last year with a win in the opener at WIR. Knoblock kept the momentum by slicing through the field to a Sixth Place finish at Marshfield in Round Two. Unfortunately, Knoblock was caught in an incident at State Park which resulted in a 15th Place finish.
In the following event at Jefferson, Prunty propelled the team back toward the top of the standings by finishing Second to Beale before Knoblock had to sit on the sidelines as the race at Golden Sands was rained out. Prunty came in to close at DRP, but it was an unusually off day as he recorded finishes of 13th and 18th.
History should prove that was the exception to the rule and that Prunty should be contention at the three races he attends this season. Knoblock should be no different as he proved he still knows the fast ways around Marshfield, Wausau, and Golden Sands.
It wasn’t just about a tight Rookie of the Year battle for Gabe Sommers last season. The young racer had a chance to make a major splash by scoring the TUNDRA Championship. With more experience, his sophomore season looks to be another chance for him to make that splash.
Sommers got off to an excellent start in the first half of the season, scoring three Seventh Place finishes. In unfamiliar territory at Jefferson, Sommers was able to secure a Fourth Place finish, putting him well within shouting distance of the title. However, much like Prunty and Mondeik, the final event at DRP was a struggle.
Should Sommers’ results through the first half of the season hold (or improve), he will need to be considered a threat toward the end of the campaign. Sommers scored his first ever Super Late Model feature win at Golden Sands. Having that event back in the mix could prove to be a major difference for Sommers, just like several other contenders.
With so many competitors in the hunt, it may have been a long shot for Thiel to jump to the top of the standings in the final event last season. But, with a clean slate, 2019 could be the year the luck comes together for the veteran TUNDRA racer.
Finishes of Eighth, 10th, and Fourth got Thiel off to a decent start in 2018. But finishes of 13th at Jefferson and 17th in the first feature at Dells dashed Thiel’s chances to surge to the top. History has shown that Thiel can find better results in these events. He will also be a contender happy to see Plover back in the mix as he was close to grabbing the Friday night Championship there last season.
Should things fall into place for Thiel, and he can find successes from seasons past, he should be considered a very serious threat to grab this year’s title.
Others to Watch
It was a season of nothing but bad luck for Wyatt Brooks in 2019. Thiel’s teammate is another driver who has proven he can hang with anyone at any of the TUNDRA tracks. However, 2018 showed that rotten luck is just too much to overcome. Take that out of the equation this season and Brooks will be one to watch.
Another driver who could threaten the top contenders is Darek Gress. Gress has proven he can contend, but has also been bit by bad luck. Two seasons ago Gress was named Most Improved Driver in TUNDRA. Another step forward could see Gress contending for wins and a title.
Although they may have some strides to take, third-year TUNDRA racer Jordan DeVoy and second-year TUNDRA racer Jake Zellmer will hope to make some noise. Having seen how quickly TUNDRA racers can improve, and having seen strong flashes from these two, there is no reason to believe they won’t be heard from at some point.
The TUNDRA Super Late Model Series begins its 2019 season on Saturday, May 11 with Kroll’s West Round One at Wisconsin International Raceway. Qualifying is scheduled for 5:30 with racing at 6:45. TUNDRA will be joined by the Midwest Compact Series, Wisconsin Sport Trucks, and Figure 8s.
Wisconsin International Raceway is located just past the intersection of Highway 55 and KK outside of Kaukauna, Wis. The track offers free camping on the grounds with no utility hook ups. For more information visit www.wirmotorsports.com.