The young star is finding his confidence again on the Summer Nationals tour, one of the hardest things he said he’s ever done
After claiming the 2020 World of Outlaws Morton Building Late Model Rookie of the Year title, Ashton Winger went on a Hell tour before joining the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Late Model “Hell Tour.”
His ride evaporated on him in December, leaving him and his family to scrape together what they could to attempt a return in 2021. In the first two months of the World of Outlaws season at Volusia Speedway Park, he lost two engines and only got to run one of four events during DIRTcar Nationals, resulting in a 27th-place finish.
The poor fortunes made backing up his Rookie of the Year run unfeasible. However, a chance at a full-time run on the DIRTcar Summer Nationals tour – a 30-race schedule compact in a three-month period – materialized in the following months. And since joining this “Hell Tour,” Winger has collected three wins, placed himself third in overall points and, most importantly, found himself smiling again.
“The main thing that I’ve learned a ton is just keep having fun,” Winger said. “This stuff is so stressful and for me, this is how I make a living. Staying having fun is hard. But I find we typically run way better and I sleep way better when I’m having fun.
“It’s been fun. It’s been awesome. I didn’t get a full shot at the Outlaws (with COVID canceling a quarter of the season), so it wasn’t the full experience. But this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Whether you’re mad or whether you win, whatever, you have to forget about it. Tomorrow is a new day. And frankly, at the end of the day, no one really cares. You know what I’m saying?”
There were still lessons for the World of Outlaws winner to learn at the beginning of the tour. It wasn’t until they found time to adjust the car, rather than repairing it, that he started to find himself in the top-five.
“Honestly, it’s me not driving it into the fence and stuff like that,” Winger said. “There are little things happening. It’s a combination of stuff. Like at Circle City (Raceway), I felt like there was an opportunity for me to run second when Tanner (English) and Spencer (Hughes) got side by side. But I don’t know, I would’ve had to have done something pretty dumb to get to them. I felt like I could run to them, but I couldn’t really pass them. That’s when people start to do dumb stuff.
“I just rode and fell back to sixth. But the body isn’t beat off this thing and we’re on to tomorrow. We’re not spending all day fixing things. We can solve the problem and keep getting better… I feel like I’ve gotten better behind the seat. But the main thing is I’ve gotten better at not tearing stuff up. I can name three or four instances in the first week when I did tear some stuff up. I probably would’ve been alright if I didn’t (make the move I did). There’s not a big difference between sixth and eighth. It just took me a minute.”
Along with honing his driving skills, he admitted it took time for his team, consisting of his dad, cousin and himself, to find chemistry.
“It’s finally starting to get good,” Winger said. “I’m not going to lie; it was rough in the beginning. We’ve really been playing catch-up all year. This Summer Nationals thing is the first time we’ve been prepared. And I don’t think we’re as prepared as we need to be, but we’re as prepared as we can be. So, we decided to come do this deal and you find what you need along the way. It is getting better. We’re all getting along. We’re all meshing. We’re all family.
“What a lot of people take for granted is, unless something comes up, I’m probably not going home until Sept. 1. We’ve been living in this truck since June. That truck can only hold so much air. I told someone on the off days it’s good because we can all kind of get away from each other a little bit. Anybody in racing knows what I’m talking about.”
The merging of those elements has resulted in more top-five finishes, his first Summer Nationals wins at Knox County Fair Raceway – holding off currently points leader Bobby Pierce for the victory – and two straight wins at Thunderbird Raceway and Oakshade Raceway.
He’s now third in points – 228 points behind Pierce – with 11 races remaining.
“Probably would help a little bit if the #32 car (of Pierce) would slow down a little bit,” Winger said with a chuckle.
To keep pace with Pierce and continue his winning streak, Winger said qualifying well is the key to both. Easy passes don’t exist on the Summer Nationals tour with the level of competition it produces, he added. If you don’t position yourself to start upfront, it’s likely you won’t make it there by the end of the Feature.
The furthest back a winner has started this season is sixth at Fairbury for Shannon Babb. Overall, the average starting position for a winner this season in the first 19 races is second. For Winger’s three wins he started second, first and third, respectively.
“Like you hear all the time, catching guys and passing them is two different things,” Winger said. “It is way different with this. You’re racing the racetrack and you’re racing the guys, air, everything. And we’re just past halfway in this deal and you don’t want to make any enemies. Everybody is so close. Like my dad always says, it’s way easier to pass in the pits than it is on the racetrack. It’s just Qualifying. It’s rare for a guy to start on the pole and run fifth. But it is more rare for a guy to start ninth and win. That’s really the main thing.”
No matter how the Summer Nationals tour ends for him, he’s already accomplished what he needed to in his path to rebuilding a career with the World of Outlaws. He’s learned what it takes to run a grueling schedule. He’s learned what it takes to run for a points title against stiff competition. He’s learned how to beat that competition. But most importantly, he’s learned how to have fun again.
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals Late Model tour continues for its sixth week of racing on Thursday, July 22, at Springfield Raceway, followed by Tri-City Speedway (July 23), Clarksville Speedway (July 24) and Richmond Raceway (July 25). CLICK HERE for the full schedule.
If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch all of the Summer Nationals action live on DIRTVision with the annual PLATINUM FAST PASS.