THE SUPERIOR SPORTSMAN
He won a division-high four races and the Collision Plus Limited Sportsman track championship.
But Matt Taylor’s most memorable moment of 2011 wasn’t what he won—it was the one that got away.
It’s June 25. Eyeing his fourth consecutive victory at Motor Mile Speedway, Taylor has rocketed from his mandatory sixth place starting spot to second as the laps begin to dwindle. With less than five laps remaining, Taylor executes a pass on Anthony Barnes for first.
“And heading off into turn three I tried to get my line back, and about wrecked the car, and he drove back by me,” Taylor explains. “You know, I really, really wanted that win.”
Following two more runner-up finishes, Taylor eventually netted the elusive fourth win on September 10. One week later, Taylor won his second consecutive track title, becoming only the second driver to tout back-to-back Limited Sportsman honors since the ownership change in 2004.
Yet, the June 25 shortfall is a telling revelation. While conceding that his 2011 championship campaign was a success, Taylor admits that the team actually failed to meet expectations. You see, Taylor is all about winning…
“Winning is what it’s all about. If we could win six or seven races a year, and not win the championship—I’d still feel better about that,” says Taylor.
Over the past two seasons, Taylor has given credence to the notion that championships are won through consistency. In 2010, Taylor collected his maiden Limited Sportsman crown devoid of an on-track victory. And although Taylor led the division in the win column this year, his first place trophies didn’t secure him the championship. In fact, as the season finale loomed on the schedule, Taylor assumed the title was lost.
It had been a see-saw struggle for supremacy in the sportsman class since Taylor tied Barnes for first in the standings on June 18. Separated by no more than 10 points over the next five races, the duo exchanged the lead in the division points race twice. Entering the final night of racing, the advantage went to Barnes by a margin of six markers.
The shootout was slated for 50 laps. But the championship was decided on lap 1.
Both championship contenders were entangled in a bizarre first lap, first turn accident, the consequences of which crippled Taylor’s No. 7 Chevrolet. For Barnes, the calamitous crash was a death knell.
Taylor endured another dust-up later in the race, limping to a respectable fifth place finish in a mangled machine. The finish supplemented a total of 10 top fives accrued over the course of the season. Coupled with eleven top ten outings, it was the most consistent record of 2011 in the Limited Sportsman division.
In a year where parity reigned supreme, consistency was paramount. Taylor was one of four different points leaders in Limited Sportsman competition. The division saw seven different winners—a record spanning all classes at the .416-mile oval in 2011. Taylor’s final points total stands at 310—110 fewer points than his 2010 championship total, yet the class competed in one additional race in 2011. The statistics suggest a unique equilibrium; the Limited Sportsman class was the most competitive class at Motor Mile Speedway in 2011.
Winning a second straight title against arguably the toughest competition track-wide strengthens the significance of Taylor’s accomplishments this season. Yet, Taylor isn’t satisfied. Determined to build on the momentum gained in 2011, Taylor and team No. 7 will return to MMS next season armed with a new chassis and a renewed desire to win. The goal? That’s obvious.
“To win a lot of races. I think this could be our best year yet,” Taylor says. “If we run 12 races next year, I plan on winning at least half of them.”
It’s a bold proclamation from the two-time titlist. But Taylor has been dominant before. In 2006, Taylor raked in nine Late Model Truck victories over a 12-race season.
That year, he also won the championship.
The Trackside Transcript: Matt Taylor
How confident were you heading into this season that you could defend your 2010 track championship?
I was pretty confident, I guess. I don’t really think we considered points early in the season; we were thinking about wins. Last year, we didn’t have the wins. That’s what we wanted. The championship is nice, but winning—if you don’t have any wins by the end of the year, that’s almost a complete failure in my opinion.
I think that was the first year that I was not in victory lane since I started. To me, that was pretty disappointing, even though we won the championship. Winning is what it’s all about. If we could win six or seven races a year, and not win the championship—I’d still feel better about that.
Access the season; did you guys surpass expectations?
Actually, our goal was to win more than we actually did. I think we were very successful. I think we learned a lot that will carry over into next year. And if you look back, I think there were a couple of races where we got wrecked that I think we should have won. If you look at our poles and all of our finishes…we had a very successful year.
The team caught fire over a three-race stretch from 5-28 – 6-18, winning each event. What changed, and how pivotal was that period to the eventual success at season’s end?
At the beginning of the year, I felt like we weren’t where we needed to be to win. Lee Pulliam had offered to help with the car even before then, and I finally just hauled it to his shop and took it to the track and tested it…and we won the next three. What changed was the setup in the car, and that changed our season.
When did Lee Pulliam enter the picture, how did that alliance come about, and how instrumental was he to the success you enjoyed this year?
It was huge. I think he took interest in what we had going on for some reason; I’m not exactly sure how that played out. We just became friends, and we got to talking about the car and where I felt like we were missing it. He said if I wanted the help, he would be glad to go over it and see if he could do something different. I took that risk, and the things he did to that car made a huge difference. It taught me a lot. And that will carry over next year, not to mention we’re building a brand-new car.
-So without Lee, would you have won as many races as you did?
No, I don’t think so.
Six points heading into the season finale. You’ve said that you didn’t think you had a shot. In hindsight, was that mindset right or wrong, because I’m assuming there was no pressure…
No, I didn’t have a lot of pressure. Our goal was to sit on the pole and try to win the race. The only chance we had was if Anthony had something go wrong.
I completely threw away qualifying. We tried something different in qualifying, and obviously it didn’t work. If we’re looking back, it was meant to be. We had to start third, and of course we know what happened from there. Had I been on the pole, I would probably be second in points today.
Walk me through the Lap 1 crash. What happened from your perspective, and in the immediate aftermath, did you think your championship run was over, or renewed?
I had told Anthony before the race started that -after starting many races beside Steve Dalton- I knew he would drive into turn one as hard as anybody. And I don’t know why I told Anthony that; I should have let him do his own thing. And that’s exactly what happened. No sooner than he was in the corner, [Steve’s] car was sideways, and he got into Anthony.
I tried to drive by Anthony, and obviously he caught me in the door. It bent the right rear wheel—even now I’m not sure how it survived. And then, the No. 84 car thought he would take the lead, so he turned me into the inside wall. At that point, I felt like we were done.
The first thing a driver does is check his steering wheel. I felt like -since the steering wheel was pretty straight and I didn’t see any smoke coming out of the car- that we were probably going to survive. I still felt like we were in big trouble, but under the caution I noticed that Anthony’s car was smoking badly. At that point, I felt like our chances were renewed right there on lap 1.
What was the emotion of that final night like, and what was going through your mind as you took the checkers?
Oh, it was huge. It was probably more emotional than 2010, because we went into that last race with the points lead. This deal, we had all given up on the points battle, so for the crew it was super emotional. It was [Barnes’] to lose, and it was ours to win.
Back-to-Back track champion: how special is that title to you, and which one means more to you, and why?
Oh, it’s great. Probably 2010…we had so much more bad luck that year. Burning the car up—that was probably the biggest thing. That we were able to overcome that and not miss a race, get down in points, and still come back and win it—overcoming adversity was pretty special.
I have a couple of statistics I want your perspective on. Seven different winners in the sportsman class this year— a record spanning all divisions in 2011. Four different points leaders. And the most telling: you ended the season with 310 points, 110 fewer points than last season, yet we ran one more race this year. To me, all this suggests parity. In your opinion, just how equal is this class, and is it the most competitive class at MMS right now?
You know, I think it probably is the most equal class. Realistically, there are probably four or five drivers that could win any night. And you can’t really say that about any other class at the racetrack. In Late Models, there are not four or five cars that can win, unless something happens. In Limited, you can be off a tick—it could be a notch on the track bar that is off, and somebody else is going to win that race. That’s how close the competition is.
What is your most memorable moment of 2011?
It’s not a good memory, but there is one thing that sticks out that I really would like to have back. I won three in a row, and then the following week I started sixth and I passed Anthony Barnes with two or three laps to go. And heading off into turn three I tried to get my line back, and about wrecked the car, and he drove back by me. You know, I really, really wanted that win. A fourth win—that would have been huge.
What are the chances you’ll be the 2012 track champion, and is that the goal for next season?
It will be a goal. But our real goal is to win a lot of races. You know, a lot of people have asked me this year why I’m not moving up, and why I don’t run Late Models. Most of that has to do with finances and support. In the Limited Sportsman class, I can go to the track with two guys and race. With the Late Model deal, there is so much more money involved, and if you have a bad night, it can really set you back. We do this as a hobby. And if I can’t win, I’ll probably go fishing.