Robert Hellebust (9h) of Minot leads a pack of Modifieds during a heat race at Dacotah Speedway earlier this season. Hellebust took eighth in the Minot stop of the Dakota Classic Modified Tour.

   The exploits of Hunter Marriott and Ricky Thornton Jr. have made their names familiar to fans of the Dakota Classic Modified Tour.

 This year, the 29th in tour history, both drivers could venture into unexplored or rarely visited territory, but they'll have to hustle.

 At the halfway mark on the six-stop tour, both Marriott and Thornton were clawing their way back from first-night nightmares at Jamestown Speedway. Neither was able to finish, making their difficult tasks all the more so.

 Last summer Marriott, a Missouri driver, became the first man to win the modified championship three straight years. Now he's one short of matching Hank Berry's four total DCMT titles.

 Thornton, an Iowan who won the modified championship in 2015, is attempting to double up, an unprecedented feat. No driver has captured the tour's IMCA modified and IMCA stock car crowns in the same season.

 Tour director John Gartner said both Marriott and Thornton dug themselves deep holes by failing to finish at Jamestown.

 "Ricky pulled off (at Jamestown), so his night was cut short. He got the minimum amount of 300 dollars. ... And Hunter had tough luck the first night," Gartner said.

 Officially, Thornton placed 26th and Marriott 27th at Jamestown.

 "If you're going to win this tour thing, you've got to be in the top five every night. ... You can't have any DNFs. That just doesn't work for this," Gartner observed. 

  Then he hedged his bets slightly.

 "But something tells me we're going to see both those guys well up there by the end of the week," he said. "... Hunter had a bad night at Jamestown, and he's not out of it, but it's tough, really tough."

 The tour visited Minot on Sunday, Estevan, Saskatchewan on Monday before being rained out in Williston on Tuesday. Dickinson played host to the tour on Wednesday with the finale scheduled for Dacotah Speedway in Mandan tonight at 7.

 Both Thornton and Marriott have crawled far up the ladder since their Jamestown misadventures. Thornton won the modified features, with their associated $2,400 paychecks, back-to-back at Minot and Estevan. Those victories allowed him to advance to third place in the standings. He had 97 points at the halfway mark. He was the leader in the stock car dogfight where he had two wins and a runner-up finish. That gave him 119 points. 

 Marriott ran sixth at Minot and fifth in Estevan. That put him seventh in the standings with 88 points.

 Tom Berry Jr. of Newburg topped the modified standings after three nights with 118 points. He won at Jamestown and finished second in the features at Minot and Estevan. Lucas Schott of Chatfield, Minn., was second with 103. Schott ran in the top 10 each of the first three nights, including a third-place finish at Minot.

 Gartner said the tour begins as a test of speed, but quickly becomes a grind. Yes, drivers have to run fast, but they also have to get to the finish line.

 "You've got to stay out of crashes. ... You just can't be trashing your equipment," Gartner said.

 "I've had people tell me it's easier to win the national championship than it is to win the (Dakota Classic Modified) Tour.  You've got to have your game together and qualify every single night," he added. 

 What the tour amounts to is a demanding, exhausting week for man and machine.

 "They (drivers and pit crews) are worn out, I'm worn out, everybody is worn out. It's just a grind to get through that," Gartner said. "There's not enough sleep. They're fixing cars all day and racing at night."

 Gartner said the DCMT shows are not typical programs. All the races are longer.

 "Usually we run 10 (laps). The B-mains have 12 ... and the features are 30 for modifieds and 25 for stocks," he noted.

 Gartner said the tour has retained its momentum well through its 29-year run. There was a peak of over 100 cars during the oil boom, but entry totals in the 70s and 80s have been typical in recent years. 

 "The quality is as high as it's ever been," Gartner noted.

 In 2016, Dacotah Speedway added a seventh night of racing to take advantage of the array of talent that was in town at the close of the tour.

 The Legendary 50, which is not an official element of the tour, runs the night after the tour finale. So Friday night the IMCA modifieds and WISSOTA street stocks will run at Mandan with a 7 p.m. start.

 Gartner said the Legendary 50, which includes a 50-lap modified feature and a $10,004 first prize, has drawn well from the pool of tour drivers.

 "You're going to lose some (tour) drivers, but you're going to get the best of the best. ... The ones you have there are there for the cash, so they're pretty hungry," he observed.

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