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Josh Richards (1) battles Moweaqua's Shannon Babb for the win in last year's Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series race at Macon Speedway. Richards returns Saturday night as the defending Macon winner and reigning Lucas series national champion.

Reigning Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series national champion Josh Richards succinctly remembers his first on-track visit to Macon Speedway and the challenges presented by the racy, 1/5th-mile oval.

"Just in general, it's like you have a swarm of bees around you all the time and you're all fighting in the same little box," Richards said. "It's one of the hardest tracks we go to and it makes it a lot of fun."

Adding to the fun a year ago was the West Virginia native's victory in the St. Louis U-Pic-A Part 100 Lucas event at Macon in his inaugural appearance at the track.

Richards will attempt to make it two in a row when the series returns on Saturday night for a 100-lap featured event that's annually the most popular race on mighty Macon's full-season card.

Hot laps get underway at 6 p.m. for Saturday's $12,000-to-win main event. Qualifying is slated for 6:30 with a full slate of racing getting underway at 7. Tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for kids 11 and under.

Saturday's race at Macon is the second half of a Land of Lincoln doubleheader weekend for the nationally touring Lucas series. A Friday night race is slated for Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, where Richards also will return as the defending race champion.

The two victories in Illinois last year helped propel Richards, 30, to the Lucas series national crown in his first year on the tour.

Prior to that, he had already established himself as arguably the most dominant dirt late model driver of this era by shattering the record books in the rival, yet peacefully co-existing, World of Outlaws Late Model Series ranks.

While there, he piled up a record 76 feature wins and an unprecedented four Outlaws national crowns. In his last eight full seasons on the Outlaws tour, he finished either first or second in the series standings.

"I'm grateful to have the success that I've had," he said, "but it's all because of the great people I've had behind me."

Richards was born into a racing family. His father, Mark, is a principle owner of Rocket Chassis, a premier dirt late model chassis builder based in Shinnston, W.Va.

As a teenager, Richards stepped into a company "house car" and quickly gained the nickname "Kid Rocket" while becoming the youngest driver ever to win the World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year crown.

As the feature wins piled up and dirt touring championships began to follow, Richards set his sights on a potential career in NASCAR.

At the age of 23 and with backing from Joy Mining Machinery, he secured a NASCAR truck series ride for eight races, two in a truck fielded by Billy Ballew and six in a Kyle Busch Motorsports ride. The results were less than hoped-for, with a best finish of 13th.

The following year he moved into the second-tier Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series ranks, running 14 races for Go Green Racing. Driving older equipment with a small crew and a low budget, his best finish was a 16th in the July race at Daytona before parting ways with the team five races later.

Returning to dirt the following year, Richards was able to pick up where he left off, winning the 2013 World of Outlaws title. He added another Outlaws crown in 2016 by winning a record 18 tour races that year, including the Illini 100 at Farmer City and the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury.

Richards says adaptability has been key to his five national touring series crowns. Not only are there variations in the tracks, the dirt surface itself varies around the country, from the rich dark loam of the Midwest to the more sandy soil of the Southeast.

"You have to learn what you need the car to do and what you need to do as a driver," he said. "Adaptability between tracks across the country is hard."

As for Saturday night, he finds constantly adapting to the traffic at Macon's busy bullring to be challenging, as well.

"You can't get away from anybody there," he said. "Last year I remember we caught some lapped cars early. You're on them pretty quick. Fortunately, you can race all over the track. There's not one dominant groove."

Richards started near the middle of the feature field at Macon and steadily worked his way to the front. He got around Moweaqua's Shannon Babb on a late restart in charging to the win.

Richards enters this weekend's events in second place in the Lucas series standings, 75 points behind Georgia driver Jonathan Davenport. Oakwood's Bobby Pierce, a two-time Lucas race winner at Macon, is currently eighth in his first full season on the Lucas tour.

Busy weekend: Bob Sargent's Macon-based Track Enterprises is looking at a busy weekend. In addition to Saturday's Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series race at Macon, Lincoln Speedway will open for its 15th season of racing on Friday night. "Five Buck Night," featuring $5 grandstand admission, will find Lincoln hosting 305 Sprint cars, DIRTcar Pro Late Models, Modifieds, Hornets and DII Midgets. Hot laps begin at 6 p.m...On Sunday, the Track Enterprises crew will move to Terre Haute, Ind. where The Action Track will host the USAC Silver Crown Series' Sumar Classic. Central Illinois driver Chris Windom of Canton is the defending Classic winner. Sports car ace Chris Dyson, a two-time American LeMans Series champion and a three-time 24 Hours of LeMans competitor, will be making his Silver Crown and dirt racing debut.

In the area: Farmer City Raceway will host UMP weekly series racing on Friday night after Gibson City's Kevin Weaver won the season opener last week...Weaver went on to become the winningest late model driver in Fairbury American Legion Speedway history last Saturday with his victory in the opening night event there. Weaver's win was his 67th at Fairbury, surpassing Oakwood's Roger Long on the all-time list. Fairbury will host another weekly series event this Saturday night...Weekly series racing is also on tap at Peoria Speedway on Saturday, where Mike MicKinney of Plainfield won last Saturday's Gary Cook Jr. Memorial modified special.

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph and can be reached a byentes@pantagraph.com. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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