CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Leading since the green dropped with a fast car on the top and a full-second lead. Payton Freeman was seven laps away from his first DIRTcar Summer Nationals Feature win.
And then, a similar scenario reared its ugly head again.
After losing the lead in traffic after starting on the pole at Sycamore Speedway two weeks ago, Freeman was staring down lapped traffic again with Brian Shirley hot on his tail Saturday night at Clarksville Speedway.
Determined to get by and hold onto the lead, Freeman stuck his nose to the inside, but the No. 38 of Thomas Hunziker did not yield.
The very next corner, Freeman got off the top again and hung it to the inside of Hunziker through turns one and two. But again, he could not make the pass. Behind him, Shirley had closed the gap completely and had no plans of waiting.
“I showed [Hunziker] that I was there two or three times,” Freeman said. “I figured he would move out of the way. I guess he didn’t get the point.”
Down the backstretch Shirley poked his nose to Freeman’s inside in a strong bid for the lead and made it stick in turns three and four with a big slide job to get by both Freeman and Hunziker.
“[Freeman] whoa-ed up getting into turn one behind [Hunziker] and didn’t get a good run,” Shirley said. “I went to the bottom and got a really good run.”
As Freeman cleared Hunziker behind him, Shirley took the lead and bolted down the front straightaway, opening up an advantage that Freeman could not overcome by the checkered. Shirley had swiped the lead, the win, and the $10,000 check out of the Hell Tour rookie’s grasp and cruised across the finish line for his third Summer Nationals win of the season.
“I got all the way to [Freeman] to where I knew I was gonna bump him a little bit, but not enough to take him out of the race or anything stupid,” Shirley said of his move for the lead. “Just one of those things where timing worked out for us and we were able to get the job done.”
Back in the pits, Freeman was understandably downcast.
“I try to race everybody with respect, regardless of if we’re lapping or passing for position,” Freeman said on his approach to getting by slower cars. “But there’s no use going out there and tearing up a bunch of stuff and taking yourself out to win the race.”
Freeman took the green right to Shirley’s inside on lap one and got the jump, which enabled him to lead the first 33 laps around the red clay quarter-mile. Turns out, that may have been part of Shirley’s plan the whole time.
“On the start, I wasn’t super worried even if [Freeman] got me because lapped traffic here is so hectic,” Shirley said. “I knew that, so I was like, ‘Even if he gets you on the start, just get in behind him and try and make sure you can be there to capitalize on something like that.’
“I’ve been to quite a few races here, and I’m sure you can also see that lapped traffic always comes into [play].”
Though it may have been one of the most bitter runner-up finishes of his young career, Freeman did something few other Summer Nationals rookies have in their first attempts at this grueling summer stretch. He knows it, and is going to build on it as the second half of the tour begins next week.
“As frustrating as it is, we’ve got speed,” Freeman said. “We’re getting better and we’re getting closer. We’re gonna keep our heads up and keep going and we’re gonna win one of these races before it’s over with.”
Feature (50 laps): 1. 3S-Brian Shirley; 2. F1-Payton Freeman; 3. 212-Josh Putnam; 4. 32-Bobby Pierce; 5. 15-Christian Hanger; 6. 25-Jason Feger; 7. 14G-Joe Godsey; 8. 81E-Tanner English; 9. 18-David Seibers; 10. 30-Mark Voigt; 11. 14R-Jeff Roth; 12. 31AUS-Paul Stubber; 13. 38-Thomas Hunziker; 14. J8-Jadon Frame; 15. 26M-Brent McKinnon; 16. 27-Joe Denby; 17. 18C-Matt Cooper; 18. 16-Brandon Tibaldi; 19. 15F-Richard Frost; 20. 21-Billy Moyer Jr; 21. 4D-Doug Tye; 22. 23NZ-Mick Quin