MAPLE PARK, Ill. — It was never a question of “if” for Brian Shirley on the first week of the Hell Tour, so much as it was “when.”
That “when” came Sunday night at Sycamore Speedway, where the four-time DIRTcar Summer Nationals champion broke through for his first win of the season on the tour, making the move on Max Blair for the lead late in the race and driving it home for a $5,000 payday.
“I felt like our car was pretty good,” Shirley said. “I knew I was gonna have to make a pretty big mistake to cost myself the race.”
Polesitter Payton Freeman got the early jump at the drop of the green and led through lap nine of the 40-lap main event. Blair soon hunted Freeman down as the 19-year-old Hell Tour rookie approached lapped traffic and got underneath him to take the top spot on lap 10.
Blair led the field around the three-eighths mile oval for the majority of the race, and appeared to have the car to beat, until Shirley entered the frame.
Shirley, who went as far back as fifth in the opening laps, had made his way past fellow Summer Nationals champion Jason Feger by lap 22 after a back-and-forth battle that spanned several laps before the halfway mark. Once he cleared Feger’s No. 25, Shirley set his sights on Blair with less than half of the race remaining.
Blair survived multiple restarts in the second half with Shirley right behind him, but lapped traffic proved problematic in the home stretch. Heading down the backstretch with nine-to-go, Blair came up on Greg Cantrell Jr. to put him a lap down but did not fully commit to the bottom to make the pass. This left the door wide open for Shirley to walk through, which he did, and won the drag race off turn four to take the lead at the stripe.
“We came up on them lapped cars and I felt like he got pinched-down, and I just chose to go around him on the outside,” Shirley said. “Wasn’t sure how it was going to play out just because of the way lapped traffic was. We were just getting ready to be in lapped traffic big time.”
Though he had the lead in-hand, Shirley’s mission was not over yet. Another couple of restarts popped up inside eight-to-go, but he and the Bob Cullen Racing No. 3s were prepared. Shirley stuck to the middle groove and brought it back home unchallenged for his 37th career DIRTcar Summer Nationals victory.
Blair held on for second and his best career finish on the Hell Tour, while Feger maintained third to hold his top-five spot in points. Ryan Unzicker climbed eight spots on a run from 12th to finish fourth, and Dennis Erb Jr. capped off Illinois-Iowa Week with a fifth-place run.
Reigning Summer Nationals champion Bobby Pierce finished sixth and was crowned champion of Illinois-Iowa Week after two wins, two runners-up, a sixth and one DNF (17th) over the six-race stretch, collecting the $2,000 bonus as weekly points champion.
Feature (40 laps): 1. 3S-Brian Shirley; 2. 111V-Max Blair; 3. 25-Jason Feger; 4. 24-Ryan Unzicker; 5. 28-Dennis Erb Jr; 6. 32- Bobby Pierce; 7. F1-Payton Freeman; 8. 36-Logan Martin; 9. 15-Justin Duty; 10. 77-Preston Luckman; 11. 14G-Joe Godsey; 12. 21B-Rich Bell; 13. 1M-Mike Mataragas; 14. 89-Mike Spatola; 15. 4G-Bob Gardner; 16. 26M-Brent McKinnon; 17. 4D-Doug Tye; 18. 30-Mark Voigt; 19. 3-Dale Markham; 20. 01JR- Greg Cantrell; 21. 10S-Taylor Scheffler; 22. 29-Spencer Diercks