CALLAWAY, Va. – Saturday was a good day as I rejoined the Rick Ware Racing/33 Motorsports/Mr. E Performance pro late model team for a Carolina Pro Late Model Series race at Franklin County Speedway.
We had a very solid day of testing on Friday, where we were between second and fourth quick during the day’s practice sessions. Not everyone was there for the test day, so I took my relative pace with a grain of salt, but went into race day confident in the car and my ability to keep pace with the fastest guys and girls there.
On race day we decided to skip the early practice session because, for the first time, we left test day confident in our setup and my pace.
However, this ended up making us scramble a little bit between the two practice sessions before qualifying because we realized we needed to make a gear change in order to compete a little better and fall more in line with what our competitors seemed to be doing.
We went with a shorter gear and it seemed to be better, so we went into qualifying with thoughts of a potential pole given that we were going to be running on substantially better tires than in the practice sessions.
Despite all this, I was uncertain about my ability to qualify well in this scenario given my lack of experience running the pro late model on new tires as well as just coming into qualifying with a recent setup change.
My concerns proved true when I was unable to maximize the car in the two laps I had for qualifying, running 14.6 seconds on my first lap and then a 14.003 seconds on my second. We were hoping for a 13.8 and with another lap I’m confident I would have gotten closer, but that’s the nature of qualifying.
I qualified only .18 seconds off the pole despite not having gotten everything out of the car, which originally landed me in 10th. In this series the format requires the polesitter to draw an invert number between a top 6, top 8, or top 10 invert. We soon found out that we actually qualified ninth because it turned out the information showing up on Race Monitor was wrong.
Then, with a twist of fortune, it turned out that the driver who qualified eighth actually came in underweight in the post-qualifying tech and lost his qualifying time. That bumped me up to eighth and, as luck would have it, the polesitter drew an eight for the invert. That put me on the pole for the first time in a short-track oval race!
When the qualifying dust finally settled I ended up in a situation that was completely unexpected given my disappointing qualifying performance and I was determined to take advantage of it as best as I could.
Also unexpected was the drizzle of rain that temporarily stalled the racing action and gave us a brief scare as to whether or not the night was going to get derailed. Luckily, we were able to get the show back on the road after a relatively short rain delay.
When the green flag finally waved I got one of my best starts ever and completely ran away from the competition the first four or five laps. I was about a straightaway ahead of second place when the first caution of the night came out due to an incident with a couple of the backmarkers that turned the session red.
When we got started again I had another really good start, managing to hold onto first after an intense initial battle with Nick Loden, a multi-race winner in the series. I started to gap the field again when the second and final caution of the night came out. This time Nick had figured out my restart strategy and was able to successfully cheat the start by a couple of feet coming to the green flag.
This put him in a better position into turns one and two and I wasn’t able to fend him off any longer. I slotted in behind him after battling for a few turns side-by-side and then tried to focus on maintaining a competitive pace and managing my tires at the same time.
Unfortunately, the setup started to fall away slowly but surely over the course of the race as I eventually fell back to seventh place by the end of the race with around 10 or so laps to go.
Throughout the course of this I managed to fend off multiple challenges at different points of the race, racing hard and clean and getting a lot of awesome experience. I’m becoming better at short-track, full-body stock car racing, which requires a much higher level of assertiveness and physical contact than I was trained to employ in open-wheel formula car racing. In this race I proved that to be the case when I finished the race with a dented right side panel. Hooray!
Overall, I felt really accomplished after a seventh-place finish. I was a little miffed that I did lose as many positions as I did, especially considering how great of a start to the race I had and how good the car was in the beginning.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda, but I’m fairly convinced that if this race went green-to-checkered like the 100-lapper at Florence Motor Speedway, I may have been able to extend my lead by so much initially that I may have been battling for the lead or at the very least a podium by the end of the race.
However, thus is the nature of racing and I’m excited for the next time I’ll be racing the pro late at Dillon Motor Speedway in a few weeks.
As always, I’m very grateful for the hard work of the guys and girls around me in making this one-of-a-kind racing schedule come together, and I’m hoping to get another win for them soon.