For the third consecutive season, the area’s top racers will put their skills to the test on the world’s most realistic racing simulation in the Inside Groove iRacing Challenge. Drivers will compete at some of the most famous short tracks across the country for a chance to win a total of $400 in posted awards, with all eight events on the 2021-22 schedule broadcasted live on the Inside Groove’s Facebook page.
Started in 2020 when the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the racing schedule, the Inside Groove iRacing Challenge has quickly become a hit amongst area drivers and fans alike. Thunder Road late model competitor Marcel J. Gravel took home the inaugural “Corona Cup”, while ACT regular Ryan Kuhn scored a $300 top prize in 2020-21.
This year’s slate of races will begin at Five Flags Speedway for the New England Snowball Derby on December 15th. Other notable races include the Mill River Brewing All American 100 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on January 12th, along with a double points event at Hickory Motor Speedway on January 26th, followed by the championship event at Bristol Motor Speedway on February 2nd.
Each race provides a payout for the winner, with drivers having the chance to win as much as $100 in the more prestigious, longer distance races. The series will run iRacing’s newly upgraded variation of the Super Late Model, while running fixed setups. This means that each driver’s car will be set up identically, so the races come down to pure driver talent.
This year’s Inside Groove iRacing Challenge will be limited to past or present full time drivers and crew members from Thunder Road Speedbowl or the American Canadian Tour. For any questions about the Inside Groove iRacing Challenge, or for a copy of the series rulebook, please contact Nick Mumley on Facebook.
Duxbury, VT’s Reilly Lanphear is preparing to kick off her fourth season on the American Canadian Tour in a very special way at Hickory Motor Speedway. The 21 year old Lanphear will be paying tribute to both her father, Mark, and short track legend Rich Bickle, with a #45nc late model designed similarly to the Terminal Trucking ride that Bickle piloted to his third Snowball Derby victory in 1996.
After moving south in 1995 to work with Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Mark Lanphear moved on to work with Bickle in 1996, and they won together right away, with Bickle winning that year’s Snowball Derby, his third of five career Snowball victories.
Mark later moved back to Vermont and has been helping Reilly and her sister Peyton with their racing careers. “Ever since I started racing, my dad always wanted to run the Terminal Trucking colors, yellow and green, but I always shut it down.” Reilly told us.
So what was different this year? Well, earlier this year, Rich Bickle ran in his final Snowball Derby, and with the ACT making its maiden voyage to Hickory, perhaps the most historic short track in America, the timing was just too perfect. “We were in the shop one afternoon and were like why not run it at Hickory, where everything started. It’s just fitting for Bickle’s last year” she said.
Lanphear has reason to be excited about more than just the throwback paint scheme, though. Of the nearly 30 car entry list for the ACT races on Friday and Saturday night, she is one of just four drivers with experience at the .363 mile facility. A Super Late Model start there in 2018 led to a seventh place finish for her, which is better than any result she’s ever posted in ACT competition. I’m hoping for another good run, we’re getting where we need to be” She said. “But I just want to have fun, it’s really what it’s all about; and on the drive back home I want to be able to reflect on how I improved from Thursday to Saturday night.”
Lanphear is looking to make further gains in 2021 after three years that have been spent experiencing growing pains from moving up to the ACT level from the Thunder Road weekly divisions. She did begin to show some growth towards the end of 2020, including an ACT career best 14th place run at Riverside Speedway on August 15th. “We made pretty big gains last year, in my opinion. I think we will have a pretty solid baseline going back to tracks we’ve been to before, so really I’m just hoping to have the confidence in myself that I can do it, that’s a thing I always lack.”
Knowing that she’s run well at Hickory in the past also gives her added confidence going into the weekend as well. “I think a solid run at Hickory will definitely help set the pace and momentum for the year, we’ve done a lot of homework this winter so I’m hoping it pays off.”
Hickory is an excellent opportunity for Lanphear to kick off a season where she has the chance to grow into an ACT veteran, while also hopefully scoring some top finishes along with it.
As for the throwback? Rich has seen it, and he “loves it”, according to Reilly. A throwback car that honors family history, taking to the track at one of the most historic venues in racing. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Follow the Inside Groove on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@InsideGrooveTV) as we bring you up to the minute coverage from Hickory all weekend long.
Marcel Gravel has a new sponsor for 2021. The Wolcott, VT driver announced Friday evening that he has partnered with Pete’s Equipment and Rentals in Morrisville, VT, for a two year primary sponsorship deal.
“A partnership like this helps us do things we normally can’t do. We never buy practice tires, we buy just what we need to get by for the season, and this partnership helps sort of take us out of that box” Said Gravel, who won a feature and led the late model point standings at Thunder Road for much of the season in 2020 with a small family-run operation.
The competition in the late models is as tight as ever, with a number of teams chasing two-time defending champion Jason Corliss for the next “King of the Road” crown. Gravel hopes this partnership will not only keep him one step ahead of the competition, but that it will help his team make it through the pressure of the final month of the season. In 2020, a string of bad finishes relegated him from the points lead with four races remaining to a fifth place points finish, 88 markers behind the eventual champion Corliss.
“Jason (Couture, President of Pete’s Equipment) stepped up in a big way to help give our program that little extra it needs to be there in September going after a championship” Gravel explained. “His energy about this partnership is everything you hope for in a primary sponsor. He is fully invested in this deal and really believes in what me and my team are doing.”
“He was very focused, driven and professional,” Couture told us. “We’re big race fans but we never thought we’d sponsor a car, it’s not really the way we would market. But Marcel had a different approach, and it really lined up with what we’re trying to do here.”
Pete’s Equipment will also be contributing to Gravel’s Podium With Purpose program as part of their sponsorship. Gravel started the initiative in 2020, as a way for himself and other drivers to donate a portion of their race winnings to local charities. He’ll once again be donating to the Lamoille Area Cancer Network. Couture and Pete’s Equipment have pledged to donate double Gravel’s contributions throughout the season to the LACN.
“He won me over when I found out about Podium With Purpose” Couture said. “His charity is near and dear to my heart. It’s really awesome that he loves what he’s doing, but also takes a moment to sit back and help those who aren’t as fortunate”
Gravel is entering his sixth season as a late model driver at Thunder Road. He has two career feature victories, and is the track record holder courtesy of his pole-winning lap at the 2017 Milk Bowl.
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UPDATE: 4:38 PM: Volusia County Sheriffs Office has reported in a statement that Crews suffered a medical event after being involved in breaking up the brawl.
What began as a great night for the Bobby Weber Racing team at New Smyrna (FL) Speedway has quickly turned tragic.
Former ACT regular Bryan Kruczek and the #19nh team went to the New Smyrna World Series in a brand new, purpose-built sportsman car, and ultimately won the feature event on Saturday night. However, things quickly took a nasty turn in the post-race tech line.
According to reports, a massive brawl broke out between the Bobby Weber Racing team and second place finisher Matthew Green’s team. Both were disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct. An eyewitness told RaceDayCT.com that “It was the worst thing that I have ever seen happen at a race track”
Matthew Weaver of Autoweek and Short Track Scene reported that track official Rusty Crews attempted to break up the brawl, and later passed away early Sunday morning. The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that they are “unsure if the death was related to the incident or if there were any underlying medical conditions that could have contributed to the death.”
Kruczek finished fourth in the American Canadian Tour standings in 2020 with one win and four top five finishes.
Bobby Weber Jr is the owner of Star Speedway in Epping, NH, as well as the car owner for Kruczek.
This story is still developing and will be updated when additional confirmed information is released.
Picture this: One of the top late model teams at Thunder Road suddenly is in the market for a new driver. They provide the team, the sponsorship, and the car, and all they need is someone to pilot it.
Then the phone rings.
While that scenario has probably played out in the dreams of every driver that has ever raced a car at Thunder Road, it’s a reality for Brandon Lanphear.
On Friday, the 26 year old Lanphear was tabbed as the next driver of the famed 16vt late model, prepared and sponsored by Richard Green of Enosburg, VT. The RGR team has become one of the most recognizable and most popular teams over the last twenty-or-so seasons, and has won two championships in the last five seasons- one in 2016 and another in 2018.
“I’m not sure that it’s sunk in yet,” the Morrsiville native told us. “It almost seems too good to be true. It’s such a cool opportunity to be able to drive a car that I grew up going to watch.”
Lanphear is the son of former Milk Bowl winner Dwayne Lanphear, who’s famous for being the Thunder Road “bad boy” throughout the 90’s and 2000’s. However, Brandon isn’t worried about what people think of him, he just wants to race. “As long as i’m doing all I can do as a driver, people can think whatever they want of me.” He said. “I’d like to think I’ve made a decent name for myself over the past five years just by showing respect when needed and also being aggressive when it’s needed.”
Die-hard Thunder Road fans are already familiar with Lanphear- he joins the late model ranks after a successful three year stint in the Flying Tiger division, including a 2020 season where he won the prestigious Triple Crown series, and finished fourth in the final standings for the track championship. He’s also a former rookie of the year in both the Tigers and the Thunder Road Street Stocks.
While the Richard Green Racing team is coming off of a tremendously successful run with Scott Dragon, including two championships and a third place points finish in 2020, Lanphear says the expectation of him in 2021 is to learn and grow as a driver. “They just want to go have fun and help me learn along the way” He said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a new challenge for them and I think they’re looking forward to that.”
Lanphear has two prior starts in a late model, most recently in October’s Vermont Milk Bowl, where he drove to a 16th place finish in a one-off ride.
“Personally, I’d like to win rookie of the year and contend for a win or two. I’m really going to approach this year the same way I have every other year.” He told us.
The 16vt team is expected to run for the weekly championship at Thunder Road, as they have each year since 2001. They are also reported to be interested in running the $10,000 to win Midsummer 250 at White Mountain, as well as the 150 lap American Canadian Tour event at Oxford as part of the “Night Before the Oxford 250”.
“This team has already proven itself by winning races and championships, so I would love to keep that track record and show what we’re capable of.”
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On Friday afternoon, the American Canadian Tour announced that they would be making the switch from American Racer to Hoosier racing tires for the 2021 season.
According to a press release, the Tour worked with Hoosier Tire East to create a series-specific compound for both the Late Model and Flying Tiger divisions.
The tires will not change in price remaining at $130. The ACT makes the switch after using American Racer tires since 2014. The first event where Hoosier tires will be used will be the 2021 Community Bank N.A. 150 at Thunder Road on May 1st and 2nd, according to the release. That means that the twin events at Hickory, NC scheduled for April 1st and 2nd, as well as the Northeast Classic at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on April 17th will be the final races under the American Racer banner.
We spoke with drivers from around the garage area about the news. Here’s what they had to say:
Bobby Therrien, #5vt Late Model, Former Milk Bowl and Thunder Road track Champion:
“I’m excited for the change! It’s something I have wanted for a long time and after testing them this past fall, I feel like it is going to improve the quality of racing for the fans and the racers.”
Logan Powers, #31vt Flying Tiger, 8th place points finish in 2020:
“From what I’ve heard, the tire is supposed to be similar to the American Racers, but better from the start. I think that’s what we all wanted. Something that will produce from the start of its life. I hope the track will provide a tire limit like they had before, otherwise you will have people buying four tires every week. I am excited to see what the Hoosiers will do and hopefully it will only make the racing better in every division! It will be a whole new learning experience and I think it could even out the playing field for everyone as we don’t know what to expect!”
Matthew Smith, #04vt Late Model, 2020 Thunder Road Rookie of the Year
“I like it. I don’t mind a new tire as long as the testing shows that it will hold up. I know of some adjustments that need to be made to accommodate the new tire but with ample warning I think we will be in for a good year of racing. I’m excited to know that when the PASS guys come visit, the track won’t be all messed up like it had been with us being on American racers. In general I don’t mind a new tire and it’s good to see the divisions in the north east kind of starting to align.”
Jimmy Hebert, #58vt Late Model, 2020 American Canadian Tour Champion
“We are fine with it. I actually feel it will play into our favor a little as we seem to have a better grasp than most on the structure of a tire how air molecules work from all the research and learning we have done over the past few years. I also think it will help our team when going to Thunder Road, as there has been some inconsistencies most of us fought there last year which really gave locals more of an upper hand, having worked with them all summer, knowing what to buy and avoid. From what I’ve heard they wear a little quicker, and our cars are known for being long run cars that are easy on tires, so all in all we welcome the change. I’m glad to see they’re waiting until after NHMS, as tires can cost you a race car in a hurry, and with no knowledge, it would have been dangerous.
Jason Pelkey, #64vt Flying Tiger, 1 Win in 2020
“I personally am pretty excited, I’ve never had the opportunity to run on Hoosier tires, so It’s hard to say how different it’s going to feel, but I think it’s going to open the door for teams to try different things especially during the longer races”
Tom Carey III, #5ma Late Model, 11th place point finisher in ACT competition, with 2 Top 5 finishes
“I’m looking forward to it, I think change is a good thing. I believe Cris wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t good for the series. My only complaint would be not running them until the third race of the year, but we’re all in the same boat.”
Cooper Bouchard, 2021 Late Model Rookie of the Year Competitor, 1 2020 Win in the Flying Tiger Division at Thunder Road
“I think it’ll even out the playing field in New England for the Tigers, and National Stage for the Late Models. It’ll be interesting to see how people adapt to the new tires in both divisions. The Tiger tires weren’t the best and lasted forever, and were at their best when they were almost down to slicks. So it’ll be interesting to see how these hold up and how often they’ll have to buy tires now. As far as the Late Models go, It’ll be a learning curve for everyone, although some will pick it up quicker than others, but hopefully it will even out the playing field, similar to when (Thunder Road) got paved. Everyone had something new to deal with together, and you found out who the best were by how quickly they adapted and found speed while dealing with new circumstances across the board.”
Tyler Cahoon, #38vt Late Model, 1 time winner at Thunder Road in 2020
“Cahoon Motorsports is excited about the news, as we have seen many tire manufacturer changes for the division, since the late ‘80s. These changes have always brought an extra piece to the puzzle teams will have to figure out for their setups, keeping us all on our toes. With this change comes exciting new challenges and racing to look forward to. Our R&R Fireworks and Berlin Optical Expressions teams will be looking forward to a great start at both WMMP and Thunder Road.”
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Many people remember Matthew Smith for the moment he burst onto the Thunder Road scene: Time trials for the 2019 Milk Bowl. He had been in a late model enough times to count on one hand at that point, a few spot starts here and there where he mostly rode around the back of the pack, gaining experience. For whatever reason, for those two laps, the Essex, VT native figured it all out. He came under the checkered flag in his #04vt car for Arnie Hill.
Boom. P3 on the charts.
I stared at the timing and scoring screen on my computer. I refreshed it just to be sure. Yup, P3. “Who the hell is Matt Smith?’ I remember saying to myself.
After the pole sitter was disqualified, Smith found himself on the outside pole for his first ever attempt at Vermont’s most prestigious race. His name was out there. While it’s the biggest moment of his career so far, and the one many know him for, he, and everyone around him, know that it’s just the beginning. If you ask him about it, he’ll tell you, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.”
Matt Smith doesn’t come from a family of racers, he comes from a family of race fans. “It was a family thing to watch NASCAR on the weekends growing up.” He explained. “That turned into a little kid dream of wanting to race.” That dream never left, and he decided to give it a try at his home track, Thunder Road, in 2014, running in the annual enduro. He finished 18th out of 106 cars, and decided that, with the help of friend Andrew Cimonetti, he would go street stock racing the next year.
After the 2018 season, Matt made the jump from the street stock division to a partial late model schedule. He’s one of the few people to have made the transition from a front-wheel-drive street stock to a high-powered American Canadian Tour late model. Smith was a top driver on the street stock circuit, winning three races between 2015 and 2018, and nearly taking home the 2018 championship in the division. After that, the A.H. Fence team moved up to late models.
“I think the biggest challenge was learning the car, what I was comfortable with wasn’t really fast, so pushing my limits and being able to learn from others was a huge deal.” Smith said of the move.
Before the 2020 campaign, the team announced that they would be going full time at Thunder Road that season, running for rookie of the year. They ran unopposed, but Smith drove hard all season long. The #04vt team could have easily won three features in 2020. In two instances, incidental contact between Smith and the race leader resulted in both cars getting sent to the rear of the field. Another time, a late race caution dissolved a massive lead for Smith, allowing Scott Dragon to scoot by on the restart and win the feature. In the 2020 Milk Bowl, expectations for Smith were high, and he delivered, time trialing in the top 10 again, and passing more cars than anyone else in the first segment. But a segment two crash destroyed their car and once again showed that luck was not on their side in 2020.
Smith knows that even with the negative results that came from his first full season, there are plenty of places to see positives that they can work towards in 2021. “It’s a dark place when you sit on the negatives and it’s easy to get in the mindset of “maybe I’m not good enough” but those small positives are just glimpses of what you are capable of, so you gotta dig deep and keep pushing.”
2020 was a year of learning and gaining experience for Smith, both inside the car and out. While the tumultuous experiences at Thunder Road hardened him as a driver, he was also able to learn a great deal about the car while serving as a pit crew member on the ACT Tour. Multiple time PASS North Super Late Model champion D.J. Shaw was tabbed to run the A.H. Fence car in the ACT races this year, ultimately finishing second in the standings to Jimmy Hebert. Shaw drove in those events in the same car that Smith used at Thunder Road, and being able to collaborate with a driver of Shaw’s caliber was invaluable experience for the rookie.
“Being able to bounce ideas off him or Dale (Shaw) was a big positive on why we had some of the solid nights at Thunder Road.” Smith told us. “It also added a bit of confidence for me. There would be times I was saying something about what the car was doing, but then DJ would also confirm it was in fact doing what I was saying. It gave me just a little more confidence in the fact that ‘hey maybe I do know what I’m doing’”
In 2021, Matt is hopeful to return to the #04vt team and continue what they started in 2020. Team owner Arnie Hill is a lifelong friend, and with the aforementioned Cimonetti serving as his crew chief, it’s a perfect situation. “I think the team is capable of hunting championships.” He said. “However, that just isn’t the goal for next year. My crew chief Andrew knows the car like the back of his hand, my team is dedicated and gives me the best car every week. It’s in my hands to give them the finishes they deserve. I think this coming season we will be looking for that first victory, and hopefully finishing close to, if not in the top 5 in points.”
Smith is looking to take all the new knowledge and confidence from 2020 and put it towards a good run in 2021. Don’t be shocked if he scores his first, second, or maybe even third career wins next year, and becomes a star at Thunder Road for years to come.
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Juan Marshall is in the best years of his racing career. He’s coming off a season that saw him win his first career feature event, he’s recently added a second Dodge Neon street stock to his stable, and he and his team are confident they can make a run at their first Thunder Road street stock championship in 2021. The man affectionately called “Paco” by his friends and fans at the track, has it pretty good for a hard-working local racer.
It hasn’t always been this way, though.
Marshall is originally from Taunton, Massachusetts, and grew up under difficult circumstances. While many of his fellow competitors discovered their love for speed at a race track, Paco found his on the streets. “When I was young, my step-dad would race the streets of Massachusetts, and I would ride along sometimes.” He said. “He taught me how to drive at a relatively young age, mainly so I could drive him home when he passed out drunk in the car. But I didn’t mind, because I got to drive his cars, and they were cool cars back in the day.”
While the love of racing was there, Marshall went down the wrong path in his late teenage years. “Truthfully, I never expected that childhood dream to manifest and come true.” He told us.
Eventually, he decided that it was time to get away from Massachusetts and what he called a “toxic environment” and start a new life. After moving around New England he finally settled in Vermont. “I fell in love with the landscape and the way of life in the small valley.” He explained. “20 years later, I’m still here.”
In 2018, Marshall found a street stock at an affordable price, and, with the blessing of his longtime girlfriend Tabby, decided it was finally time to live out that childhood dream that once seemed so far out of reach.
The only question left was where to race. “I asked a couple people who raced what the toughest track was, and they all said Thunder Road.” He explained. “So that’s where we decided to go.” Now that he’s at Thunder Road, he’s glad he made the decision to race there. “Now we’re hooked.” He said. “We love the track and traditions and have a huge love and respect for its history”
Marshall worked hard learning how to drive the track, set up the car and everything else a racer needs to learn to be successful. In 2019, he won the Marvin Johnson Memorial, a race for street stock drivers who have yet to score their first victory. This past Labor Day, however, was a day he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
Just days before the annual Labor Day Classic at Thunder Road, Tabby was involved in a terrible car accident that left her badly injured. He decided to take that Thursday’s race off, and was preparing to take the Sunday afternoon Labor Day event off as well, but she persuaded him to go and compete. “I strapped into that car and let the whole world melt away, and I let it all out on the line.” He said. “I won the heat and the feature that day, and I needed it. Our whole team needed it.”
Marshall’s emotional win was amongst the most popular wins at the track this season, and drivers from every division lined up to congratulate him on the triumph.
While the circumstances obviously played into the outpouring of support after the win, the respect that he’s gained amongst his fellow competitors did as well. He was the winner of the Sportsmanship Award at the Thunder Road awards banquet in 2019, and takes great pride in acting as a role model to younger fans at the track. “I never really had anyone to look up to” He explained, “I contribute my troubled childhood to some of that. I try to be the role model I never had back then.”
As for next season, “Paco” looks to continue to develop his racing program, while still having fun. After a few mechanical failures ended their chances at a championship in 2020, he’s added a second car to his team and is hoping that makes up for some of the hardships they endured last year. “I want a championship so bad I can see it, but even being in the top three would be an amazing accomplishment.” He said.
“I’m always going to have fun. Whether I win or wreck, I’m still chasing my dream and I know how fortunate I am.”
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For Justin Prescott, racing has always been in the family. All his life, he’s been around some of the biggest names in Vermont racing, but now he’s ready to try and make a name of his own.
In 2021, the Williston, VT driver will make the jump from the Road Warriors to the Flying Tigers at Thunder Road, after a successful 2020 campaign. With sponsorship from Goss Dodge, help from step-father Brian Hoar, and a car that is a proven winner on the Barre highbanks, there is excitement and promise in his debut in the track’s most competitive division.
Most know by now of Prescott’s relation to the 8-time ACT champion Hoar, but few know of his other family connections in the sport. His uncle, Arny Hill, is the owner of the #04vt Late Model, and his cousin, Chris Burnett is the owner of the 66vt Late Model that won both the Thunder Road track championship and the Milk Bowl last season.
“Arny built me an enduro car back in 2006, which was my first experience behind the wheel.” Prescott told us. “That planted the seed for sure.”
“Me and Chris grew up more like brothers than cousins.” he said. “I can remember putting on Brian’s old helmet and suit and playing NASCAR racing on the computer with Chris. We took an old car, gutted it out and ran it in the enduro, and then we built a warrior and raced the rest of the season. I moved out of state the next year, but I knew I was hooked”.
While Burnett has gone on to become one of the most successful late model car owners in recent history, Prescott was out of Vermont, and away from racing. But once he moved back home in 2019, he attended a few races, and eventually put together another enduro car. “The itch was back.” he said.
In 2020, he decided to build himself another Warrior to run in the full season of competition at Thunder Road. Driving a #44 machine painted similarly to Hoar’s #45 late model that dominated the local circuit in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Prescott scored 2 wins, 6 top fives, and a second place finish at the Road Warrior Mini Milk Bowl. When a competitive Flying Tiger car came up for sale at the right price, he decided it was time to move up.
“This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember” he told us. “I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge. It’d be nice to lead the last lap one of these weeks, but I’m really just thankful for the opportunity.”
It certainly will be a challenge for Prescott, as he’ll have to get around a mix of seasoned veterans and future stars in a division that can field 30 cars on any given night. So what’s his game plan for the season? “I made it a point this past year to race clean and hard, and earn the respect of my competitors and fans, and I hope to do the same next year as well.”
Prescott learned a great deal about racing with respect and sportsmanship last season while competing with the Road Warriors. Originally slated to run a half schedule, the division as a whole decided that they would spend the extra time and money to run the full season, greatly helping the track navigate the COVID-19 pandemic by generating more revenue in pit pass fees, and likely some extra purchases of the weekly pay-per-view livestream. “The sportsmanship (of the Road Warriors) is like no other.” he explained. “It was truly an honor to be a part of. Everyone is on the same team trying to help each other so we can put on the best show possible for the fans. It’s a comradery that is unfortunately lost in the competition of the higher levels.”
Justin was also able to get his first taste of Flying Tiger action at the end of 2020, running in the Flying Tiger Oxford Open in October. He says he was nervous, but ran well in the #44 machine. While his family connections definitely helped get him this far, he’s ready to use what he’s learned over the years and take control as he moves up the racing ladder. “I leaned on my family a lot to help me set up the Warrior, but when we decided to run the Tiger at Oxford, (Brian) helped me set it up, and it was just me that headed to Maine.”
2020 will likely be a learning curve for Prescott, but don’t be surprised if he finds a few good finishes in the 44 car. He’s dedicated, has a good car and the best family support you could imagine.
“I’m just a guy that’s being given the opportunity to live out a childhood dream and I plan on making the most of it.”
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9 Wins. 20 Top 5’s. A career high 7.3 average finish. This should have been the season that Kevin Harvick won his second NASCAR Cup Series Championship. But a stroke of bad luck leading to a pair of subpar finishes ousted him from NASCAR’s playoffs without a chance to even race for the title.
Harvick cruised to the regular season championship, and would have clinched the title last week at Texas if NASCAR’s elimination playoff system wasn’t in place. It’s not 2003, though, and the intensity and drama filled format NASCAR has created to appease their current and perspective fanbase didn’t allow Harvick to coast to a championship, as many would have liked.
The entire idea of these playoffs were for drivers to “put up or shut up” – 10 races where even the smallest blunder (say, hitting the turn 2 wall at Texas, or suffering a flat tire at Martinsville) can end your chances at a title. Just ask Kurt Busch, who’s blown motor at Kansas ended his underdog run at a second championship. Or defending champion Kyle Busch, who didn’t even make it to the Round of 8 after a couple of unlucky breaks in the second round. Or rising star Ryan Blaney, who was handed a point penalty in the opening race at Darlington and couldn’t recover enough to even make it out of the Round of 16.
The playoffs are not forgiving. The playoffs don’t care about what how many wins you had in the regular season. The playoffs require the best stock car drivers in the world to perform at their absolute best for a two-and-a-half month stretch running from late summer all the way to Thanksgiving.
Kevin Harvick was not at his best in the Round of 8. He, and his #4 Stewart-Haas Racing team made mistakes that would be insurmountable for most teams to recover from in any given playoff round. Honestly, the fact that they only missed the Championship round by one point is astonishing. From the poor 16th place run at Texas, to the bad luck compounded by a swing and a miss on the car setup at Martinsville, Harvick flushed away what would have been normally been an afternoon stroll to NASCAR’s championship round at Phoenix, which just so happens to be his best track.
This goes beyond flat tires, wall scrapes and point standings, though. Harvick’s failure to win the championship in the current playoff system is a result of NASCAR’s attempt to reach a broader, younger fanbase, by mimicking other major professional sports.
The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are solidified as the premier sports league in the country, all competing in a regular season, followed by an elimination tournament concluding with a championship final. The NFL has the Super Bowl, hockey has the Stanley Cup, baseball plays the World Series, while basketball has the NBA Finals. Each one of those events draw massive television ratings, widespread engagement on social media, and dramatic moments that help develop and further the history of each respective sport. Playoffs and championship finals, from a business standpoint, generate millions of dollars in revenue. In a day and age where NASCAR’s leadership has been desperately searching for ways to broaden their fanbase, the implementation of the NASCAR Playoffs and Championship Four were absolutely necessary.
Sure, NASCAR’s playoffs aren’t the status-quo playoffs that you’re used to. Drivers that are eliminated still get to race the next week, and there’s four drivers in the championship round rather than the usual two teams most sports fans are used to. But those are minor quirks that don’t necessarily take away from the familiarity that the average sports fan can find when watching a late-season NASCAR event.
On top of that, NASCAR is now able to market the four drivers racing for the championship, increasing brand identity and name recognition for Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, while also spurring perspective fan interest by promoting a winner-take-all style fight to the final checkered flag.
In the long run, this playoff system, while unlike anything else in racing, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the future of NASCAR. Drama? Check. Tempers? Check. Storylines exactly like this one? You betcha.
NASCAR has hit a home run with the playoffs, and more you talk about it, the more successful they’ll be.
Photo Credit: Motorsport.com
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