By: Ashley McCubbin
As we have seen with the past two days, the tour-type modifieds continue to deliver with great battles for the win, as the John Blewett III Memorial came right down to the checkered flag. Unfortunately, it seems the carnage we have grown used to is not going away anytime soon.
While fans have gotten to know Ryan Preece recently in the NASCAR Cup Series, it should never be forgotten he cut his teeth in the modifieds, compared to others who did so in late models or dirt. It is also worth the price of admission to attend any event he plans on entering.
After locking himself into the Daytona 500, Preece made the trip over to New Smyrna Speedway, set to start on tail on the 38-car field. By all standards, a lot of people considered his chances of winning very slim, considering the level of competition he was up against with several of the modified stars being sprinkled through the grid.
Though a strong car to allow him to charge forward, combined with escaping the carnage, allowed him to make magic happen on Wednesday night. He broke into the top-10 with 24 laps to go, before taking over the top spot with seven laps to go en route to winning.
A lot of people have been critical of Preece this week and his aggressive driving, thanks to a pair of incidents that took place the past two nights; everybody remember Jon McKennedy’s bonehead comments from Monday. However, whether you agree with his driving style or not, he proved right then and there tonight why he’s such a badass guy in a modified, and will go down as one of the best in history.
Let’s face it – he did not have it easy en route to scoring the victory, as he had to hold off Matt Hirschman, who has grown quite the reputation of consistently winning the big events. The No. 60 showed more speed through the final five laps, though was unable to find a way around Preece despite multiple restarts. Ultimately, the expertise behind the wheel of the No. 6 in knowing the line to run through the corners for momentum for himself, but blocking all potential holes to make a run is what led to victory lane.
There was no sign of disappointment on Hirschman’s face afterwards, though, as the runner-up is huge when you look at the points standings through the whole week. After all, he easily could have finished much worse after going around for a spin. However, that may have been a blessing in disguise if you consider the chaos on the next restart and Hirschman more than likely positioned to be right in the middle. Ultimately, though, the series of cautions that followed with more competitors being taken out, and Hirschman being able to avoid put him in position to make a charge, and he took advantage.
Patrick Emerling is ultimately in the same boat, too, with his third-place finish. He started on the pole, though faded back as a result of a tight racecar, before catching the outside wall with the right front as he avoided a spinning Hirschman. You could say he followed the No. 60 through traffic, and it could pay diligence depending on how the chips fall. This may be the night that we look back upon should the No. 07 end the next two nights on top of the standings.
Jon McKennedy also got some redemption as he ran up front throughout the event, scoring a fourth-place finish. He also got to burn off some of his frustration with Preece from the first night, holding him up for a couple laps with the pair trading bumps. While some people wondered if McKennedy should have went one step further in spinning Preece, just as he went around on the opening night, there was respect and restraint shown in spreading the message without going over the line to make things blow-up and become worse. After all, if he would have wrecked the No. 6, who knows who else could have taken out in the process. Maturity prevailed, thankfully.
Sometimes you wonder about the rest of the field, though, considering the amount of incidents. But it is worth noting they mostly all took place through the second half of the event. The modifieds were able to finally get some clean laps in the books and string a long green flag run together, before a caution for a lap car with 24 laps to go set up a mad dash. As Doug Coby shared the night before, “a bunch of animals just trying to win everything we can” seemed to emerge with a series of cautions, including a couple red flags, happening in succession the rest of the way.
Point fingers as you may, but as previously discussed, it’s also part of the problem when you have such a large field in 38 cars on a half-mile oval. That said, it doesn’t excuse dumb mistakes when they happen.
Anthony Rufrano deserves the sympathy award as he was the innocent victim as a result of a questionable decision by Tom Martino Jr. Martino had spun at the end of pit road, drawing the yellow flag; he turned the car around, before making the last minute call to head in for service – driving right into Rufrano who tried to go to the inside to get around him. If the spotters were paying attention and giving their drivers a clear heads-up on things, this was easily avoidable damage.
You could also offer some sympathy to Eric Goodale, as he put himself in position to challenge for a win for the second straight night to just get peanuts in return. If the caution does not come out for Martino, Preece and Hirschman probably would not been able to close the gap on Goodale, who appeared to be strong enough to hold off Tyler Rypekma. Instead, it was like the caution fed him to the dogs, as Preece got him out of shape en route to taking the lead, followed by Rypekema dumping him in turns one and two. Instead of celebrating a place on the podium, he was left with a 12th-place finish and wondering what could have been.