LOONEY CHECKMATED BY LATE MODEL KING
Philip Morris outduels Mike Looney for checkered flag in sensational Late Model showdown – JW Martin
Saturday night’s Kesler Contracting 100 presented by Coors Light, WFXR News and 94.9 Star Country at Motor Mile Speedway wasn’t a race. It was a chess match.
Cagey Late Model racers Philip Morris and Mike Looney staged a sensational side-by-side duel for the win in the final 60 circuits of Motor Mile Speedway’s 100-lap marquee feature; the breathtaking battle produced nine lead changes and 57 laps of two abreast racing action.
And in the aftermath, the first-place finisher and the runner-up were wearing winning smiles.
“It was all mental, really. You couldn’t slip even a little bit,” said Morris, who forestalled Looney for the win by a slim .259-second margin of victory. “It’s fun racing against guys that have sportsmanship and respect. That’s what I want the fans to take away from here tonight. Not that I won the race, but that you can be a class act; you can not make it to victory lane and still win.”
Billed as the biggest night of racing thus far in 2019, the epic Late Model feature exceeded the hype. The race had national ramifications for Morris and Looney; Morris entered the contest ranked second in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings, trailing points leader Peyton Sellers by a mere 18 points. Looney was ranked fourth, 56 points behind Sellers.
Locally, the duo had combined to win all nine Motor Mile Speedway races in 2019, with Looney boasting a division-high six victories. Saturday night’s checkered flag was particularly coveted, and the racing proved it.
Morris captured the Price’s Body Shop pole award, but started the race seventh following the re-draw. Looney’s handicap was even more imposing: Following three straight division victories, Looney was relegated to last place on the 13-car grid per Motor Mile Speedway’s Consecutive Wins policy.
Kres Vandyke started on the point, and led the opening 25 circuits uncontested. The first caution of the race on lap 26 converged the field and spawned a tense, three-way tussle for the top spot between Vandyke, Morris and Looney. Vandyke surrendered the lead to Morris on lap 27, but reassumed command of the field after applying the bump-and-run maneuver to Morris in turn three on the following circuit. The aggressive racing afforded Looney the opportunity to join the fray for first, and Looney capitalized. Looney completed the drive from worst to first on lap 30 with a pass on Vandyke in turn one. The race showcased a total of 13 lead changes among three drivers.
The second yellow flag of the contest unfurled on lap 39. The caution benefited Morris, who had rebounded after backsliding as a result of the contact with Vandyke. Looney and Morris occupied the front row on the restart, with Morris eclipsing Looney for first on lap 41 from the outside groove.
The remainder of the race exemplified the essence of quality short track racing. At the front of the field, just three complete circuits of single-file racing occurred over the final 60 laps. Morris orchestrated a masterful top groove strategy, successfully staving off the no. 87 by restricting the momentum Looney could glean from the bottom groove. Morris ceded the preferred lane to Looney throughout the tremendous seesaw battle, with Looney launching repeated assaults on Morris from the inside line. Though Looney managed to wrestle the lead away from Morris on four occasions, he failed to complete a pass attempt on Morris’ no. 01.
“I knew I was quicker than him, and I thought I could wear him down,” Looney explained. “What a heckuva race car driver. That guy can flat wheel it. I had position on him for about 60 laps, and somehow he could get a run on the outside and keep me pinched down just enough. Just an epic battle.”
As the laps dwindled, it became apparent that the only tactic that would unseat Morris was the only tactic Looney refused to use. The intense, prolonged struggle for first produced only minimal contact; the two seasoned Late Model standouts executed a calculated, door-to-door battle memorable for the mutual respect that reigned supreme.
“If it had been somebody else, I probably would’ve won that race because I would’ve done what I needed to do,” noted Looney. “But when a man gives you all that room… all the room in the world… the man deserves respect. It’s pretty cool the shows you can put on in these cars with a little mutual respect.”
The victory was Morris’ 111th Motor Mile Speedway Late Model triumph. The eight-time Motor Mile Speedway Late Model track champion echoed Looney’s assessment of the dramatic heavyweight tilt.
“He could’ve took me out any lap. I’ve raced with him for a long time; he’s the last guy that will dump you to win a race,” Morris said. “He had a beast of a car. That thing was awesome on the bottom. I didn’t know that I would be able to hold him off for a hundred laps.”
Vandyke completed the podium, with Stuart Crews snaring fourth in his first Motor Mile Speedway Late Model start of the 2019 season. Bryan Reedy rounded out the top five.
In summarizing the race, Looney acknowledged that he had never been more satisfied with second place.
“That is why I race. That is exactly why I race,” Looney exclaimed. “That’s fun. That’s what it’s about right there.”
IN OTHER DIVISIONS
Daryn Cockram and Karl Budzevski split the Collision Plus Limited Sportsman division twinbill Saturday night. Cockram survived a lengthy battle with points leader Cory Dunn to claim the no. 1 team’s first checkered flag of the 2019 season. Charles Smith placed third in the opener. Showcasing a strong car again in the nightcap, Dunn settled for second after failing to unseat Budzevski in the waning stages. Cockram placed third.
Kirby Gobble prevailed in a late-race battle with Kyle Barnes to capture his first-career checkered flag in his first-ever Super Street division attempt. Barnes placed second, and Matt Gusler notched third.
The 20-lap UCAR division contest climaxed in a thrilling photo finish between Ricky Howell, Jr. and Mike Reed. Track officials resorted to video footage to determine the outcome of the white-knuckle affair due to a transponder placement issue on Reed’s no. 89. Still images of the finish were conclusive, with Howell edging Reed by mere inches. Scott Howell was credited with third.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chad Fletcher