“The energy of youth combined with the experience of age is a lethal combination.”

Murad S. Shah

What makes a racer race? Well, we took the time to ask for a previous article titled Hell And Back that touched on not only the reasons, as there are many, but for why they do it knowing that each race is it’s own ordeal. No matter how good a race can go, the simple truth is that it takes a special kind of individual to be a racer. One of the most surprising answers we received for that investigative article is the feeling of peace a good number of racers feel after they conquer their pre-race demons and get strapped into the car. It’s a sense of knowing it’s where they belong. For a short moment, they are all to themselves in a world that feels like home.

The 2024 SMART Modified Tour season so far has been an interesting one to say the least. In the three races before the Cardinal 99 here at Tri-County Speedway, two teenagers have been the only ones to visit victory lane. That said however, both of these young drivers come from a legacy of racing families all too familiar with the game of stock car racing. And yes, I said game. You see, in racing, you can have all the speed you need, but without strategy, victory lane will allude you. And stock car racing is not only a physical, but it’s very much a mental game as well. Getting into the head of your opponents will go a long way in not only getting you to the winner’s circle, but keeping you there as well. It’s a game of high speed chess if you will, and Carson Loftin and Luke Baldwin have been taking notes from the masters of it. They come into Tri-County holding all the cards, but this early in the season, the deal is far from done. Question is, who will be the first veteran to show his hand? For the answer to that let’s take a closer look at round four for the SMART Modified Tour in 2024. Tri-County Speedway can be a tricky place where you definitely have to have your head in the game. Things can happen fast and you truly have to be ready for anything that arises.

FRONT WHEEL DRIVE FEATURE

The # 05J of Jonathan Goodwin will start on the pole for the season opening Tri-County Front Wheel Drive feature followed by the # 12 of Kayla Powell, # 17 Jackie Stone, # 2 Rayna Holland, and the # 54H of Randy Hupp. The flagman looks over the eager field of cars, likes what he sees, and we’re green! Kayla Powell has a problem on the start, dropping like a rock through the field as Stone is fast off of the get go, getting by for the lead. Hupp moves up to second as the field is still scrambling, allowing Jason Garwood in the # 46 to slot into third. Garwood isn’t stopping there either and now muscles into second as defending champion James Powell in the # 27 has made his way to fourth, dropping Goodwin to fifth. Up front, Stone is holding a pretty wheel but Garwood’s # 46 has an incredible setup, making it look easy as he gets by for the top spot. James Powell and Hupp are engaged in a fierce battle for third, with James Powell getting the nod. The # 42 of Scotty Gosnell breaks into the top five as Garwood has entered a different time zone up front. But the caution is out for Kayla Powell who is stopped in turn three! That’ll give the field one more shot at Garwood as James Powell will take advantage of the choose rule, lining up alongside Garwood on the front row! Stone restarts third followed by Hupp and Gosnell. James Powell fires off with authority, but it’s still all Garwood up front, with the # 46 taking the emphatic win over James Powell. Both Jackie Stone and Scotty Gosnell run into post-race tech issues, giving Hupp third, Goodwin fourth, and Holland fifth.

CAROLINA VINTAGE FEATURE

The gorgeous Carolina Vintage class hits the Granite Falls track with Bob Wallace in his # 35 Smokey Yunick throwback starting on the pole. Kevin Bumgarner in the # 47 will start second followed by the # 8 of Bob Hapeman. Wallace spins his tires a bit on the start but holds serve at the front as now Bumgarner will challenge on the outside. Wallace is fast, but Bumgarner is better and clears for the lead as Hapeman is now peeking on the inside of Wallace. Wallace is like a kidney stone on the high side as they’re putting on a great show for the fans. Hapeman finally clears but he’s got a long way to go before he gets to Bumgarner. But before you know it, Hapeman is there and slides underneath Bumgarner. Wheel to wheel are Bumgarner and Hapeman as they take the white flag! Hapeman tries to run the lap of his life and slides it sideways out of turn four, nearly spinning as it’s a photo finish with Bumgarner getting the nod! The fans are on their feet as Hapeman gets a close second followed by Wallace in third.

RENEGADE FEATURE

Gary Ledbetter Jr in the Cale Yarborough inspired # 28 Renegade will roll off first followed by the # 24 of Mike Shelton, # 16 Steve Smart, defending champion # 9 Klint Townsend, and the # 54 of former Front Wheel Drive competitor Gary Willard. Shelton gets an amazing launch as Townsend has already made his way up to second, shifting Ledbetter to third and Smart fourth. We’ve got trouble on the backstretch already as the # 13 of Jarrett Anderson has spun and hit the inside wall. His night is unfortunately over before it ever really started as after the choose, Shelton picks the outside with Townsend second, Ledbetter Jr third, Smart fourth, and Willard fifth. Shelton gets another monster jump as Smart will take third away. Townsend’s car begins to hook up through the green flag run as he wheels underneath Shelton, but Shelton continuously shuts the door on him. But Shelton has an issue! He slows from the lead, giving Townsend the lead followed by Smart, Ledbetter Jr, Willard, and the # 55 of Jordan Cook as Townsend tries to set sail. But his efforts will be foiled as the # 34 of Gary Aldrich spins wildly on the frontstraight and kisses the inside barrier. That will set up a sprint to the finish with Townsend first, Smart second, Ledbetter Jr third, Willard fourth, and Cook fifth. The # 9 gets a picture perfect restart as the top five settle in line in an effort to catch the fast Townsend. Smart tries every trick in the book but it just isn’t enough as Townsend scores a statement win ahead of Smart, Ledbetter Jr, Willard, and Cook.

STREET STOCK FEATURE

Tri-County’s exciting Street Stock division rolls on the track next with the # 03 of Kevin Eby starting from the point. The # 00K of Devin Kelley starts second with the # 12 of Mike Hatton rounding out the top three. Eby and Devin Kelley are neck and neck but it’s Devin Kelley who comes out on top. A returning # 21 of Drew Cox makes a run for third and gets it, now using that momentum to kick Eby to third. More trouble strikes on the frontstretch as the # 00 of Rick Kelley crashes after contact with the # 3 of Greg Grindstaff. Rick is none too happy and throws his hands up at Grindstaff as he comes by. After Rick Kelley’s car is towed to the pits, the field lines back up for the restart with Cox choosing the inside line underneath Devin Kelley. Eby will start third, ready to strike if anything happens between the top two as the green is back out! Cox and Devin Kelley are glued together for the lead with Cox barely edging ahead at the line. Devin Kelley finally concedes as Eby loses position to Hatton. Devin Kelley starts to drop back a bit, now into the clutches of Hatton. Hatton nearly gets into Devin Kelley but woes up to avoid contact, causing him to get loose and lose contact of second. But now Devin Kelley has a problem! He stops on the track with the white flag in sights, causing a late race caution! Drew Cox has to be fuming in the car as he’ll line up first with Hatton looking for a huge win in second followed by Eby in third. The restart is great for Cox but Hatton is right there! He’s hounding the back bumper of Cox but it’s too little, too late as Cox crosses the line first. But after post-race technical inspection, Cox is disqualified for a tire infraction, giving Mike Hatton the win followed by Eby and Grindstaff in third.

Street Stock Photo Credit – Crystal Goin

SMART MODIFIED TOUR CARDINAL 99

Southern Modified legend Burt Myers in the # 1 scorches Tri-County Speedway during qualifying with a lap of 14.766 seconds. But after the invert, it’s road racer William Lambros in the # 77 who will start on the pole. “Rocketman” Ryan Newman in the # 2 will start on the outside front row, #99 Jimmy “Showtime” Blewett starts third, King Of The Modifieds winner # 7VA Luke Baldwin starts fourth, and Burt Myers will round out the top five. SMART Modified Tour flagman Jeff Bunton looks over the fast field, likes what he sees, and we’re green for the Cardinal 99! Lambros will clear out of turn two with Blewett following through for second. The # 23C of Carson Loftin pounces on Burt Myers, kicking Myers out of the top five as Baldwin now dives under Newman. Baldwin will secure third as we’re already ten laps in that fast, just showing how quick these cars truly are. Burt Myers fireballs under Carson Loftin in turn three and they bump wheels! Carson Loftin hangs on as father Brian Loftin in the # 15 is up in smoke, bringing the caution out. A horrible break for Brian Loftin who didn’t even get to start the King Of The Modifieds event due to a blown motor. The red flag will come out as fluid has been placed all around the racetrack. After everything is finally cleaned up, the CitruSafe Choose Cone is out with Lambros in first followed by Blewett, Baldwin, Newman, and Carson Loftin. The green is out but the start is a no go as the officials disagree with how the leaders fired off. The second time is the charm as Blewett will take the top spot over the rookie, but we’ve got big trouble in turn one as the # 4 of Jason Myers and the # 31 of Cody Norman have crashed with the # 8 of Chris Finocchario ending up on top of the # 16VA of Jonathan Cash. After all is said and done, your lineup for the next restart will be Blewett, Lambros, Baldwin, Carson Loftin, and the # 12PA of Jake Crum. Blewett retains the lead as Carson Loftin takes third away from Baldwin. Another restart breeds another caution, this time it’s for Blake Barney in the # 27 who goes up in smoke. Thankfully, it’s a quick cleanup as we’ll have a shootout to the stage end with Blewett, Carson Loftin who takes advantage of the choose, Lambros, Baldwin, and Crum your top five. It’s a mess of a restart as Baldwin stumbles, jumbling up the field with Joey Coulter in the # 02 sneaking into the top five. But up front, it’s Blewett who takes the Bell Helmets Stage win.

Baldwin will use this caution to make some major adjustments while Blewett will restart first, Carson Loftin second, Lambros third, Coulter fourth, and Crum in fifth. Blewett smokes the field on the restart as Lambros gets used up, dropping back to sixth. Coulter moves up to third, bringing Newman with him as Crum barely hangs on to the top five. Fastest qualifier Burt Myers is struggling near the rear of the field as earlier mechanical issues sidelined his team. Back up front, Blewett and Carson Loftin almost make contact for the lead, but they stay separated as you could throw a blanket over the top four. The # 25 of Tom Buzze makes his name known in the race, moving into fifth by Crum. Give Newman third after some contact with Coulter as Blewett is starting to pull away from the pack. Tom Buzze will follow through behind Newman as Newman is dancing around in Carson Loftin’s mirror. Newman’s car just keeps getting faster as he positions himself in second, one car between he and the lead. Buzze is having one of the greatest runs in his SMART career, fighting to the bottom of Carson Loftin. Ahead of him, Newman has caught up to Blewett. He looks low, but it isn’t enough as Blewett blocks his run. Newman now tries the hard way, a pass on the outside, and he makes it work! Put Newman to the lead as Buzze makes his way to third. The battle for fifth is hot as Baldwin has made his way to Coulter in fifth. They’re mere inches off of each other with Baldwin taking it. In the lead though is 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, who takes his first career SMART Modified Tour win! Blewett will finish second followed by a phenomenal run from Tom Buzze in third, Loftin will get fourth, and Baldwin rounds out the top five.

MY TAKE

What makes a racer race after he’s proved all there is for him to prove as a driver? For the love of the game. Ryan Newman doesn’t have to be in a race car. He’s done it all and he’s been to the highest levels. He will forever be known as one of the toughest drivers to deal with on a race track, and he will be known for that not only by the fans that adore him, but by the best stock car drivers of his era. He will also be known as the survivor of one of the scariest superspeedway crashes in history. A crash that changed how race cars were built at the highest level. But after he retired from full-time NASCAR Cup racing, he returned to his roots and decided to race Touring Modifieds much more often. And this year, he’s running the full SMART Modified schedule in the quest to win the 2024 championship. He’s started off strong too as one might expect. But last week at the King Of The Modifieds he had a bit of a setback after contact from Woody Pitkat sent him into the wall and out of the race early. How do you come back from that? By winning your first SMART Modified Tour race at Tri-County Speedway. It’s only fitting too that the veteran that broke through this year after Carson Loftin and Baldwin took the spotlight to start the season would be the seasoned veteran Ryan Newman. It was of course a very popular win and adds to an already storied start to the SMART Modified season.

But there was also another moment that shows the true character of Ryan Newman. In the autograph session Ryan Newman was there to meet the fans. But it was one in particular that Ryan spent some special time with. His name is Deeston Brown. Deeston Brown is a fighter that we’ve also written about. He is a young man with brain cancer that’s undergone surgery to remove it. So Deeston also knows what it’s like to be on the edges of life, a struggle that he’s still battling everyday. But when he’s able he loves to come to his favorite race track, Tri-County Speedway. Imagine his excitement when he was introduced to Ryan Newman, who then cleared everyone away and asked Deeston if he liked his Modified. I think you know his answer, but when Ryan heard it, he then asked Deeston if he’d like to sit in the seat. And when Deeston struggled to get into the car, Ryan encouraged him all the way, and then helped him get comfortably in the seat. There’s a picture of the result on Tri-County Speedway’s Facebook page of the emotional moment. An awesome moment that will get you right in the feels. But it was the manner of how Ryan went about it all that sat with us. And it’s how we’ll always come to remember him in the future. Ryan has a big heart. And that heart is still truly entrenched in the sport of auto racing. Until next time, as always, we’ll See You At The Track!

(Race write ups by Joshua Weatherman. Intro and My Take written by Billy Weatherman. Copyright 2024 SHORT TRACK REPORT)

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