The zMAX CARS Tour came into Caraway Speedway Wednesday just as we thought they would, in the throes of an epic 2024 title chase. And at this point of the season, a bad finish could be a death nail for a chance at a championship. Only eight points separate Spencer Davis from Kyle Campbell who sits third, with second place Kaden Honeycutt only two points out in the Pros. Only twelve points separate the top three in the Late Model Stocks with Connor Hall on top followed by Brenden Queen and Brent Crews. On a tour where there is no room for error, coming into the mid summer stretch, you can bet your bottom dollar that in the closing laps, there will be no room given. With laps separated by thousandths of a second, running second isn’t an option for these guys. The tour has become a stepping stone into the premier series of NASCAR and these drivers know that every inch on the track gets them that much closer. Problem is however, they’re competing on a tour where twenty other drivers can win on any given event.

For the fans, there is no better scenario. The CARS Tour is indeed the premier Late Model touring series in the country. Some would even say it’s where you see the very best short track racing in the nation. What’s for sure is that if you want to see some of the best stock car racing in the world, the CARS Tour has the hottest ticket. If that isn’t enough, this week, the tour was joined by Corey Heim, William Byron, and Layne Riggs as Caraway Speedway celebrates our nation’s independence with the running of the 2024 Firecracker 265. How’d they do? Let’s take a closer look at all the action from the track from Wednesday night.

BANDOLERO FEATURE

Son of 2022 Carolina Pro Late Model Series champion Josh Lowder, Rylan Lowder will lead the Bandolero field to green followed by the # 38 of Gerald White III and # 12 Jay Hemenway. Lowder gets a great launch but Hemenway is right there and takes the lead early on. Hemenway leads for a handful of laps, but Lowder is slowly catching back up, setting up a potential move. And he makes it work, slingshotting his way past and to the victory ahead of Hemenway and White III.

LEGEND FEATURE

London McKenzie in the # 95 is the luckiest of the bunch after the redraw, rolling off first in a field full of some of the best Legend talent in the region. The # 97 of Isaac Kitzmiller starts second, # 7 Austin Thompson starts third, Carter McMurray in the # 40 starts fourth, and Ryan Zima in the # 4 will round out the top five. McKenzie fires off perfectly and will clear coming out of turn two, but Kitzmiller pounces early, diving to the inside to position himself up front. The # 62 of Keelan Harvick breaks into the top five by Zima and doesn’t stop there, using his momentum to grab a spot from McMurray, bringing Zima along with him. Harvick concedes the spot to Zima as Kitzmiller continues to lead. Now McKenzie is under fire for second, and slides out of line, moving all the way to fifth as Thompson is now in second. The caution will fly, setting up a crucial restart. Harvick now claims third with McKenzie and McMurray rounding out the top five but we’ll have another caution as Ethan Truell in the # 63 spins in turn four. Kitzmiller carries out the same successful routine, getting an excellent launch but now has to deal with Harvick who’s driven up to second. Harvick peeks his nose under but it’ll be cut off by another yellow. Thompson will take the outside of row one on the choose, but that’s not a problem for Harvick as he takes it three wide for the lead! He’ll somehow make it work as Kitzmiller gets kicked to third behind Thompson. Now Thompson looks under Harvick and gets by, but Harvick pushes him all the way into turn one and executes the bump and run, retaking the lead! The fans are on their feet as the field gets stacked up behind, causing Kitzmiller to nearly spin. He somehow saves it as Thompson tries to mount one last charge, giving Harvick a big bump in the last turn. But it’s not enough as Harvick takes the big win ahead of Thompson, McKenzie, McMurray, and Zima in a wild final handful of laps.

PRO LATE MODEL FEATURE

Laying down a flier of 16.556 seconds, Tristan McKee in the Setzer Racing And Development # 6 machine takes his first career zMAX CARS Tour Pro Late Model MAHLE pole. Starting second will be rookie contender T.J. DeCaire in the # 96, third will be Conner Jones in the # 44, # 00 Jimmy Renfrew Jr will be fourth, and starting fifth is Kaden Honeycutt in the # 51. zMAX CARS Tour flagman Brandon Willard gazes over the pack, likes what he sees, and we’re green at Caraway! DeCaire edges McKee going into one, but McKee gets the run on the bottom and motors out to some clean air up front. Behind, Renfrew Jr has already moved up to second by both Jones and DeCaire. Jones is under attack from Honeycutt, as Honeycutt moves around the # 44 with no issue. As the field begins to log laps, Honeycutt’s long run speed starts to seep through, making an advance on DeCaire and later making the pass. His long run speed will go away however as the first SHITI Coolers caution comes out for competition purposes. McKee will remain your leader followed by Renfrew Jr, Honeycutt, DeCaire, and Jones. Once again, McKee doesn’t get the best of restarts on the inside, but once that # 6 gets to full song, McKee is on a rail as he retains the point ahead of the # 00. Jones muscles his way under and around DeCaire for fourth, leaving DeCaire to deal with Caden Kvapil in the # 35. Kvapil has the preferred bottom lane, but DeCaire somehow hangs onto fifth and slots into line. We’ve got major problems on the front stretch however as Amber Lynn in the # 2 and Dylan Garner in the # 97 get together, causing Garner’s car to suddenly look like a Modified on the front. He’ll unfortunately be done for the night as Lynn will continue albeit with big rear end damage. The complexion will change on this restart as Renfrew Jr takes the bottom, allowing Honeycutt to line up to the outside of McKee.

They’re dead even on the start with neither one giving an inch. And now they make contact heading down the back! McKee is determined to keep the lead as he finally clears Honeycutt. Honeycutt tries to dive down in front of Renfrew Jr, but Renfrew Jr won’t allow it as Honeycutt is stuck on the outside. Renfrew Jr gets by along with Jones, as Honeycutt luckily cuts down in front of Kvapil. But he soon gets put in the same position, moved to the outside which allows Kvapil to take fourth along with DeCaire in fifth. Honeycutt will fall to eighth after all is said and done. Back up front, Jones’ car is starting to come alive, moving by Renfrew Jr just in time for a caution as debris is found in turn four. The top five will read as McKee, Jones, Renfrew Jr, Kvapil, and DeCaire. Jones almost clears McKee on the backstretch but he’s not able to quite get the run as he’ll remain in second. Kvapil finds his way by Renfrew Jr with DeCaire remaining in fifth. Jones is still in the running, waiting in the wings for a chance to capitalize. But there just aren’t enough laps as McKee takes his second career win ahead of a hard fought second for Jones. Kvapil crawls through the field for third, Renfrew Jr hangs onto fourth, and DeCaire checks off another top five in fifth.

LATE MODEL STOCK FEATURE

It’s a night of first time pole winners as 2020 zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock champion Jared Fryar in the # 14 takes his first career Thunder Road Harley-Davidson pole with a time of 16.887 seconds. Firing off alongside will be two time and defending Late Model Stock champion # 8 Carson Kvapil, third sees local favorite # 7 Dylan Ward, another local hero in the form of the # 59 of Heath Causey starts fourth, and rounding out the top five is the # 45 of breakout driver Bryce Applegate. Flagman Brandon Willard enthusiastically peeks over the field, approves the formation, and we’re underway! Fryar will run away on the backstretch as Causey and Applegate battle hard for fourth. Give the spot to Applegate with Deac McCaskill in the # 08 breaking into the top five. Kvapil is breathing down Fryar’s neck for the lead, eventually powering down to Fryar’s inside. Fryar holds a pretty wheel up high, but Kvapil is just too strong and notches the lead. Moving through the field early is the # 22 Nelson Motorsports machine of Connor Hall, making his way by McCaskill as he now stalks Applegate. The first competition caution will fly, setting up the first choose of the night which sees Kvapil, Ward, Fryar, Hall, and Applegate now making up the top five. Kvapil flexes his muscle and clears Ward out of turn two with Hall taking third. Now Applegate falls back a spot to Brent Crews in the # 29, Crews’ first appearance in the top five. Corey Heim in the # 55 is slowly but surely making ground up, now looking to the outside of # 95 Jacob Heafner coming out of four. And they make contact! Heim climbs up on the outside wall and rides it on his side. Heim eventually rolls onto his roof in a scary scene. Thankfully, everyone involved is okay as Heafner is even able to come back out onto the race track. After the lengthy cleanup is over, and the choose is complete, Kvapil, Hall, Ward, Fryar, and Crews will make up the top five.

Ward gets moved up out of the groove, stacking up the field behind. And now Brenden Queen in the # 03 pounds the backstretch outside wall, climbing it just like Heim did! Queen thankfully comes down on all fours as the yellow is back out. We’ll try it again as Ward gets a much better restart. But he’s stuck on the outside with Kvapil clearing and Hall getting by for second. Crews will follow through for third, along with Fryar as Ward gets in line and gives Fryar the bumper! Ward regrabs the spot as Ryan Millington in the # 15 spins in turn four. He’ll get it back righted as Kvapil and Hall battle it out on the next restart. Kvapil may clear, but Hall is on his bumper with a vengeance! Hall dives all the way on the curb and makes contact with Kvapil for the lead! It’ll be interrupted however as Applegate and the # 16 of Chad McCumbee spin in turn two. It’ll be the same song and dance for Kvapil and Hall, with Kvapil holding serve in first. To the crowd’s delight, NASCAR Cup driver William Byron in the # 24 is all the way to fourth. Hall slides multiple times to Kvapil’s bottom side, but Kvapil continues to shut the door! Kvapil’s rear bumper is taking a beating as Hall finally gives Kvapil enough of a bump to take the lead! Byron moves into third and sets his sights on JR Motorsports teammate Kvapil. Being teammates doesn’t mean anything to Byron right now as looks under Kvapil and begins to bang doors! Byron will clear as Hall has a big advantage. But that advantage will be erased as the wounded Heafner machine stops in turn four! That will set up an eight lap shootout with Hall lining up first, Byron second, Kvapil third, Fryar fourth, and Crews fifth. Willard nervously looks them over, gives the thumbs up, and we’re green! Hall executes a perfect restart, but Kvapil muscles to the inside! They bang doors and slide up the racetrack, allowing Crews to take over. But Kvapil is still there on the outside, now crossing over Crews. Crews pushes him down the backstretch, moving him up! And here comes Hall! The crowd is going absolutely crazy as they look three wide for the lead! Hall positions himself in first but Crews is right there along with Byron. Crews gives Hall a big shove in the final corner and moves by to take the win! Byron survives for second, Hall recovers for third, Fryar gets a quiet fourth, and Kvapil falls to fifth. What an absolute classic!

MY TAKE

What an amazing event! Local upstart third generation driver Rylan Lowder is proving to be a chip off the family block as he adds another Bandolero win to his resume, and watching young Keelan Harvick progress his talent to winning races like the one Wednesday night is interesting to say the least. Kevin Harvick has talked about how important it is to bring young drivers up through the ranks in a structured and thriving environment and it’s clear watching Keelan compete that Kevin knows what he’s talking about. Legend cars have become instrumental in growing young talent with the skills they can use as they climb the career ladder and it’s becoming even more obvious as a whole new generation of outstanding young talent are using the genre to prepare them for a great racing future. Cup drivers like William Byron, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Chase Elliott cut their teeth in a Legend and now young Keelan is clearly making the grade as he’s learned the pathway to victory lane. This one wasn’t an easy win as he had to battle his way to the checkered flag but it was one that shows his marked progression over the past couple of seasons. And young Tristan McKee with his second zMAX CARS Tour Pro Late Model win is sending a message that he’s also here to win races and he’s developing the skills to do just that. He not only showed aggressive determination in his win at Caraway Speedway in the Firecracker 265, he also showed poise as well in the hotly contested Pro Late Model feature.

All that would have been a great night, but the best was yet to come. The zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock contingent put on a show for the ages. It was a race that had the fans on their feet as the battle became more intense with every lap. William Byron put on quite the clinic as he used every mistake by those in front of him to move through the field from his fifteenth place starting spot. Up front Carson Kvapil paced the field for most of the race, but when the # 8 machine started to fade, Connor Hall was there. He put the bumper to Kvapil who was determined to hold the preferred racing line and eventually wrestled away the top spot. With 8 laps to go, Hall had pulled away to a pretty sizable lead for CARS Tour standards, but a caution for Jacob Heafner’s failing entry changed everything. The battle for the win between Hall, Kvapil, Brent Crews, and William Byron was nothing short of epic. Kvapil, Hall, and Crews leaned on each other and indeed pushed each other around, and when the smoke cleared, Crews was in control across the stripe with Byron on his tail as the excited crowd roared in approval. There weren’t many fans in their seats when Brandon Willard threw the checkered flag, and honestly from my perspective, it was one of the most exciting finishes to any stock car race I’d ever seen. But still, after it was all over, I saw online comments saying that what they saw wasn’t racing. I have to laugh a little at that.

I don’t know how many times we have to say that you can’t forget where you came from. In the fields of the south where American stock car racing was born, pushing each other around on the track was just part of the game. It wasn’t a sport for the weak. And as the sport progressed to asphalt, a saying emerged – ‘rubbin’ is racing’. It should be expected on a short track. With the competition as equal as the CARS Tour has become, you better be ready to use a little muscle. The only alternative is to watch the guy in front of you run the line you need and wait for him to make a mistake. With these guys, that mistake is going to be rare if at all. And these drivers know how hard their teams work. They know they deserve wins. How bad do you want it? Well it’s obvious that these guys want it, and they’re willing to battle you for it. And if you’re a so called racing ‘purist’ looking for some racing where it’s mostly about the machine and a driver that can get the most out of it, there is IndyCar and Formula One. But if you’re looking for drivers that will take each other to the absolute limit, stock cars on a short track is your best bet. The thing to remember here is that Kvapil, Hall, Crews, and Byron never wrecked each other. That’s a key fact. That’s where the line is. And it is indeed a winning skill to know how to move somebody without flat out wrecking them. And one of the special things about this battle is the emergence of Brent Crews. You would expect Kvapil and Hall and of course Byron to be able to handle the heat. And although this is the second win for rookie Brent Crews this year, his talent in the final laps of this one was on full display as he took control of the situation and parked it in victory lane in a race that was nothing short of outstanding. Until next time, as always, 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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