“You will never know your limits until you’re standing on the edge of them.”

Short Track Report

You’ll never know how far you’ll go until you’re standing in the midst of your passion. Hickory Motor Speedway has a way of bringing it all out. Whether it’s the small confines of the track itself, the trickiness of it’s surface, or just the legacy of it’s amazing history, Hickory can and will fully bring out a driver’s on track character, sometimes even to the surprise of themselves. And as the zMAX CARS Tour Presented By SoundGear came to the speedway for the Tuff Shed 250 this past Saturday night, that fact was on full display. The intensity was real. It was glaring! It’s what this track was designed for and has produced for nearly sixty years since it’s repave in 1967. It’s a place where it’s extremely difficult to get away from the competition, but if you do, you’re then left with the battle of the track itself. It’s a place where to find success, you have to use every ounce of your talent. It’s exactly then and there where you’ll find yourself on the edge. Let’s take a closer look at the Tuff Shed 250 from Hickory Motor Speedway.

zMAX CARS TOUR PRO LATE MODEL FEATURE

A red hot Kyle Campbell in the # 03 continues his momentum as he’ll start on the pole for tonight’s Pro Late Model feature with a sweltering time of 14.416 seconds. Starting alongside will be the # 35 of defending champion Caden Kvapil followed by the # 9 of Ashton Higgins, # 44 Conner Jones, and the # 43 of Nick Loden. zMAX CARS Tour flagman Brandon Willard gazes over the huge field, approves the formation, and we’re underway at historic Hickory! The # 96 of T.J. DeCaire will take the fifth position as Campbell clears after a short duel with Kvapil. Conner Jones is now able to wrestle away third from Higgins with Jimmy Renfrew Jr in the # 00 breaking into the top five. The New Hampshire native doesn’t get a break though as he’s under fire from Loden, who will reassume the fifth spot. Before you know it, the leaders have caught lap traffic, allowing Kvapil to inch just a little bit closer to Campbell’s rear bumper. Loden continues his run by getting around Higgins as the field gets a reprieve from the action due to the competition caution. It’s a quick yellow though as the field takes the choose with Campbell remaining your leader followed in line by Kvapil, Conner Jones, Loden, and Renfrew Jr back in fifth. They roll into the Death Wish Coffee Restart Zone with Campbell getting an incredible launch ahead of Kvapil. But there’s trouble behind as the # 22 of Canadian native Kyle Steckly spins on the frontstretch, bringing out another Shiti Coolers Caution. After the prior restart shuffling the field, your top five is now Campbell, Kvapil, Conner Jones, the # 51 of Kaden Honeycutt, and Loden. It’s a much more even restart this time but Campbell still clears as Renfrew Jr takes fifth once more. And there’s big trouble heading into turn one, with Steckly, the # 43H of Joshua Horniman, # 77 Logan Jones, and the # 49 of Jeff Batten piling up! Thankfully everyone is okay as Batten and Logan Jones are unfortunately done for the night. Campbell, Kvapil, Conner Jones, Honeycutt, and Renfrew Jr are your top five after extensive cleanup is done, with Campbell firing off at the line.

Kvapil hangs tough to no avail as Campbell clears again. But there’s a huge stack up behind! Higgins, Steckly, # 65 Tyler Tanner, # 20 Kris Wright, # 6 Tristan McKee, and the # 39 of Max Cookson are involved among others! It all started when Renfrew Jr and the # 71 of Katie Hettinger got sideways, leaving the bunched up field behind with nowhere to go coming off of four. Tanner is none too happy with the Higgins machine on pit road, but officials break things up before things get carried away. Another exhaustive cleanup is needed, but the track crew is up to the task as Campbell will once again lead the field back to green followed by Kvapil, Conner Jones, Honeycutt, and Renfrew Jr in the # 00. It’s a furious restart as Campbell and Kvapil are going to absolute war for the lead! On the outside, it’s Kvapil who will take the lead from Campbell. Hettinger makes her way into the top five, but more problems strike behind as Hudson Bulger in the # 17 slams the outside wall out of turn two with the # 97 of Dylan Garner also involved. That’ll sadly end Bulger’s night, but it’s just what Campbell wanted to see as he’ll get a shot at redemption on the restart. It’s Kvapil first, Campbell second, Conner Jones third, Honeycutt fourth, and Hettinger fifth. Give the lead back to Campbell as he powers by Kvapil on the outside. And now Kvapil slams the outside backstretch wall! He gets it gathered back up with no caution as Conner Jones and Honeycutt get by. Another yellow flies though as Dustin Bryson in the # 47 and Jake Bollman in the # 24 come together in turn two. A big development unfolds under caution as Honeycutt and team are pleading that they had the third position prior to the caution, but due to not maintaining pace speed while arguing over the spot, Honeycutt will be sent to the rear. Your top five will now be Campbell, Conner Jones, an out of nowhere Spencer Davis in the # 29, Kvapil, and DeCaire.

Campbell gets another great start as Kvapil falls back drastically due to his prior damage. That’ll give DeCaire fourth followed by former Hickory winner Hettinger. Loden is back on the charge though as he gets by Hettinger and DeCaire in one fell swoop, setting his sights on Davis. As for Davis, he’s to the inside of Conner Jones and by. But Jones won’t give up that easily and gives Davis a shot. The two begin to trade blows back and forth, switching positions every single lap, putting the fans on their feet! That also allows Loden to catch up, sneaking by Davis after a bout of contact with Jones. Hettinger slides around DeCaire as Campbell has opened up a major gap after the fierce battle for second. But Davis’ car is the fastest on track, motoring past Loden and giving another shot to Jones for second! He moves Jones up, allowing both he and Loden to get by. Now Jones and Loden have a great battle, with Jones moving past Loden followed by Loden grabbing it right back. Davis is closing in fast on Campbell, but there’s just not enough laps as Kyle Campbell will win his second zMAX CARS Tour Pro Late Model race in a row. Davis battles back from early issues to finish an amazing second, Loden guts out a third, Conner Jones secures a fourth, and Hettinger hangs on for fifth.

zMAX CARS TOUR LATE MODEL STOCK FEATURE

In his debut zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock outing, the # 62 Kevin Harvick Incorporated machine of Landen Lewis puts the field on notice by winning the pole with a time of 14.866 seconds. Rolling off second will be seasoned veteran Chad McCumbee in the # 16 followed by the # 44 of Conner Jones, # 95 Jacob Heafner, and the # 45 of Bryce Applegate. Flagman Brandon Willard holds the excellent field at bay, unravels the flag, and we’re green! Lewis stumbles a bit on the start, giving McCumbee the early advantage as Heafner takes third away early. But we’ve already got a caution as the # 55 of Gio Ruggiero is slow in turns three and four, meaning his night is unfortunately over before it ever really began. We’ll rerack the top five as they were before as Lewis gets a better start this time around, but McCumbee still sets sail out front. Heafner moves into third again with Brenden Queen in the # 03 battling into fifth. Jones’ car starts to get better as the laps tick off, getting by both Heafner and Lewis as Brent Crews in the # 29 takes fifth. Up front, Jones has a huge run and he’ll become the new leader. Multi-time Hickory winner already this year, Connor Hall in the # 22, looks to the bottom on Crews and makes it work as he begins his run to the front. McCumbee decides it’s time to go again, hounding Jones for the top spot. He eventually grabs it away just before a caution comes out for a slow Brandon Pierce in the # 2 in turn two. Lining up for the second restart of the night will be Jones who takes the inside, McCumbee, Lewis, Heafner, and Hall. Jones gives McCumbee a fit for the top spot and clears, but here comes McCumbee with the crossover! McCumbee prevails as Heafner finds his way into third. Crews powers to fourth followed by the # 6 of Bobby McCarty as Lewis starts to fade just a bit. Hall is in attack mode, using his car’s strength to fly by McCarty and Crews, bringing young phenom Connor Zilisch in the Pinnacle Racing Group # 28 with him. In front of them, Heafner gets into Jones’ Mike Darne Racing machine and spins him into the outside frontstraight wall hard! The # 14 of Sam Butler doesn’t have anywhere to go and hits the helpless # 44 machine. Jones is visibly shaken up, but he’s definitely not pleased as he runs to the backstretch where the cars are stopped under red and exchanges words with Heafner through the infield fence. Crew members begin to show their displeasure as Heafner comes down pit road, but officials and police stop any elevation from happening.

After everything is cleaned up and tempers are cooled a bit, McCumbee will restart as your leader ahead of a very fast Hall, Zilisch, Crews, and Lewis who’s trying to climb back into the fray. McCumbee and Hall are door to door for the top spot with neither giving an inch. Just when Hall looks clear, McCumbee sneaks his nose back in as Logan Clark in the # 15C spins on the front, bringing another Shiti Coolers Caution out. McCumbee, Hall, Zilisch, Crews, and Queen are your front five after the choose as McCumbee and Hall duke it out lap after lap! McCumbee just barely edges ahead of Hall with McCarty reassuming fifth. But it’s not for long as Queen uses the high line to his advantage, sneaking by McCarty and Crews. McCarty is able to hold onto fifth ahead of Crews, but Crews will have another shot as Andrew Grady in the # 1 crashes out of two. As a precautionary measure, the field will now be taken to pit road to refuel, something we’ve seen before in the zMAX CARS Tour. After all is said and done after refueling and choosing, McCumbee will fire off first ahead of Hall, Zilisch, Queen, and Crews. McCumbee powers ahead yet again as McCarty takes fifth. Mason Diaz, filling in for Carson Kvapil in the # 8 JR Motorsports machine unfortunately comes down pit road as sparks fly aplenty from underneath, ending his night. Brewing behind McCumbee is a battle between Hall and Zilisch as Zilisch dives under Hall and takes it away as the competition caution flies with just over forty to go. McCumbee, Zilisch, Queen, Hall, and Treyten Lapcevich in the # 77 are your top five after the choose as Zilisch is glued to the outside of McCumbee. Zilisch overpowers McCumbee up high, leaving the # 16 to deal with Queen. Buddy Isles Jr in the # 11 will interrupt that battle though as the caution flies for his spin out of four. Zilisch, McCumbee, Queen, Hall, and Lapcevich will lead to green as Zilisch and McCumbee are dead even.

It’s a three way dance between Zilisch, McCumbee, and Queen as Zilisch clears with Queen following through. Hall along with Lapcevich put on a great show for the fans for fifth but Ronnie Bassett Jr in the # 04 spins out of two, causing another caution. It’s Zilisch looking for his first career win, a hungry Queen after an uncharacteristic showing at Southern National, McCumbee who hasn’t won since 2022, Hall who’s looking for that first CARS Tour trip to victory lane with Nelson Motorsports, and the 2023 NASCAR Canada champion Lapcevich, who’s also looking for his first career victory. Who gets it done? Zilisch and Queen bang doors as they’re both sideways! Zilisch clears for a split second but it’s Queen who gets underneath! Put the entire top four under a blanket as the fans are pumping their fists! It’s Zilisch who finally clears on the outside as McCarty makes his way back to fifth. But now it’s Mini Tyrrell in the # 81 who was once three laps down looking on McCarty! Give it to Tyrrell who somehow has made his way into the top five. But none of that matters to Connor Zilisch, who scores his first career zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock win. Queen comes home second, McCumbee has a great run in third, Hall hangs onto fourth, and against all odds, Tyrrell finishes fifth.

MY TAKE

From the track to the spotter’s stand, once the race started, even though the temperature started falling when the sun began to set, the opposite happened on the competition side of things. I’ve honestly never heard the spotter’s section as loud as I did this past Saturday night. And by the way, if you think being a spotter is all just fun and games, you would be tremendously mistaken. In today’s racing game, these guys are a crucial part of a driver’s weaponry so to speak. My hat’s off to them. A driver’s crew can mean all the difference in winning and losing. But when the laps begin to start closing down, the fate of the entire racing team is left in the hands of the driver. It is he that must deal with everything that’s thrown his way during a race. And at Hickory during the Tuff Shed 250, the battles up front for the win were intense to say the least. And after they were over, I couldn’t help but reflect on where I was and what I had seen on this night. But, it wasn’t just this night I was thinking on.

I feel that many today take for granted what’s right before them. That for a good number of people, perhaps they don’t realize the history that’s being made right now. But for me, an avid racing fan since my early childhood, as the races came to a close and the fans started filing out, I couldn’t help but think of the past, when Richard Petty was making history winning the first Cup races at Hickory after it was paved, on a track where Junior Johnson and Ralph Earnhardt won track championships before that on dirt. And it brought me back to now as I watched Kyle Campbell hold off some of the very best Pro Late Model talent to take his second win in a row in the tour division to start the 2024 season. Quite remarkable actually as they were the first zMAX Pro Late Model wins of his career. And Connor Zilisch taking his first ever zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock win ever at just seventeen years old while not even being a regular on the tour. But don’t let that statement fool you about this young and talented driver. He’s been to Hickory Motor Speedway victory lane in a Late Model Stock, as well as winning a zMAX Pro race at Ace Speedway. He also visited victory lane in the South Carolina 250 at Florence Motor Speedway in a Limited Late Model, but it doesn’t stop there. He’s also been perfecting his craft and winning races on the Trans-Am circuit. And to show how well he has performed on the road courses, he is also a Rolex 24 At Daytona LMP2 division winner. He’s proven that he can win in any car he’s placed in. That fact has him now signed to a developmental deal with Trackhouse Racing.

And there I was in the moment, knowing that a good number of people that came to Hickory Motor Speedway probably didn’t realize they were watching what could be one of NASCAR’s biggest and best future stars. Or that they also might not know the struggles Kyle Campbell had getting to this moment himself. But, what they did see from these two drivers were moments of greatness as they rose above the fray. In my heart I can only hope they realized that these were more than just two good short track moments. I also hope that the region’s short track racing fans are starting to notice, especially at events like these, that they’re seeing the makings of the next great stock car racing talents in the very moments that are molding them into the greatness that could lead them to the very top levels of the sport. A sport that’s entered a new era. They are watching history in the making. Think about this…Deac McCaskill qualified twentieth. But, he was only 0.137 off of the pole time. That one fact alone tells you the competition level in the zMAX CARS Tour Late Model Stock division. 20 cars deep…0.137! You just don’t get much more competitive than that. 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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