The Super Late Model feature of the Thrifty Tire/Puryear Tank Lines 300 at Orange County Speedway had the makings of a calm and generic race. After taking the lead from Raphael Lessard shortly after the drop of the green flag, Steve Wallace checked out from the rest of the field and established an incredible pace that would only be interrupted by three competition cautions.
Wallace’s great night would come to an end during a restart on Lap 123, where he was forced to deal with a hard-charging Matt Craig on the outside of the front row as well as Lessard, who would line up directly behind him in the second row. Craig ended up spinning his tires on the restart and moved down the track slightly, which caused Lessard to drive deep into the corner and make contact with Wallace, sending the #66 Late Model around in front of the field.
After reviewing footage of the accident, CARS Response Energy Tour competition director Chris Ragle elected to penalize both Craig and Lessard for causing the accident, which sent both of them to the rear with Wallace. The decisions led to a lot of anger and confusion after the checkered flag had fallen, with many people, including Craig, criticizing the way the series handled the accident.
“I didn’t feel like I touched anyone,” Craig said. “Then I was going to the back. I don’t know how. We argued the call for a little bit, and after the race, Ragle said that I crowded the #66. If I have to go to the rear because I spun the tires and crowded the guy, then that isn’t racing. This is short tracks. We ain’t racing F1 cars.”
The penalty would ultimately derail Craig’s strong evening, as he struggled to make his way up through the back of the field. With more cautions being displayed over the final 20 laps of the race, Craig’s team elected to use the rest of the race as a test session for future events, as they made several adjustments to the car during pit stops and would ride around at the back of the field for a 13th place finish.
Unlike Craig, Wallace and Lessard were able to carve their way through traffic to claim a spot in the Top 5, with Wallace taking advantage of a poor restart from Jeff Batten to climb to fourth only a couple of laps after spinning from the lead. Wallace would end his evening in the third position but voiced his frustration over the way Lessard has raced him and the rest of the competition in recent events.
“I clearly had the fastest car, but I guess if somebody’s faster than you, then I guess it’s OK to just drive in there and take them out,” Wallace said. “He’s done it to Brandon Setzer, to me and to a few other guys, and he even crashed a car in practice here, so there’s a common occurrence there. I don’t have any respect for him, but I do have respect for his team, and that’s why I didn’t destroy his car.”
Lessard apologized for making contact with Wallace but did not accept full blame for the accident, as he believed that Wallace had been racing aggressively the entire evening while trying to run drivers into parts of the track that was still wet from an earlier rainstorm. Lessard’s penalty ended up erasing most of the ground that he had made up to Jared Fryar in the CARS Response Energy SLM Tour standings and was frustrated that he was not able to contend for the win.
“They just said “rough driving” to all three of us,” Lessard said. “They should let us race a little bit more. I know when I’m wrong, but this time, I was not. I talked to my spotter, and he saw the exact same thing. I didn’t want to hit him, but they both moved up and Wallace came down and hit me.”
Multiple members of Lessard’s and Craig’s crews approached Chris Ragle during post-race activities to question the justification behind the decision to penalize their drivers, but Ragle stood by his viewpoint that both Craig and Lessard acted aggressively in contributing to Wallace’s spin. At the end of the night, Ragle was disappointed that a race that had gone clean for over 120 laps was ruined by the accident on Lap 123, and wants the competitors in the CARS Response Energy SLM Tour to change how they race each other.
“We have to get respect,” Ragle said. “I know the cars have more power, but they have to know when to give and take. If you have a 3rd place car, then do your best to try and finish 3rd. Don’t dump the guy to take a 3rd place car and try to win. I get that they’re frustrated because I’m frustrated.”
Wallace’s incident added another chapter in what has been a string of controversial finishes for the CARS Response Energy SLM Tour during the past year. A brawl broke out between the pit crews of Craig and Jake Crum after the Autos By Nelson SoBo 250 following a chaotic end to the race, while a similar fight broke out between Brandon Setzer and members of Raphael Lessard’ team at Hickory Motor Speedway when Lessard turned Setzer coming to the checkered flag.
The CARS Response Energy Tour is hoping to see a healthy Super Late Model field for the season finale at South Boston Speedway, but Wallace plans to skip the event to focus on the Winchester 400, while Craig implied that his team may not make the trip after Saturday’s race at Orange County. Craig loves the CARS Response Energy Tour and currently has three wins in the series to date, but he believes that the series needs to change a few things before he commits to it long-term in the future.
“I don’t want to support this series anymore,” Craig said. “We’re making some dumb calls. I know people are starting to love this deal, but we have to have a ‘boys have at it’ rule here in the Supers. You’re pissing guys off to the point where they don’t want to come back. If a competitor gets pissed off at another racer for wrecking them, so be it, but don’t penalize the top three cars and ruin the show for the fans.”
Jared Fryar still holds a small advantage over Lessard in the CARS Response Energy SLM Tour despite having not yet won a race in the series this year. Lessard will look to put a difficult weekend at Orange County Speedway behind him as he looks to obtain his second career CARS Response Energy SLM Tour championship in the SoBo 250 on Nov. 3.