The 2018 ValleyStar Credit Union 300’s final 20 laps were marred by several accidents that forced NASCAR officials to end the race under caution after three unsuccessful green-white-checkered attempts. Josh Berry, Peyton Sellers, Layne Riggs and Philip Morris were all knocked out of contention after leading multiple laps, which allowed Late Model veteran CE Falk III to pick up his first career victory at Martinsville.
In the middle of all the late-race chaos, Walkertown, North Carolina native Kevin Neal quietly worked his way through the field and brought his #07 Late Model home with a Top 10 finish in his first career start at Martinsville. Neal found himself in the back of the field throughout most of the 200-lap feature, but even though he was unable to race with the leaders, he was impressed with the amount of speed his car showed throughout the weekend.
“We were great in qualifying, and we were great in the heat race,” Neal said. “We made some adjustments before the feature, and I think it went the wrong way, so we just ended up riding it out.”
Prior to filing an entry in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 this year, Neal had been a stable in the vibrant short-track community at Bowman-Gray Stadium, where he has been a frequent competitor in the track’s Sportsman division. Neal is coming off one of the best season of his career at Bowman-Gray Stadium, as he secured the Sportsman division championship at the track by 77 points over fellow competitor Michael Adams.
When he has not been racing at Bowman-Gray, Neal has made appearances in other forms of competition around the country, which includes one start in the Southeast Limited Late Model Series at Myrtle Beach Speedway in 2011, as well as a seventh-place finish in the Ace Speedway track standings in 2012. Neal also made one start in the Mischa Sell Memorial at Ace in 2013, where he finished in seventh after starting in the 22nd position.
Neal had only made one previous attempt at Martinsville in 2017, but he failed to make the main event after struggling to find speed in his car during the weekend. The 2018 edition initially mirrored Neal’s performance from 2017, as he struggled to place his car inside the Top 40 in practice, but he was able to qualify his car in 22nd, which gave Neal confidence heading into the heat races.
“My expectations all along were to just make the race,” Neal said. “I think that’s everyone’s first-time expectations, but I had no idea that we would sit on the pole for as long as we did and end up with a decent starting spot. I was really proud of everyone for the hard work that they did.”
Neal would line up seventh in the second heat race, and would easily transfer into the main event by finishing in ninth, which gave him the 28th starting position for the 200-lap feature. Despite the strong performances in qualifying and in his heat, Neal’s car would fall off at the drop of the green flag, as he struggled to keep pace with the leaders and would briefly fall one lap down.
With Neal still deep down the running order with less than 20 laps to go, he was able to lay back and watch all four major accidents happen right in front of him without sustaining any damage to his Late Model. Neal ended up with a 10th place finish after NASCAR was able to sort out the official running order, and although Neal had hoped to race his way up there with the speed he showed in qualifying, he was still happy to leave Martinsville with a solid finish and a relatively clean Late Model.
“Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t have the speed, otherwise we would have been right up there in the middle of the wrecks,” Neal said. “We were a few car lengths away from the wrecks, and I was able to dodge them, drive on through and gain positions. I don’t know if I even wanted to be up there with the way some of that stuff was getting so nasty. There were a lot of good drivers that were crashing each other, but I guess $25,000 is a good reason to do that. It didn’t make any sense to me.”
With Martinsville now behind him, Neal plans to file an entry in the upcoming Commonwealth Classic at Richmond Raceway on Oct. 20, which he believes will carry just as much prestige for Late Model drivers as the ValleyStar Credit Union 300. Neal also intends on making his first career start in the Myrtle Beach 400 in November after making several appearance in Limited Late Models at the facility during his racing career