The final laps to the inaugural Old North State Nationals at Orange County Speedway featured many intense battles on the track, but four-time Whelen All-American Series champion Lee Pulliam cleared the chaos and picked up the $30,000 paycheck at the conclusion of the 200-lap feature on Sunday.
As Pulliam took the checkered flag, his teammate Brandon Pierce battled hard with Josh Berry for the fourth position, but was unable to get past him before they crossed the checkered flag. Pierce then showed his displeasure towards Berry during the cooldown lap for what he thought was overly aggressive driving on behalf of Berry.
“He was just repaying the favor from Southern National,” Pierce said. “The first one I was OK with, but after that, I didn’t think we were really racing. I thought it was just frustration on his part because he and Lee were racing really hard, and I thought he was taking it out on me.”
Pierce referenced the prior confrontation that he and Berry had on track during the season-opening Solid Rock Carriers 300, in which Berry dominated after passing Pierce for the lead on Lap 7. Pierce was able to get to the back bumper of Berry on the final lap and knocked him out of the way, which enabled Pierce to pick up his first career CARS LMSC Tour victory.
The two would not have another on-track confrontation at Hickory Motor Speedway, and both drivers entered the Old North State Nationals confident that they could take home the $30,000 paycheck. Berry’s qualifying run put him in the third starting position for the 200-lap Late Model feature, while Pierce lined up on the outside of the front row after being one of two drivers to crack the 13-second barrier.
Pierce spent a majority of the race grouped with Pulliam and his teammate Corey Heim inside the Top 5, while Berry passed polesitter Taylor Gray for the lead on Lap 92 and would hold the lead for the next 50 laps.
A competition caution on Lap 151 would shake up the running order, as Trevor Ward inherited the lead after he was among four drivers that stayed out. Berry quickly carved his way through traffic while Pierce struggled to avoid the cars with older tires on the following restarts.
“[Berry’s] teammate [Adam Lemke] got me up in the [marbles] too,” Pierce said. “He tried wrecking all of us, because he missed two shifts and stacked up the whole damn field. That’s fine though. It’s hard racing, and $30,000 is up for grabs, but I just don’t like torn up racecars.”
The final caution of the day came out on Lap 187 for a Timothy Peters crash, which gave Pierce one last opportunity to chase down Pulliam and Berry, who now held the top two positions. Pierce was able to make a three-wide maneuver on Pulliam and Berry for the lead on the restart, but was not able to make his car stick and had to settle back in line.
Pulliam made the race-winning move on Berry with less than five laps to go, which knocked Berry out of the groove and forced him to battle Pierce, Gray and Lemke, among others. Berry did everything he could to regain his momentum, but was forced to watch as Pulliam pulled away and secured the trophy for the inaugural Old North State Nationals.
Although Berry was forced to deal with an irate Pierce after the checkered flag, the confrontation did not spill over onto pit road, as Berry was more upset that he was on the losing end of a hard-fought battle with the four-time Whelen All-American Series champion.
“We were obviously racing really hard,” Berry said. “I was trying to root him up and finally I got clear, but he was able to get back under me and root me up, which got me in the marbles a little bit. We definitely had the best car on the long run, but Lee just fired off better with the new tires and at the end we got beat. It’s disappointing, but that’s just a part of racing.”
Berry talked to Pierce after the race to explain the circumstances of the last few laps, but the latter was still frustrated over how he was raced by several drivers after the last restart. Pierce expected aggressive driving as everyone sought out that $30,000 paycheck, but he hopes to see more consistent officiating when one competitor gets carried away with the practice.
“The #17 was being super aggressive,” Pierce said. “For some reason, I got warned for aggressive driving and I don’t know what the hell that was about. I guess me and Ragle are going to have to talk about that because the #17 knocked the hell out of me about ten times. It is what it is, but if you’re going to single one person out when we are all running into each other, then you need to warn all of us.”
Pierce, Berry and the rest of the CARS LMSC Tour field will regroup on May 3 when the series heads to Ace Speedway for the Race at Ace 125. Berry is expected to be at the top of the series points standings alongside Gray after drivers such as Deac McCaskill and Tommy Lemons Jr. encountered issues on Sunday afternoon.
Andy Marquis contributed to this article.