Bowman Gray Stadium. (Corey Latham/ photo)

It’s the middle of April, so that means racing in the Tarheel State will be kicking into high gear, but for one track it’ll mark the beginning of the season. Bowman Gray Stadium the longest running weekly track under NASCAR sanctions will start their season this weekend with the traditional 200-lap scheduled distance for the Modified division and a 40 lap feature for the track’s Sportsman drivers. 

The historic Modified division or the ground pounders as their affectionately known as has been running at the track as the top division for every single season since the beginning with 2014 NASCAR Hall of Famer Tim Flock taking the first championship in 1949. There have been 23 different champions crowned in 70 previous seasons and two drivers have been the best teams, for now, three decades and they’ll look to keep it 23 champions in 2019. Burt Myers had a great season with 25 starts and back to back five wins seasons and he cruised to his 9th career championship.

Myers will be looking to chase some huge history in 2019, he’ll look to win his fourth consecutive championship to tie Tim Brown with 10 championships. If he pulls it off he’ll accomplish only what track legend and 28-time race winner Pee Wee Jones has done by winning four or more consecutive championships when Pee Wee won five in a row from 1956 to 1960. It’ll be a daunting task as he’ll have the aforementioned Brown looking to get back his old ways and winning his record-extending 11th title and his first since 2015. 

Last year’s surprise championship contender Jonathan “Jonboy” Brown had his best season yet in the mighty Modified division. Brown won the season finale and captured the Modified Top Gun Award coupled with 19 top 5’s and 24 top 10’s in 25 starts. Brown’s 2019 season is still in question as there’s been no word from him with less than a week until the season opener. Jason Myers once again played second fiddle to Tim Brown and Burt Myers, but he has a car that’s more than capable of holding it’s own and winning his first division title.

The younger Myers has had some amazing seasons in the past with most notable coming in 2015, when he grabbed every single award in the division with a career-best 10 wins and seven poles, but he couldn’t seal the deal with the championship, this year his hoping to finally step out of big brother’s shadow and win his elusive title. 2017 Modified rookie Bobby Measmer Jr. shocked everyone as he announced he will be returning to the Madhouse, but not as a full-time driver, he’s 2018 had very high times and some crazy lows, but he said no matter how many races he’ll run he’s gonna be contending for wins in every race he starts. 

2014 Bowman Gray Stadium Modified Champion Danny Bohn announced via his Facebook profile that he’ll return to the track in his family owned #65 car that has given him so many great wins and memories over the course of his Stadium career. If it’s true, he’ll be bringing the same car that he’s father Wall Stadium great and Ray Evernham mechanic Eddie Bohn built in the basement of his house in the winter of 1991. The Hillbilly Racing team will have NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour veteran James Civali back behind the wheel of that beautiful car has the team looks to be a championship contender in 2019.

A trio of SMRS Tour drivers including two time series champion Jeremy Gerstner, the most recent SMRS race winner John Smith and former series runner up Brandon Ward will be back, but car owner Will Spaugh said he’s going to bring the #19 Modified known as “Black Mamba” to race all season for Brandon Ward unless it gets destroyed then they’ll bring the 104.1 Kevin Powell Modified. As Smith will return for Melvin “Puddin” Swisher in his famous #53 S & R Modified. 

For the first time since 2003, we’ll witness three family members in the division on the track at the same time as the all-time winningest family in track history, the Clifton’s will have longtime track favorites and former 8-time Sportsman Champion Ronnie and Michael back on track for what would probably be part-time seasons. Ronnie’s son Zack Clifton had a great run in the track’s Sportsman division including a championship in 2015 and rookie of the year, but now he’s stepping up to the high power of the Modifieds and he’s already committed to running the full season and running for rookie of the year. 

The Sportsman Series has had some the best racing this whole decade and that’s thanks to former champions Taylor Branch, Zack Clifton, Kevin Neal, Tommy Neal, and Derek Stoltz at some time during this nine-year stretch. The division hopes to keep the hard racing up as it seems the division will be pretty tough this year, yes I’ve said that the past two seasons, but this year I mean it with some huge names coming into the Madhouse to try their hand.

The defending champion Kevin Neal returned to full-fendered cars in 2017 and made his return to Bowman Gray the following year. His return tour started off good but heated up as the summer heat went up in June. He scored five wins, 10 top 5’s and 15 top 10’s and averaged over 41 points en route to his first career track championship. 

The aforementioned 2015 Champ Zack Clifton shocked everyone by returning to the track where he got his start and he had a great showing in the races he started, but in 2019 he’ll get behind the wheel of a Modified and run for the rookie title. 2014 champion Taylor Branch has chosen to retire and sold his equipment off, with one of the cars going to Zack Ore. 2016 division champion Tommy Neal was running very close with his nephew Kevin a lot, but some problems hurt him in the final weeks.

Multiple time top five points finisher Michael Adams has aligned himself with two expendable men to form HD Motorsports and they’re going to chase that first title. Dylan Ward is coming off of an amazing season in only his third full season, Ward rocketed off to a great start by winning the season-opening 40 lap event, he A dark horse early in the season emerged as a contender around the halfway break in July, Justin Taylor fought and drove like a madman to his first win over Derek Stoltz and he later went onto win a second race in August and a great top-five finish moved him from 12th to 8th in the final standings. Taylor has had a fast car this preseason and hopes to continue the run of good finishes into 2019 and making a difference.

To double back on how tough the division might be in 2019, former Street Stock title contender and six feature race winner Blake Shupe announced he’s going to run for the season after a six-year run in the Street Stock division. Third generation driver Chase Robertson will make the transition over to the Madhouse. Robertson, the son of former two-division winner at Bowman Gray Mike Robertson, grandson of the longtime Modified driver and former Stadium Stock winner Gerald Robertson, has been racing in the 602 Super Limited Series, will go over to Bowman Gray and keep the Robertson family name going for years to come. His father along with his grandpa, his brother Ryan and uncle Bryant have raced in almost every division in Bowman Gray’s history and capturing 36 wins in their careers, the Sportsman division has been known to play kind to first-timers or freshmen you could say and maybe we could see another Robertson get back to victory lane.

 Two-time and defending Stadium Stock Champion Wesley Thompson has decided to step up to the ultra-competitive division with some help from Dylan Ward and his resources, Thompson is the early favorite to win the overall and division rookie of the year title. Ace Speedway Limited Late Model Champion Ross “Boo Boo” Dalton has said he’ll make some starts throughout the season. Dalton revealed on RACE22 Radio a few weeks ago and after talking to him, he doesn’t have a set schedule of races yet, but he expects his first appearance to be April 27th.

Multi-division winner and longtime championship contender at Caraway Speedway and former Stadium Stock winner Coy Beard is rumored to start some races as he’s been spotted making laps this preseason. Beard’s only previous experience at Bowman Gray was running the famous #56 Stadium Stock owned by Robert Moreau back in 2007. He’s one of five drivers to win a race in the division in his first start. He ran a total of seven races and finished in the top 10 five times and earned 302 points which was fifth best in that span. 

The most controversial division in 2018 has to be the Street Stock Series. In the beginning, it seemed to be a wide open championship, but after a few weeks into the season it was clear that it was a two-man race, Spencer Martin and former champion Billy Gregg won the first five races give Martin the edge with three to two wins. Both men fought all season long for wins and after 15 weeks of racing it was Gregg leading the points by 38, but Martin had the winning advantage six to four, after a weird series of events involving Gregg and Spencer’s father Donnie, Martin was sitting pretty after Gregg seemed to be done. Gregg was able to get his car back out there to make laps, but he came up one spot short as the younger Martin win the championship by a mere two points after 16 weeks of racing,

There’s been no word from the Martin family if Spencer will return to defend his title, but speculation says he’ll return and his father Donnie will run some races. Billy Gregg will be back too, but he’s not in the family #28, he’s going to run his own #98 and that’ll put his son Nate a second-year driver in the fast family number #28 this year. Jeremy Warren and teammate Bryan Sykes will look to rebound from decent seasons to challenge for the championship once again. Fan favorite and former runner up Brian Wall had his worse season ever last year and even quit racing halfway through the season. He’s got a great looking car, some good sponsors backing him for 2019 and rejuvenated confidence heading into the season. 

Second on the female wins list and also a huge fan favorite since she started Taylor Robbins, for the second year in a row she finished sixth in points after three bad finishes in the final three races. She’s looking to get back in victory lane once again and proving she’s still a top contender in the division. Former Street Stock racer and now part-time Sportsman driver Casey Kepley Jr is bringing a bullet of a car for his son Kyler whose gonna run this season for rookie of the year. Another rookie driver of sorts is Corey Rose, he ran a couple of Street Stock races towards the end of last year and ran relatively good for a driver who has very little time on the track. Corey has told Race22 that he has intentions of running the full season and hopes to pick up where he left off last year with the brand new car he picked up in the offseason. 

Lastly, the insane Stadium Stadium Series, the championship once again came down to the last race. It was defending champion Wesley Thompson clinging to a slim 18 point lead with Chris Allison having a career year right there in second as the rest of the top five was in contention and separated by 20 points, the spread between the leader and fifth was miraculously 48 points. Wesley ended his Stadium Stock career the best way possible by winning the race en route t his second straight title. With his runner up finish in the race, Chris Allison finished a career-best second in the points.

With Thompson and Allison possibly moving up, it leaves the door wide open for some veterans or youngsters to have chance to win the 2019 championship. The Sportsman arguably has the best racing at Bowman Gray, but the Stadium Stock has been the division that’s consistently had close title finishes and tough racing, A.J. Sanders is a great example of that, Sanders had two bad finishes in the latter part of the season while the top guys had better finishes and it dropped Sanders out of contention. Sanders will return again in 2019 and he’ll be looking to winning a third title to add to his already impressive resume. 

Speaking of a guy whose win three titles, Chuck Wall won three consecutive titles from 2013-2015 and became only the second man to do so, this year the former champion knows his fate is clear as he’s running the full season, which could put him as the favorite. Brandon Brendle had his best season of racing last year with a fourth-place finish, he bought the championship car from Thompson and he knows he’s got one good piece heading into the season opener.

Billy Cameron Jr will return with his tribute to New Jersey Modified great John Blewett III as his fellow teammate driver Adam Thomas will follow suit. With the departure of Allison from Jason Keaton Racing, that left Keaton driving his #61 and his son Grayson driving his #1 car, but who was going to fill the void of Allison? He found a great driver who knows how to get around the quarter-mile bullring, Derek Taylor raced in the division from 2009 to 2013, he collected three wins in the first stint including a career-best tied for third in the 2012 points with A.J. Sanders. Taylor hasn’t raced in a few years, but according to his practice runs it’s like he never missed a beat. 

2018 Stadium Stock Rookie of the Year Shawn Hayes had a good rookie season, but could’ve been better according to Hayes, he had nine top 10 runs in 13 starts and only two top-five finishes. This year leader of the “L-Town Mob” is racing with a heavy heart as his daughter Johannah or Jo as she was known lost her battle with cancer at a very young age. Hayes will honor her memory by having his car wrapped in a magnificent baby blue, pink and white camouflage look.

The rookies for 2019 is littered with young kids and veterans from other tracks across the region. Cody Gum age 14, until late July, will drive the 03 car that’s been featured on NBC. Peyton Johnson age 16 will split the #21 with Andrew Moleta whose gonna race the season opener this weekend. Blake Spears, the son of Street Stock driver Andy Spears, is 14 also he’s been featured as “the little flagman” a few years ago. Once a flagman will now be on the other side of the fence and in the car for the entire season.

Dominick Lumley, a friend of former Rookie of the Year Kyler Staley will get his shot behind the wheel of his own car appropriately numbered 62 just like his football jersey at Oak Grove High School. Matt Alley, a 29-year-old firefighter bought a former race car from Jose Gonzalez and rebuilt it. He’s been practicing at Ace and will race mainly at Bowman Gray, but he’ll race more at Ace and wherever else possible to get more seat time. Connor Keaton is Jason Keaton’s other son and Grayson’s brother, he will race a fourth car out of the JKR stables for most of the season. 

The Season Opening event, the Hayes Jewelers 200, is scheduled for this weekend April 20th. The Modifieds will race for 200 laps following a 40 lap Sportsman race. The Street Stocks will have a 20 lap event following the Hayes Jewelers 200 and lastly, the Stadium Stocks will have a pair of 15 lap affairs if there are more than 26 cars. Tentatively this Friday, there’s one last chance to practice your car from 12-5, with qualifying for the Hayes Jewelers 200 and Sportsman from 5-7.

The unique Friday session would lock in the top 10 for the 200 lap race, with positions 11-26 decided on Saturday as the Modifieds will get the opportunity to requalify or stand in their time, but the Friday schedule is in doubt as there’s a 70% chance of rain. If the rain washes out qualifying, the qualifying session will be just a standard qualifying session will the field starting straight up. Morning practice will occur Saturday morning, with evening practice kicking off at 6pm. Qualifying starts approximately 7:15pm and the first race at 8pm.

Cover photo by Corey Latham